Sunday, December 26, 2010

Why Do We Persist in Believing that Competition is the Only Way Forward?

Via RSA Journal. 
It was in this climate that the word ‘selfish’ was suddenly introduced as a key term in discussions of evolution. In two bestselling books – E O Wilson’s Sociobiology (1975) and Richard Dawkins' The Selfish Gene (1976) – it appeared as the name for a trait that infallibly makes organisms successful in natural selection. Officially, both writers claimed that the sense in which they were using the word had nothing to do with human motives. It was, they said, just a metaphor – a (perhaps rather awkward) term for the tendency to increase one’s genetic representation in future generations. Both writers, however, used the word freely and vigorously in its ordinary everyday sense to describe human motivation. Wilson, in fact, argued the psychological-egoist position about humans at some length, concluding (like Hobbes) that “compassion is selective and often self-serving... it conforms to the best interests of self, family and allies of the moment".
Dawkins, though he spent less time on the point, was just as convinced about it, stating flatly that “we are born selfish”. It is true that most of his discussion is about the selfishness of genes rather than of people: “The gene is the basic unit of selfishness.” Nevertheless, he described this in exciting, anthropomorphic terms: “Like successful Chicago gangsters, our genes have survived, in some cases for millions of years, in a highly competitive world.” As a result, his readers could not fail to take the whole story as a fable, a mirror held up to human life, rather than merely as the quite dull statement that one gene gradually displaces another in evolution. The disciples who followed this lead assumed without reservation that ordinary, literal selfishness had been shown to be the ruling force in human life.

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