Many followers of reason think it natural and rational to be selfish. They believe that’s just how evolution works. But Richard Dawkins, the cardinal spokesperson for that oversimplified and unnaturally selective view, is guilty of logical lapses and false prophecy. His pop-science of selfishness is widely misunderstood. “Selfish” genes that don’t cooperate don’t survive. A more fitting view is that there are evolutionary limits to selfishness. Nature dooms all that damages what it depends on.
The gene centered view of evolution was popularized by Dawkins’s The Selfish Gene, which mixed the best thinking available, with great prose, logical errors and sinfully unscientific sermonizing. It remains influential, even beyond its readers, its misleading title seeming sufficient to substitute for its contents.
Dawkins promoted this gist: “a society based simply on the gene’s law of universal ruthless selfishness would be a very very nasty society... Be warned that if you wish, as I do, to build a society in which individuals cooperate generously and unselfishly towards a common good, you can expect little help from biological nature...because we are born selfish''.
But Dawkins' doctrine of everlasting selfish doom, a kind of an evolutionary original sin, contains errors. He over-extrapolates from incomplete categories, and makes an error so common it has its own name, the fallacy of composition. Dawkins’s devil isn’t in the details, but in straying too far from them.
Dawkins defines: X as “altruistic if it behaves in such a way as to increase another such entity’s [Y] welfare at the expense of its own. Selfish behavior has exactly the opposite effect.” His scheme sees only two outcomes, selfish or altruistic, and is zero-sum: X gains by Y’s loss. This accurately describes genes competing against variations of themselves for the single slot of dominance in future populations. But does all of creation fit into that scheme? Clearly not, since it excludes: X and Y both lose; X and Y both gain cooperatively. Many biologists confuse cooperation with altruism, but by Dawkins' definition win-win cooperation is neither selfish nor altruistic. Yet this logical space is crucial for all species with team survival strategies.
Oddly, Dawkins describes how every “selfish” gene depends on many other genes in the “intricate cooperative venture” of propagation, and notes that advantages accrue to any gene “that cooperates well with most of the other genes” it depends on (a minimum of 181), but he still makes irrationally inconsistent prophecies like we “can expect...little help from biological nature” towards cooperation. Dawkins isn’t entirely responsible for the cooperative components of his book not being as well known as his misleading title, but his unscientific sermonizing has lent the shield of science to much bad thinking. Especially the false idea of a “universal ruthless” aspect of biology, a sort of evolutionary original sin, that dooms all that lives to live in a selfish world. Cooperation abounds and all genes depend on it.
Dawkins falls for a “fallacy of composition.” He inappropriately extends properties of parts to wholes. An absurd example is: each atom in a teacup is invisible, therefore the teacup is invisible. Dawkins projects his preferred “selfish” zero-sum property of genes onto everything built by genes, and falsely concludes everything that has “evolved...should be selfish.” But all genes are also cooperative. And besides, no gene-level property can be safely projected onto all things that have genes, or everything they do. Biology isn’t that simple. It mixes competition and cooperation.
In later editions Dawkins partially recants his central selfish dogma, saying “without departing from fundamental laws of the selfish gene theory… cooperation and mutual assistance can flourish.” Game Theory had proved his prophecy of “little help from biological nature” to be false. Cooperating generously can be an evolutionarily stable strategy, with higher productivity than selfishness.
Sadly the unsimple details of Dawkins partial reversal haven’t spread as successfully as his initial sermonizing. In the 30th anniversary edition, he conceded that “born selfish is misleading” and asked readers to “Please mentally delete that rogue sentence and others like it.” Specifying those others would help. It’s time all needed corrections were preached as zealously as the prior errors.
The cooperative, interdependent team aspect of genes suggests cautious generalization. Just as no gene can survive alone, neither can members of any interdependent species. What could be called the “natural dependency principle” can be useful in mapping the evolutionary limits of selfishness: nature ultimately eliminates all that damages what it depends on.
Similar team logic is built into human social instincts, which should limit what counts as rational self-interest. But many leading practitioners of reason somehow deem it rational to damage what they depend on. Their unskilled reasoning yields poor results in many of life’s social coordination problems, like the Tragedy of the Commons.
The pop-science of selfishness needs an upgrade. Cooperation and team survival and selfishness are all natural and rational. Each is sometimes fittest for the circumstances. Dawkins says he could have called his book “The Cooperative Gene.” Evolution would be better understood if he had.
Illustration by Julia Suits, The New Yorker Cartoonist & author of The Extraordinary Catalog of Peculiar Inventions.
Previously in this series:
It Is in Our Nature to Be Self-Deficient
It Is in Our Nature to Need Stories
We Fit Nature To Us: Evolutions two way street