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Summer 2008

Altruism, Selfishness, and Genes

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P. N. Furbank

As is well known, Richard Dawkins, the author of The Selfish Gene (1976), is a dedicated disciple of Darwin, perhaps the most so there has ever been. Darwin, according to Dawkins, is the first to have given us a reasonable answer to the questions why we exist, what we exist for, is there a meaning to life? He quotes the opinion of an eminent zoologist, G. G. Simpson, that all attempts made to answer this last question before 1859 are worthless and had better be forgotten.

Nevertheless, Dawkins has a very notable and very personal addition he wants to make to Darwinism, a visionary version of (as he puts it) "the biology of selfishness and altruism." As he imagines things, we, and other animals, are machines created by our genes for a very special purpose. We are "survival machines," "gigantic lumbering robots," built by genes as protective containers or vehicles for themselves. When they (we) die, they leave no evolutionary legacy, but the genes of which they have been the temporary guardians will survive and leave copies of themselves. Some, indeed, have survived for millions of years, competing toughly with rivals; and this (so Dawkins maintains) entitles us to expect certain qualities in them. "A predominant quality to be expected in a gene is ruthless selfishness," and they transmit this to us, their "survival machines." Anything that has evolved by natural selection is bound to be selfish; and if we allow ourselves to talk as though genes had conscious aims we can say that what a selfish gene is fighting to do is gain a larger place in the "gene-pool." Unlike his fellow ethologists, who take an optimistic view of evolution, he holds that "nature red in tooth and claw" (in Tennyson's famous phrase) "sums up our modern understanding of natural selection admirably."

What, then, is to be made of the fact that, in Nature, one sometimes finds examples of (at least apparent) self-sacrifice? Certain ground-nesting birds will, at risk to themselves, perform a "distraction display" when a predator approaches their nest. The parent-bird will limp away from the nest holding out one wing as though it were broken, luring the predator into following it, though at the last moment it will abandon pretense and leap to safety. We are, says Dawkins, to speak of this as "altruism"—as an "altruistic behavioral act"—it being irrelevant for his purposes what the bird's conscious motives are, or whether indeed it has any.

Now, though—according to the Dawkinsian scheme—the all-consuming ambition of a gene is to maximize its representation in the gene-pool, it needs to be remembered that a gene exists in many copies, sitting in a number of different bodies, and relatives will have a higher-than-usual proportion of their genes in common. By singling out its relatives for particular kindness or cooperation, or even by self-sacrifice in their favor, a gene may be increasing the evolutionary "success" of the set of genes it belongs to. This, though brought about by gene selfishness, would have the appearance of individual altruism.

This brings us to a major influence on Dawkins, the theoretical biologist W. D. Hamilton. In 1963 Hamilton, then unknown to fame, published a brief paper on "The Evolution of Altruistic Behavior," followed by a long two-part paper on "The Genetical Evolution of Social Behavior." According to classical mathematical theory of natural selection, at this time, no animal could ever act "in such a way as to promote the advantages of other members of the species not its direct descendants at the expense of its own." In his longer paper, however, Hamilton offered a mathematical model for what he called "kin selection." One can imagine, he writes, a pair of genes g and G, such that G tends to cause some kind of altruistic behavior while g is null. An individual will be more inclined to act favorably towards one of his relatives, and since there is an increased chance of a relative possessing the same genes, the altruistic behavior may thus help the spread of the gene G at the expense of other genes.

It remains to decide, says Hamilton, whether the advantage conferred is large enough to outweigh any personal disadvantage to the "altruist." For a gene causing altruistic behavior towards brothers and sisters to be "selected," the gain will have to be more than twice the loss. "An animal acting on this principle would sacrifice its life if it could thereby save more than two brothers, but not for less."

Dawkins follows these calculations of Hamilton's through in a fair amount of detail. The odds in regard to lesser degrees of relationship become, of course, progressively more complicated, and his exposition ends: "For relationships as distant as third cousin (2 x (1/2)8=1/128) we are getting down near the baseline probability that a particular gene possessed by A will be shared by any random individual taken from the population. A third cousin is not far from being equivalent to any old Tom, Dick or Harry as far as an altruistic gene is concerned." This form of computation, says Dawkins, makes it possible to talk about genes for kin-altruism more precisely. "The minimum requirement for a suicidal altruistic gene to be successful is that it should save more than two siblings (or children or parents), or more than four half-siblings (or uncles, aunts, nephews, nieces, grandparents, grandchildren), or more than eight first cousins, etc. Such a gene, on average, tends to live on in the bodies of enough individuals saved by the altruist to compensate for the death of the altruist itself."

But these are complicated calculations! Are we to picture a bird, a moth, or even one of the higher apes performing them in its head? No, says Dawkins. It is rather that an animal may be pre-programmed to behave as if it had performed them. "What really happens is that the gene-pool becomes filled with genes that influence bodies in such a way that they behave as if they had made such calculations." (It remains to ask—a significant question—how an animal will succeed in identifying his or her fellow animal as a sibling, or a second cousin, or a third cousin, etc. Dawkins can only suggest that it might be by the sense of smell. It is asking rather a lot of us to believe this.)

Dawkins is a sparkling and sometimes an eye-opening writer, but what cannot help striking one is the extreme abuse of language that he (and not only he) commits in this talk of "the biology of selfishness and altruism." For, according to any proper use of language, what he speaks of as animal "altruism" is not altruism at all, any more than what he speaks of as "selfishness" can rightly be called by that name. He speaks respectfully of the concept of "reciprocal altruism," introduced by R. L. Trivers in 1971, though, implying as it does a bargain, it is plainly a contradiction in terms; and what he himself refers to as "altruism" might almost, in some cases, be said to be its opposite.

I think this is rather more than a mere quibble. The concept of altruism, rightly understood, is, after all, one of the great achievements of civilized culture, and the choice of acting altruistically in a given situation will be one of the most deeply thought-through decisions a person may ever make (even if, as could happen, he or she might have only a minute or two to make it in). But what is relevant here is that it seems to go directly against the expectations of "kin-selection." This is the point made by the parable of the Good Samaritan. The injured traveler fallen among thieves receives no help whatever from his fellow Jews, who take care to pass by on the other side. It is left to a Samaritan, a man with no kin-relation whatever to the victim and even, by tradition, his enemy, to come to his aid.

Or let us think of an incident in the life of Gerard Manley Hopkins. When Hopkins was a lecturer at Stonyhurst College, the pet monkey of one of his fellow Jesuits got out of the window, dropping onto the leaden gutter which ran along the West Front of the building, then becoming paralyzed by panic. Hopkins, therefore, at great physical risk to himself, got onto the narrow ledge where the monkey was cowering and managed to coax it to within reach and lead it back to safety. This, you might say, is a perfect example of altruism, bridging an even wider kinship-gap than the action of the Samaritan. (Though his colleagues were contemptuous, complaining, as they often did, of his "eccentricity.")

One remembers, again, that during the Second World War there were Dutch and German Aryans who, at enormous risk to themselves, did their best to protect Jews—acting on no other motive, it would appear, than pure altruism. It is true that the late philosopher Richard Rorty was inclined to deny this. What prompted a Gentile to hide a Jew from the Nazis, he maintained, was not the recognition of a human essence, common to all human beings. For philanthropy, so he argued, is always based on exclusion. It is the affirmation of a sense of "we"—"our sort of people"—as opposed to "them," the wrong sort of people; and in this particular case it would have expressed the feeling that the endangered Jew was "one of us": a fellow Milanese, a fellow Jutlander, a fellow member of some union or profession.

But we only have to think of Huckleberry Finn to realize the fallacy of this. Certainly Huck's white elders would have called helping the negro Jim "the sort of thing we don't do," and Huck Finn himself subscribed to their opinion unreservedly. What "we believe," as he understood it, was that an escaped negro slave must be handed over to the authorities and that anyone who disobeyed this rule might very likely go to hell. Only the trouble was, so he found, he simply could not bring himself to do it. That is truly thinking to some purpose.

The objection to Dawkins's and Hamilton's "selfishness" is equally strong. It would, after all, sound extremely quaint to blame pike for their selfishness in eating minnows, swallows in consuming winged insects, foxes in raiding hen-roosts, and crocodiles in biting your leg off. ("Self, self, self: that's all those goddamned crocs ever think of!") On pages 5 and 6 of The Selfish Gene Dawkins give some further examples of "selfishness" in the animal kingdom. It is selfish (or "apparently selfish") on the part of blackheaded gulls to wait till a neighbor's back is turned and then pounce on one of his nestlings and make a meal of it. It is distinctly "selfish" of a female praying mantis to bite off her lover's head during copulation. (This drives even Dawkins, the supposedly dispassionate ethologist, into facetiousness. "It might seem more sensible for her to wait until copulation is over before she starts to eat him. But the loss of the head does not seem to throw the rest of the male's body off its sexual stride.")

No, it just won't do. The word selfish is leading here into pure barmyness. The truth is, it is a word that can only be applied to human behavior (as also is true of altruism). The concept of selfishness is one of the great achievements of humanistic culture. We learn about its meanings and workings in Pascal and La Rochefoucauld, in Diderot and Rousseau, and in nineteenth-century English fiction. In Jane Austen's Mansfield Park, the sisters—Mrs. Norris, who loves to be busy, and Lady Bertram, who is supremely idle—provide a remarkable combined study in selfishness. It was Mrs. Norris's idea that the Bertrams should take their niece Fanny Price into their household, and it wins her high praise for benevolence, with no cost at all in money or trouble to herself. It also provides her with a handy victim to scold, bully, and exploit (her motives being quite unconscious and not much noticed by the rest of the family). Then, to balance this, we are shown the serene egoism of Lady Bertram, a self-centeredness of perfect indolence, it being beyond Lady Bertram's powers to form any picture of Fanny as an independent existence.

Dickens is an equally great expert on the subject. In Little Dorrit he exposes a hitherto unknown formula for selfishness in the person of the atrocious artist-figure Henry Gowan, who has discovered that, by the trick of depreciating oneself and congratulating others on low motives, one can always be in a superior position. For sheer insidious malice his praise of their monastic host at the Great Saint Bernard would be hard to rival. "This dear fellow with the finest cut face I ever saw, a face in perfect drawing, leaves some laborious life and comes up here, I don't know how many feet above the level of the sea, for no other purpose on earth (except enjoying himself, I hope, in a capital refectory) than to keep an hotel for idle persons like you and me."

The basic stricture brought by Austen and Dickens, as by Pascal and La Rochefoucauld, is against the many and varied kinds of vicious relationship one can have with one's own self; and this must be a strictly human study, for it is reasonable to suppose that animals have no sense of self.

That the terms "selfishness" and "altruism" can only be applied to human affairs is actually hard to deny. It is true that we may be in the habit of accusing a fellow-human of being a "beast," a "brute," a "swine," a "rat," a "snake," or a "worm," but by this we intend no slight on pigs or rats or snakes or worms, who have every right to exist and to behave as they do. All that is meant (or at least should be) is that it is bad when a human being behaves like an animal. Animal behavior itself has to be regarded as entirely and in all circumstances innocent, as much so as that of plants (if plants can be said to have a "behavior"). But this being so, it is hard to make sense of Dawkins's assertion in the first chapter of The Selfish Gene:

If you look at the way natural selection works, it seems to follow that anything that has evolved by natural selection should be selfish. Therefore we must expect that when we go and look at the behavior of baboons, humans, and all other living creatures, we shall find it to be selfish.

This seems to be doubly wrong: wrong because "selfish" is a most incongruous term to apply to animals; but also because, forgetting the rule about the innocence of animals, it is blaming them for being as they are. (For, evidently, "selfish" is a disreputable thing to be.)

Let us consider a little more closely what has given Dawkins's book its great appeal, in particular, its title. At the time he was writing The Selfish Gene (his first book), he was involved in a dispute with other biologists as to what entity it was that natural selection operated upon. Some claimed that the "unit of selection" was the group, others that it was the individual organism, or the whole species (adaptations were "for the good of the species"). Dawkins, however, insisted that it was the gene. His publisher Tom Maschler, at Jonathan Cape, wanted him to change the title. "Selfish," he said, was a "down word" (why not call it The Immortal Gene?), and Dawkins nowadays says that Maschler could have been right. At all events, he says, the correct word in the title to stress is not "Selfish" but "Gene."

This theory as to the gene being the "unit of selection" sounds, to us ill-informed laymen, very plausible, and, if correct, obviously important. It could, presumably, be true of any gene—for instance, one for albinism or right-handedness. But Dawkins, in these all-important opening pages of his book, is indulging in shock-tactics, and he instantly proceeds, before we are ready for it, to make a bewildering leap. We discover he wants to tell us about a gene which is specifically for "ruthless selfishness" (one that "will usually give rise to selfishness in individual behavior"); and about genes which, by toughness and ruthlessness, have been "successful," increasing their representation in the "gene-pool" at the expense of others.

At all events there is something, and in a sense the most important thing, that Dawkins's admissions fail to explain. That is, how does "ruthless selfishness" come into the matter at all? It may be made to sound convincing at the fanciful or metaphorical level, but what can it relate to literally? In what way, literally speaking, can one gene act "ruthlessly" towards another? Does a gene (even a gene for "selfishness") literally compete with others? Only, one would suppose, in the sense in which one city might be said to compete with others as to which has the highest annual rainfall. In other words, any "competition" would be purely statistical. Dawkins likes to talk as if a gene's brilliant "success" in the gene-pool were due to its single-minded Napoleonic egotism, but he offers no grounds for thinking this.

We come here to the main drift of my essay. It is that the difficulties of evolutionary biology are, above all, problems of language. Darwin has a very fine chapter in The Origin of Species on "The Struggle for Existence," in which he insists on the purely metaphorical meaning to be attached to "struggle" or "competition" in evolution. He reminds us several times that he is using his terms "struggle for life" and "struggle for existence" in "a large and metaphorical sense," and that it is sometimes more apt and sometimes less. Thus mistletoe is dependent on the apple tree and a few other trees, but can only in a far-fetched sense be said to struggle with these trees; for if too many of these parasites grow on the same tree, it will languish and die. "But several seedling misseltoes, growing close together on the same branch, may more truly be said to struggle with each other." The "striving" of organic beings to increase in numbers, the "killing" of less vigorous plants by more vigorous ones, the "great battle of life" and "war of nature": all these Darwin allows to be fictions. What is more, it is quite possible to forget their existence. "Nothing is easier," he writes, "than to admit in words the truth of the universal struggle for life, or more difficult—at least I have found it so—to bear this conclusion in mind." The main emphasis of his chapter is on the plant kingdom. Of human evolution there is hardly any mention, hence there is no danger that his loose though powerful metaphor "struggle" will be misunderstood. (For, after all, in the plant world, no literal wrestling takes place, nor is any blood shed.) He is far from taking a tragic view of the "struggle for existence," and his verdict on the evolutionary scene is buoyant and optimistic.

When we reflect on this struggle we may console ourselves with the full belief, that the war of nature is not incessant, that no fear is felt, that death is generally prompt, and that the vigorous, the healthy and the happy survive and multiply.

This chapter of Darwin's is the right antidote to the many rather foolish ideas that in early days became associated with his name and indeed have never altogether gone away. He has been represented as depicting Nature as "red in tooth and claw," a scene of bloody combat and a realization of the ancient commonplaces about "a war of all against all" and "the law of nature which bids all to eat and be eaten in their turn." In fact, as Darwin implies, Nature's is on the whole a rather peaceful and orderly regime. Animals are less addicted to combat than human beings. Predators do not, upon the whole, enter into combat with their prey—the whale does not "combat" with the plankton which is its daily food—and such combats as do occur often end not in death but in a ritual surrender. The "competition" Darwin is concerned with is largely metaphorical, being a competion for scarce resources.

But it cannot be said that Dawkins follows Darwin's example. His attitude towards language is indeed strange. He argues that, as a biologist, he has the right to redefine words in any way that he pleases, so long as he does so "clearly and unambiguously"; and in the case of "selfishness" and "altruism" his definition is "behavioral."

I am not concerned here with the psychology of motives. I am not going to argue about whether people who behave altruistically are "really" doing it for secret or subconscious selfish motives... My definition is concerned only with whether the effect of an act is to lower or raise the survival prospects of the presumed beneficiary.

On this basis he feels free to speak in paradoxes. "I assume"—he writes elsewhere—"that an oak tree has no emotions and cannot calculate, yet I might describe an oak tree as altruistic if it grew fewer leaves than its physiological optimum, thereby saving neighboring saplings harmful overshadowing." For natural selection might be at work here, if the saplings were close relatives of the tree. (Hamilton, in throwaway manner, asks likewise: "Why should plants not be altruistic?") Dawkins tells us that all biologists take the same liberty of re-defining words when it suits them, and perhaps this is true; but the collisions between this nonce-use of the word altruism and its conventional one can be pretty jarring. For instance, a phrasing that he uses, "genuine, disinterested, true altruism," is a tautology, altruism being by definition disinterested. Dawkins is not very sound on altruism. He speaks as if altruism could be "subconcious," whereas it is, by its very nature, conscious, supremely so. Moreover, he speaks of "pure, disinterested altruism" as "something that has never existed before in the whole history of the world," a bizarre assertion.

Where his approach to language strikes us, however, as particularly reckless is when it comes to metaphor—above all in personifying the gene. Such personification, says Dawkins, is of course not to be taken literally. But at times "gene language gets a bit tedious," so he will lapse into metaphor—though he will always keep a skeptical eye on his metaphors, "to make sure they can be translated back into gene language if necessary." There should be no objection to his resorting to metaphor and personification, he says, since "no sane person thinks DNA molecules have conscious personalities, and no sensible reader would impute such a delusion to the author." Personification, here, is purely an expository device, of the kind the great molecular biologist Jacques Monod had in mind when, to help himself to think through a chemical problem, he would ask himself what he would do if he were an electron. Dawkins several times defends talking about genes as if they had conscious aims, causing the philosopher Mary Midgely, a ferocious critic of Dawkins's book, to remark unkindly but with a certain truth: "The trouble about these admissions is that Dawkins seems to have studied under [the behaviorist] B. F. Skinner the useful art of open, manly self-contradiction, of freely admitting a point that destroys one's whole position and then going on exactly as before." For in Dawkins's book such lavish indulgence is given to metaphor and the fanciful that it would hardly surprise one if his Selfish Gene turned out to be a fairy tale.

Jacques Monod's make-believe is obviously quite harmless, but by contrast Dawkins's—considering that his subject is behavior, animal and human—seems to be asking for trouble. It is a flirtation with anthropomorphism, and an ignorant layman such as oneself—and in this book Dawkins is writing for us—would assume that, in evolutionary biology, anthropomorphism would be considered an intellectual crime. There are many examples of resemblance between animal and human behavior—sometimes rather startling ones—and one might suppose the safest rule would be to assume them to be, most probably, illusory: that a bird's "distraction display" is not to be interpreted, anthropomorphically, as an act of personal heroism, or an ant's acceptance of the role of sterile worker as an example of patriotic self-sacrifice. For these are things that certain birds or insects in certain circumstances do invariably, as when making a nest. One can hardly suppose—as one would in the case of human beings—that on each new occasion they are thinking them out afresh.

There is, moreover, an all-important reason why likenesses between animal and human behavior need to be distrusted. For the greatest single event in history or pre-history, it is reasonable to suggest, is the invention of language. It tends to be discussed as a great step forward in communication, which of course it was, but even more important, it really represents the birth of thinking. Thinking, in the same way as language, requires the forming of concepts and the relating of one concept to another, as typified by grammar; and plainly animals do not "think" in this way. The gulf opened up here between humans and animals is immense.

This, though, is a fact which does not suit Dawkins and Hamilton, who make it plain that (perhaps in the cause of "political correctness") they want to take the human species down a peg or two. "I am not even very interested in man," writes Dawkins, "or at least not in his emotional nature. My book is about the evolution of life, not the ethics of one particular, rather aberrant, species"; and Hamilton writes, "Practically none of our basic behavior, perhaps only our linguistic behavior and even that uncertainly [my italics], is wholly unique to humans." Both writers are determined to study Homo sapiens as just another animal, and it is amazing to what lengths they will go to this end, and how much of human behavior it requires them to ignore. This explains Dawkins's "behavioristic" stance, his declared lack of interest in the psychology of human motives, and his claim to a right to redefine words in any way that suits him. Its underlying suggestion is that human beings, like other living creatures, cannot, by thought, initiate considered actions; they merely and blindly obey directions from their genes.

This is what comes of undervaluing language. It is with intuitive understanding—both of the subjects and of those who are describing them—that we read about Lady Bertram and Henry Gowan. The fact of this understanding need not surprise us, seeing that, over the years, language has given a name to so many precise ethical and psychological discriminations. Human behavior can be judged (though of course not unchallengeably) to be shamefaced, sly, mischievous, smug, temerarious, ruthless, dreamy, shallow-minded, salacious, conceited, egocentric, obstinate, self-effacing, secretive, sycophantic, curmudgeonly, rapacious, dictatorial, slothful, greedy, severe, irascible, prim, smallminded, languid, lackadaisical, or selfish; as vivacious, open-hearted, thoughtful, tenderhearted, compunctious, sagacious, sincere, long-suffering, valiant, or altruistic. In a sense, accurate language can tell us what it would be like to be Lady Bertram, whereas language is no help to a zoologist in answering the question, once raised by the philosopher Thomas Nagel, "What is it like to be a bat?"

This is why Dawkins's flip tone can sometimes strikes us as tiresome. For instance, in his chapter "The Battle of the Sexes," where he writes (not referring to any particular species), "Our two female strategies will be called coy and fast, and the two male strategies will be called faithful and philanderer"; or when he explains how a female "playing the domestic-bliss strategy," trying to recognize qualities of fidelity in advance, "lays herself open to deception" and may decide instead to adopt "the he-man strategy." Or again, here he is describing the habits of regicidal ants:

A useful first step is to dispose of the workers' own mother with her propensity to produce competing brood. In these two species the parasite queen, all alone, steals into the nest of another ant species. She seeks out the host queen, and rides about on her back while she quietly performs, to quote E. O. Wilson's artfully macabre understatement, "the one act for which she is uniqely specialized: slowly cutting off the head of her victim."

Nevertheless, writes Dawkins, "sawing off heads is a bit of a chore." Parasites are not accustomed to exerting themselves "if they can coerce a stand-in," and they persuade their hosts to do everything for them, "even the most terrible task of all," i.e., murdering their own mother. This last is an attempt to sound the note of Greek tragedy, but it does not make the passage any the less farcical. Dawkins's facetiousness shows his embarrassed awareness that what he is trying to do is impossible.

For the truth is, the thoughts and feelings even of baboons, let alone of birds or fish or members of an insect society, are, and cannot help being, as much a closed book to the zoologist as to the rest of us. The fact is illustrated rather neatly in what Dawkins, Hamilton, and others have to say about animal or insect cannibalism. Dawkins has a curious passage about the "runt."

As soon as a runt becomes so small and weak that his expectation of life is reduced to the point where benefit to him due to parental investment is less than half the benefit that the same investment could potentially confer on the other babies, the runt should die gracefully and willingly. He can benefit his genes most by doing so... There should be a point of no return in the career of a runt. Before reaching this point he should go on struggling. As soon as he reaches it he should give up and preferably let himself be eaten by his litter-mates or his parents.

What makes us ponder here is the word "let." It is a complex word, though one we all know how to use, and here it conveys no real meaning at all, any more than does the word "allows" when Hamilton writes: "The mother in this species [of cricket] Anurogryllus muticus finally allows her own body to be eaten by the claustral brood." Language, being a human invention, is purely human in its range of reference, in which letting yourself be eaten has no place. Language makes it possible to discuss feelings, but only human feelings. To try to make it go beyond this is to appeal to the unimaginable.

P. N. Furbank wrote books about Denis Diderot, class, philosophical language, Daniel Defoe, and E. M. Forster, among many other subjects. He died on June 27, 2014, at the age of ninety-four.

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