Evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins on Sunday explained why his magnum opus was almost named “The Immortal Gene” and how selfish genes gave rise to species that helped others.
“The Selfish Gene is one of those books that suffers from being read by title only,” Dawkins said in an interview with skeptic Michael Shermer at the Beckman Auditorium.
In his book The Selfish Gene, Dawkins presented evidence for a gene-centered view of evolution. He argued that natural selection operated at level of genes rather that at the level of species. The fact that genes were inherently self-serving — hence “selfish genes” — allowed species to be altruistic because genes are spread out among individuals.
The title of the book made it easy to misinterpret as an argument in favor of selfishness.
“I’ve been made out to be a kind of Ayn Rand character,” Dawkins lamented.
He said humans evolved in a social environment in which they were almost always surrounded by close relatives or individuals “who you know personally and who you are going to meet and again throughout your life.”
“The rule of thumb in the brain, ‘Be nice to everyone you meet,’ would have had the consequence of making you nice to your relatives and of making you nice to those who are in a position to be nice to you later on,” he explained.
From the point of view of a gene, helping a close relative is actually helping itself. Helping those who do not share any genetic similarities, on the other hand, can allow for a reciprocally beneficial relationship to develop.
The rule of thumb, “Be nice to everybody,” no longer had the same consequences in modern society, Dawkins said. Theoretically, it shouldn’t work.
“But you inherit it from your wild ancestors, where it did work,” he continued. “And so just like sexual lust still works [even with contraception], the lust to be nice still works.”
Watch video, uploaded to YouTube, below:
[Richard Dawkins via Shutterstock]