It’s in the genes

Is the ‘selfish gene’ merely excuse for Thatcherite individualism, asks Richard Frost, and is mutual aid the true human nature?
(article taken from Freedom, 6th December 2003)

It is curious that Maggie Thatcher announced that there was no such thing as society just as evolutionary theory was becoming dominated by the most extreme form of individualism; this was in the 1980s, as the centenary of Darwin’s death was being much celebrated.

Darwin had shown a receptive capitalist audience with The Origin of Species (1859) that life was a struggle; the contestants were individuals and the result was the survival of the fittest. Not every scientist was convinced. Kropotkin famously rebelled with his great work, Mutual Aid, which showed the extent to which individuals of the same and different species depended on one another in the harsh environment of Siberia. He was never accepted by the main stream of scientists and it was not until the 1960’s that Darwinian individualism was forced to consider the significance of co-operative, i.e., group, evolution.

V.C. Wynne-Edwards then published a heavy work on animal dispersal which seemed to demonstrate the universal operation of altruism in the evolutionary process: individuals, he said, would subordinate their self-interest to the well-being of their group, to the point of self-sacrifice. It followed that groups were a key element in evolution and in life itself.

Darwinism treats such ideas as heresy. Darwin’s evolutionary machine is driven by competition between self-interested individuals. Groups are Thatcherite agglomerations of no importance. It was not long before Darwin’s followers evolved a response.

The difficulty they had had to face was that individuals do sometimes jump into fast-flowing rivers to rescue virgins in clinging white dresses and their mothers; soldiers do throw themselves over live grenades; a hen will face up to a dog to defend her chicks.
The solution was re-definition: the unit of evolution was reduced to the gene, while the individual organism – you and me, for instance – was conceptualised as its robotic carrier. This became the ‘selfish gene’ theory of evolution and it has proved its fitness; it so permeates academic and popular thought that it is seldom appears in need of explanation. Listen to David Attenborough or almost any wildlife commentator on television and not many minutes will pass before some action is described as – quite obviously – serving the individual’s genes.

It is a face that the gene is in a way the basic unit of life, since it survives from generation to generation – though it is not eternal – while we individuals, having toted that bale, keep on dying.

But it is a remarkably boring bit of life, a complex of instructions written by a computer nerd; while we, along with whales, meerkats, spiders et al, are interesting: we do things; we struggle, we co-operate, we survive. If human people aren’t the point of human life, then nothing is.

Leaving that aside … the pendulum has swung away from genetic individualism, and not because of me. I attacked the theory in a widely unread book, The Social Gene, in 1999, and, following Kropotkin, found co-operation throughout the living world – more than enough to ground anarchism in nature. I argued that co-operation had played the major part in evolution from the beginning of life until the present. It followed, I said, that altruism, unselfish-ness and co-operative living were fundamental and that such behaviour was genetically programmed in social species – which includes us.

I continue to seek evidence to support my ideas and am amused to see how much mainstream thinking was already ahead of me: some of the research had been published; some has come out over the last few years. Co-operation by unrelated males in a species of newt was reported in a recent New Scientist. (My conclusion – that anarchism is right and true and essential – isn’t yet respectable).

I have just read Darwin’s Cathedral by D.S. Wilson, which is concerned with understanding religions as adaptive social groups. Leaving aside religions, it contains some points I wish to steal. It quotes a lump of Darwin I should have known, and shows the complexity of his ideas. Darwin says in The Ascent of Man (I quote from Wilson) page 266: “…advancement in the standard of morality (of a tribe) will certainly give an immense advantage of one tribe over another. There can be no doubt that a tribe including many members who, from possessing a high degree the spirit of patriotism, fidelity, obedience, courage and sympathy, were always ready to aid one another, and to sacrifice themselves for the common good, would be victorious over most other tribes and this would be natural selection.”

That appears to be group selection, but strict Darwinists, while accepting Darwin’s conclusion, define the behaviours he lists as the outcome of the self-interested struggle of individual genes. I see them as aspects of our universal social behaviour.

Wilson is with me there; he says such behaviour is widespread and is the basis for the cohering of individuals into adaptive groups, which have a survival advantage over less groupie competitors. He goes on: “in general ‘right’ coincides with group welfare and ‘wrong’ with serving acts at the expense of others in the group.”

I came to exactly that conclusion in The Social Gene. My conviction is that we, and all social species, are genetically programmed to behave in ways which will help sustain our group. That is, we are co-operative, altruistic to the point of death, conformist, tolerant, conservative, rule making and rule keeping, etc. Hence I follow Rousseau in saying that people are naturally good.

With Wilson, and against entrenched philosophical objection, I conclude that this is a universal ethic: the basis of human morality is the well being of the group to which we belong and from which our own well being arises.
However, Wilson says not that we are naturally co-operative groupies, but that ‘special conditions’ are required for group behaviour (i.e. altruism, co-operation, solidarity) to evolve. He says that hunter-gatherers are co-operative and egalitarian, not because they lack selfish impulses but because selfish impulses are effectively controlled by other members of the group. Similarly the altruistic behaviour of a blackbird in warning of a predator and in the process of calling attention to itself, has to be reinforced by avian group pressure (I did not really understand how).

I am more utopian. I believe that altruism and group behaviour are very ancient adaptations, long pre-dating the arrival of primates, mammals, trilobites or whatever. Wilson notes that the formation of the eukaryotic cell, without which no live of any complexity would exist, is an example of co-operation. That happened a good 800 million years ago. I noted recently that we share a third of our genes with bacteria.

I conclude that the genetic ABC of social behaviour was being written in the DNA of simple organisms long, long ago. Any social species which subsequently evolved inevitably carried genes for the aspects of social behaviour which it needed. No single example, whether brave blackbirds sounding a warning call or a brave human smothering a grenade, needs to be explained in itself and nor can it be: it is a manifestation of an ancient virtue, deeply entrenched, curiously grown.

I should make it clear that I am not preaching genetic determinism. We are genetically programmed to behave socially but the ways in which the social virtues manifest themselves are enormously varied. They depend on – and probably define – cultures, which are human constructs, and they are uniquely tweaked by each individual: when we are free to live the life of free people, we do what we must for the good of our community but each in our own way. In the meantime, the social virtues are used and abused in the interests of power and oppression, with often dreadful results.

Richard Frost


(article taken from Freedom vol 64, no 23, dated 6th December 2003)

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Charlotte Dingle is an imaginative, motivated individual with an award-winning track record, looking for challenging freelance writing, editing, illustration & design projects.Charlotte is current editor-in-chief of Biscuit ( Biscuit is an online magazine for bisexual women,