Are there any human behaviours that can't be logically derived from selfish gene promotion?


Lately I’ve been contributing to TED debates. I’ve always been tempted to contribute in the past because a lot of the information they feature I take a great interest in. However, this temptation is quickly dampened by the sensation of feeling unqualified in front of elite intellectuals who generally take part in the discussions. I finally overcame this feeling and took the courage to write a response to one of TED’s featured debates about human behavior and genes. Fortunately it was the top rated response out of 125 and it has sparked and revived writing again. I haven’t written for awhile so I thought I would write an extensive version of my response to the TED debate.


Are there any human behaviours that can’t be logically derived from selfish gene promotion?

We do it with animals in biology all the time, we study animals and realise that the more closely related they are, the more likely they are to help each other. So why, if humans arose under the same conditions (evolution) should we treat ourselves any differently in study?. Arrogance?

Take sharing between friends, one friend shares with another in a time of excess, so that in a time of inexcess the other might reciprocate. This way both fair better than they would alone. Could this be a 'selfish' act?

My Response

The selfish gene is one theory that implies that genes can promote selfish, as well as, altruistic behavior (read ‘The Selfish Gene – Richard Dawkins’ to get an understanding of this theory). However, there are other theories that also describe how human behavior have possibly been shaped or can be shaped. Selfish gene theory is not the only one. Another theory is mirror neurons and the link to empathy.

Watch TED talk Jeremy Rifkin: The empathic civilization. Rifkin describes a study that discovered that all primates are soft wired with mirror neurons. Rifkin suggests that we are all soft-wired to experience another’s plight, as if we are experiencing it ourselves. This suggests we are actually soft-wired not for aggression, violence, self-interest and utilitarianism but we are soft-wired for sociability, attachment, affection and companionship. So our first drive is to actually “belong”. This drive to belong triggers empathic behaviour. For more information about ‘mirror neurons and empathy’, I wrote a lengthy blog post about this 3 years ago in December 2010

From the original statement “Are there any human behaviors that can't be logically derived from selfish gene promotion?” this sounds like there is advocacy towards nature in the nature vs nuture debate i.e. our biology dictates our behavioral traits. Supposedly if this was the case, in a sense human behavior can be shaped through influencing our biology such as influencing genetic code, or neural pathways. There are theories that support that our biology can be changed by environmental forces. There’s the Epigenetic theory that supports the theory that genes are collaborative, not determining an individual’s traits in an independent manner, but rather determine traits in association with the environment. Consequently environmental forces influence the expression of genes. In addition, Neuroplasticity is another example of where human biology is capable of changing through behavior and the environment. Neuroplasticity refers to changes in neural pathways and synapses which are due to changes in behavior and environment.

Just wanted to note that the selfish gene theory describes an organism is expected to evolve to maximise its inclusive fitness i.e. the number of copies of its genes passed on globally rather than by a particular individual. The word “Selfish” is used to describe the selfish replicating behavior of genes. Genes that get passed on are the ones whose consequences serve their own implicit interests which are to continue being replicated as this tends to result towards an evolutionarily stable strategy. Selfish gene theory implies that these genes possibly encourage altruistic acts as altruistic behavior promotes survival of species /genes through species cooperation. The theory also implies that genes can also encourage selfish acts as it promotes survival of a vessel or survival of genes within a vessel. It's also important to note as British journalist Andrew Brown describes, "'Selfish', when applied to genes, doesn't mean 'selfish' at all. It means, instead, an extremely important quality for which there is no good word in the English language: "the quality of being copied by a Darwinian selection process." This is a complicated mouthful. There ought to be a better, shorter word—but 'selfish' isn't it."

In regards to “So why, if humans arose under the same conditions (evolution) should we treat ourselves any differently in study?” Selfish genes was derived from Darwin’s evolution theory. Darwin’s study of Galápagos finches played an important part in the inception of the theory of evolution by natural selection. In a sense we don’t treat ourselves differently in study, you can say that through the study of different species we have derived our own knowledge of human evolution. As Richard Dawkins beautifully states in ‘The Greatest Show on Earth: The Evidence for Evolution’, “Despite the Great Chain of Being's traditional ranking of humans between animals and angels, there is no evolutionary justification for the common assumption that evolution is somehow 'aimed' at humans, or that humans are 'evolution's last word'.” If humans were too ‘Arrogant’, such a non-prejudice theory would not have been formed or would be widely accepted.

Image Credit: Julia Suits

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