Human Solidarity and The Selfish Gene
by Chris Knight
University of East London
In 1844, following a four-year voyage around the world, Charles Darwin confided to a close friend that he had come to a dangerous conclusion. For seven years, he wrote, he had been ‘engaged in a very presumptuous work’, perhaps ‘a very foolish one’. He had noticed that on each of the Galapagos Islands , the local finches ate slightly different foods, and had correspondingly modified beaks. In South America , he had examined many extraordinary fossils of extinct animals. Pondering the significance of all this, he had felt forced to change his mind about the origin of species. To his friend, Darwin wrote: ‘I am almost convinced (quite contrary to the opinion I started with) that species are not (it is like confessing a murder) immutable’.
In those times, belief in transmutation — the idea that species could evolve into one another — was politically dangerous. Even as Darwin was writing to his friend, atheists and revolutionaries were circulating penny papers around London ’s streets, championing evolutionary idea s in opposition to the established doctrines of Church and State. At that time, the best-known evolutionary theorist was Jean-Baptiste Lamarck, who was responsible for the displays of insects and worms at the Natural History Museum in Paris . Closely identified with atheism, Chartism and other forms of subversion held to emanate from revolutionary France , evolutionism in Britain was termed ‘Lamarckism’. Any ‘Lamarckian’ — in other words, any scientist who questioned the God-given immutability of species — risked being identified with communists, rioters and insurrectionaries. Caught between his cautious liberal politics and his science, Darwin was so anxious that he made himself ill, concealing and suppressing his findings as if he had secretly committed murder.
The period of revolutionary uprisings culminated in the events of 1848, when workers planned insurrections and took to the streets in Britain and across Europe . With the defeat of these uprisings, counterrevolution set in. During the subsequent decade, the threat from the left receded. By 1858, another scientist — Alfred Wallace — had independently hit upon the principle of evolution by natural selection; if Darwin did not publish, Wallace would gain all the scientific glory. With revolution no longer an immediate danger, Darwin ’s courage rose and in 1859 he at last published The Origin of Species.
In his great book, Darwin outlined a concept of evolution quite different from that of Lamarck. Lamarck had explained evolution as the outcome of all animals’ constant striving for self- improvement during their lifetimes. Darwin ’s grimmer, crueller idea was borrowed from the Reverend Thomas Malthus, an economist employed by the East India Company. Malthus had no interest in the origin of species; his agenda was political. Human populations, he argued, will always increase faster than the supply of food. Struggle and starvation must inevitably result. Public charities, said Malthus, can only aggravate the problem: hand-outs will make the paupers feel comfortable, encouraging them to breed. More mouths to feed must lead to more poverty and so to yet further — insatiable — demands for welfare. The best policy is to let the poor die.
Darwin ’s genius was to link botany and geology with this politically motivated advocacy of free competition and the ‘struggle for survival’. Darwin saw Malthus’s ‘laissez-faire’ morality at work throughout nature. Population growth in the animal world would always outstrip the local food supply; hence the inevitability of competition resulting in starvation and death for the weakest. Whereas moralists or sentimentalists might have sought to tone down this image of a cruel and heartless Nature, Darwin followed Malthus in celebrating it. Just as capitalism brutally punished the poor and needy, so ‘natural selection’ weeded out those creatures less able to fend for themselves. As the less fit in each generation kept dying, so the survivors’ offspring would be disproportionately numerous, transmitting to all future generations their beneficial hereditary characteristics. Starvation and death, then, were positive factors, within an evolutionary dynamic which relentlessly punished failure while rewarding success.
In this way, Darwin succeeded in transforming the political implications of evolutionary theory. Far from serving to justify resistance to capitalist exploitation or social inequality, this Malthusian version of evolutionism was designed to serve a reverse political function. Darwin pictured nature as a world without morals. By implication, this lent justification to an economic system based on unrestrained competition, free of any misguided ‘moral’ interference from religion or state. During Darwin ’s lifetime, the major public controversies around his theory pitted evolutionists against those philosophers, clerics and others who worried that such a vision might lead to the collapse of all morals in society.
Following Darwin ’s death in 1881, many influential thinkers attempted to blunt the force of Darwin ’s apparently harsh, amoral reasoning, seeking ways to reconcile evolutionary theory with religious or humanistic values. In Russia , the anarchist thinker Peter Kropotkin wrote Mutual Aid, in which he argued that co-operation, not competition, was the fundamental law of nature. One very popular way of rescuing a ‘moral’ dimension from Darwin ’s reasoning was to suggest that the competitive engine of evolutionary change pitted group against group, not individual against individual. The phrase, ‘survival of the fittest’ — so it was argued — meant survival of the fittest whole group or species, implying close co-operation within every species. According to this line of reasoning, individuals were created to subserve the interests of the species. Members of any one species had to co-operate with one another, their individual survival depending on the fate of the larger whole.
This idea became popular because it resonated with currents of moral philosophy including middle-class socialism and nationalism current around the turn of the century. Nations were associated with ‘races’ and likened to animal species. Each species, race or nation was supposed to be engaged in a life-and-death competitive struggle against its rivals. Those whose members co-operated with collective requirements would survive; those whose members acted ‘selfishly’ would go extinct. When animals or humans displayed co-operative behaviour, it was explained in ‘moral’ terms by reference to the requirements of the group.
In Britain , Winston Churchill argued that the poorest sections of society ought not to be permitted to breed, since if they did, this would only weaken the ‘national stock’. Eugenics became widely fashionable, including among many on the left; in Germany it played a key role in the formation of Nazi ideology. In the 1940s, pioneering ethologist Konrad Lorenz delighted Nazi propagandists when he argued that warfare is natural and valuable. He likened it to a widespread pattern in which male mammals during the mating season engage in ferocious mutual combat, the females mating only with the victors. This, argued Lorenz, is a healthy mechanism for eliminating weaklings, thereby preserving and improving the purity and vigour of the race.
The ‘group selection’ theory of evolution — as it is now called — received its most sophisticated and explicit formulation in 1962, when the Scott ish naturalist V. C. Wynne Edwards published a book entitled Animal Dispersion in Relation to Social Behaviour. For Wynne-Edwards, following Malthus, the fundamental problem faced by each group or species was that of unrestrained breeding. Overpopulation would lead eventually to shortages, bringing starvation on a scale which might threaten the entire local population. What was the solution? According to Wynne-Edwards, it was for the species as a whole to take action. It would have to evolve special mechanisms to avoid reproducing beyond the carrying capacity of its environment. Individuals would be expected to restrain their fecundity in the interests of the group.
On the basis of this theory, Wynne Edwards sought to explain numerous puzzling features of animal and human social life. In particular, he claimed to explain seemingly repugnant behaviour such as cannibalism, infanticide and group-on-group combat or war. Superficially negative, at a deeper level such practices constituted a range of beneficial adaptations through which each species strove to limit its population. Many naturalists had been puzzled to observe instances of birds in large colonies destroying one another’s offspring, or lions lethally biting cubs as they were born. All this, said Wynne-Edwards, could now be understood. Those engaged in such behaviour were not acting selfishly or anti-socially; they were benefiting the species by keeping the population in check. In the human case, violent activities such as warfare served a similar function. Somehow, human population levels had to be kept down; warfare, along with other forms of violence, helped to achieve this.
‘Group selectionist’ thinking of this kind remained influential within Darwinism until the 1960s. But precisely by formulating it in such strident, explicit terms, Wynne-Edwards unwittingly exposed species-advantage reasoning to more clearly focused attack, undermining the whole theoretical edifice. As soon as scientists started thinking about the alleged ‘population reducing mechanisms’, it became clear on purely theoretical grounds why they could not work. How could a whole species mobilise its members for collective action, as if responding with foresight to future food shortages? Suppose, for the sake of argument, there was a gene which prompted or facilitated behaviour showing the following two features: (a) it would benefit the species at a future date while (b) it hindered the reproductive success of its possessor now. How could such a gene ever get transmitted to the future, where its supposed benefits would be realised? A gene for lowered reproductive success is simply a contradiction in terms. It would not get passed on. Its supposed future benefits could never become realised. The whole ‘group selection’ theory was simply illogical.
This realisation ushered in a scientific revolution — one of the most momentous upheavals in recent scientific history, with many implications for the human and social sciences. If Marx and Engels were alive today, they would be placing themselves at the head of such developments. Virtually all evolutionary scientists are today in agreement that Wynne-Edwards’ ‘group selection’ theory was wrong. The idea that sex, violence or any other form of animal behaviour can evolve ‘for the good of the species’ is now completely discredited. Animals do not practice sex ‘to perpetuate the species’; they do it for a more down-to-earth reason — to perpetuate their own particular genes. No gene can be designed to minimise its own self-replication — in a competitive world, it would quickly become eliminated and replaced. Suppose a lion killed its own cubs so as to help reduce the overall population level. Relative to other lions, that particular individual would have low reproductive success. Regardless of what eventually happened to the whole group, all individuals in any future population would be exclusively descendants of the more ‘selfish’ reproducers — those lions programmed to maximise transmission of their genes (at the expense of rival genes) to future generations.
Once this was realised, scientists were able to show that lions who killed little cubs were in fact killing not their own offspring but those sired by rival males. The same applied to other instances of so-called ‘population regulation’. In every case, it could be shown that the animals responsible were acting ‘selfishly’ from a genetic standpoint, their genes working to transmit as many copies of themselves as possible to future generations, quite regardless of any long-term population-level consequences. ‘Fitness’ meant success in getting one’s genes into the future; it could not be defined in any other terms. One consequence was that eugenicist idea s such as those of Winston Churchill made no Darwinian sense. Churchill felt that the poor were breeding too rapidly; being ‘less fit’, their fertility should be restrained. For the sake of argument, let us suppose that the poor in Churchill’s time were in fact outbreeding the rich. By modern Darwinian standards, this would have made the poor more ‘fit’, not less. The same would apply were ethnic minorities to reproduce at a faster rate than those around them. ‘Fitness’ as this term is understood by modem Darwinians can be measured by reference only to genes — not races or species. In future, therefore, racist and other reactionary politicians will have to peddle their theories without assistance from Darwinism.
The new Darwinism made it impossible any longer to elevate one individual’s self-interest to that of the species. Group-selectionist thinkers had persistently dressed up infanticide, violence or aggression as ‘moral’ with respect to the wider interests of ‘the nation’ or ‘the group’. Militarists and genocidal murderers had been reconceptualised as guardians of wider interests, culling excess population or eliminating weaklings for the greater good. ‘Selfish gene’ Darwinism put an abrupt end to all this. No longer could animal groups or species be likened to nation-states, pictured as cohesive, morally regulated wholes. Instead, animals were expected to pursue their fitness interests, consciously or unconsciously working to propagate their genes. Social units were correspondingly expected to display not only cooperation but also conflict, recurrently pitting females against males, young against old, even offspring against their own parents. This stress on struggle and conflict brought Darwinism into line with Marxism, which does not assume harmony or brotherhood but instead sees a human social world riven by class, sex and other forms of conflict. Where harmony exists or is successfully established, this has to be explained, not assumed.
Once ‘group selectionism’ was overthrown, scientists were forced to look at life anew, addressing, clarifying and often solving an ar ray of scientific puzzles in the process. How did life on earth first begin? When and why did sex evolve? How did the social insects become so co operative? Why, like all living organisms, do we get ill and eventually die? From now on, every theory had to demonstrate its consistency with the relentless, uncompromising ‘selfishness’ of genes. The result was a spectacular series of intellectual breakthroughs, amounting to a genuine revolution in the life sciences which is still under way. Richard Dawkins’s book, The Selfish Gene, summarised many of the new discoveries when it was published to widespread acclaim — and equally vociferous middle-class ‘left-wing’ denunciations — in 1976.
Rather as Karl Marx and Frederick Engels opposed ‘Utopian’ theories of socialism, modern Darwinians are vigorous in their opposition to all misty-eyed, unrealistic evolutionary theories. ‘Utopian’ socialism failed because it never got to grips with capitalism. It never explained how you could get from ‘A’ to ‘B’ — from the competitive logic of capitalism to its socialist or communist antithesis. Instead, the ‘Utopian’ dreamers just counterposed their idea listic visions to the harsh realities of contemporary life, never bothering to fathom how capitalism itself worked. In a comparable way, prior to the ‘selfish gene’ revolution in the life sciences, biologists had appealed to ‘co-operation’ in the animal world as an explanatory principle without ever explaining where that principle itself came from. The great value of the new Darwinism was that it was not ‘Utopian’. When animals were found to be assisting one another or even risking their lives for one another — as often happened — such altruism had to be explained rather than just assumed. Above all, any altruism on the level of social behaviour would have to be reconciled with the replicatory ‘selfishness’ of these animals’ genes.
From this standpoint, the new Darwinism might almost be termed the ‘science of solidarity’. Selfishness is easy to explain. The real challenge is to explain why animals are so often not selfish. This is a particular challenge in the case of humans, who — perhaps more than any other animal — can engage in acts of courage and self- sacrifice for the benefit of others. There are well- authenticated stories of how soldiers during the First World War would throw themselves onto an exploding hand-grenade, thereby saving their comrades. Must such courage be laboriously learned or drilled into humans, or can powerful instincts be drawn upon? If, following most Darwinians, we take it that people have it in themselves to be naturally co-operative and even heroic, then this sets up an intellectual paradox. Why don’t the genes permitting or enabling heroism — those courageous instincts which in times of crisis can override our more cowardly, selfish drives — become eliminated over evolutionary time? The man who dies in battle will have no more offspring. By contrast, the coward may leave many descendants. On this basis, would we not expect each generation to be less heroic — more selfish — than the one before?
The Utopian theory of ‘group selection’ had obfuscated this problem by proposing an all-too-easy answer. Heroism worked for the good of the group. The problem was that this failed to explain how such courage could be part of human nature, passed on from generation to generation. It was precisely this difficulty which prompted the new Darwinians to come up with a better answer. When the solution was found, it became the cornerstone of evolutionary science.
The solution to the puzzle lay in the idea of ‘inclusive fitness’. Bravery in battle rests on instincts not radically different from those motivating a mother to take risks in defending her children. It is precisely because her genes are ‘selfish’ — not despite this ‘selfishness’ — that a mother’s courage can draw on deep instinctual resources. In effect, the mother who instinctively takes risks for her children is including these children as part of her potentially immortal ‘self’. In genetic terms, this is realistic because her children share her genes. We can easily see why a mother’s ‘selfish’ genes can prompt her to behave selflessly — it is clearly in the genes’ own interest. A comparable logic might prompt sisters and brothers to behave selflessly toward one another.
Far back in the evolutionary past, humans evolved in relatively small-scale groups based on kinship. Any person with whom you worked, or with whom you bonded closely, had a good statistical chance of sharing your genes. The genes would have been saying, in effect: ‘Replicate us by taking risks to defend your sisters and brothers’. We humans are designed to help one another — even die for one another — provided we have first had a chance to form a bond. Today, even under conditions where we are much less likely to be kin-related, these instincts keep on prompting us as powerfully as ever. The notion of ‘brotherly solidarity’ is not wholly dependent on external, social factors such as education or propaganda. It doesn’t have to be instilled in people against their inner nature. Solidarity is part of an ancient tradition — an evolutionary strategy — which long ago became central to human nature itself. It is one priceless expression of the ‘selfishness’ of our genes.