From Salon: “The idea that selfishness and greed are drivers of evolution, and therefore possess underlying virtue, has been around for over a century, ever since Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution became widely accepted. The archetypal robber barons, Andrew Carnegie and John D. Rockefeller, both argued that the ‘survival of the fittest’ principle justified their cutthroat tactics. But the publication in 1976 of Richard Dawkins’s bestseller, ‘The Selfish Gene,’ adroitly repackaged the notion for modern times, reducing the complexities of evolution to a brutally elemental simplicity. As Dawkins summarized it:
The argument of this book is that we, and all other animals, are machines created by our genes. Like successful Chicago gangsters, our genes have survived, in some cases for millions of years, in a highly competitive world. This entitles us to expect certain qualities in our genes. I shall argue that a predominant quality to be expected in a successful gene is ruthless selfishness. This gene selfishness will usually give rise to selfishness in individual behavior. . . . Much as we might wish to believe otherwise, universal love and the welfare of the species as a whole are concepts that simply do not make evolutionary sense.
With the notion of the ‘selfish gene’ as the ultimate driver of evolution, Dawkins helped forge the moral framework of his age. Influential thought leaders have since infused this supposed biological truth into economics, politics, and business. ‘The economy of nature is competitive from beginning to end,’ writes sociobiologist M. T. Ghiselin, coeditor of the Journal of Bioeconomics.
It’s difficult to overstate the pervasiveness of Dawkins’s selfish gene theory in popular culture. In a nutshell, the underlying story goes something like this: All organisms in nature are simply vessels for the replication of the selfish genes that control us. As such, all living entities — including humans — are driven to compete ruthlessly to pass on their genes. This struggle for reproduction is the underlying engine of evolution, as occasional positive random mutations in genes give an entity a competitive edge to beat out weaker rivals. Any apparently altruistic behavior is merely a convenient tactic for a concealed selfish goal. Since nature works most effectively based on selfishness, human society should be similarly organized, which is why free market capitalism has been so successful in dominating all other socioeconomic models.
However, pervasive as it has become throughout our culture, the story of the selfish gene is based on fundamental misconceptions. In recent decades, researchers in evolutionary biology have overturned virtually every significant assumption in the selfish gene account. In its place, they have developed a far more sophisticated conception of how evolution works, revealing the rich tapestry of nature’s dynamic interconnectedness. Rather than evolution being driven by competition, it turns out that cooperation has played a far more important role in producing the great transitions that led to Earth’s current [sic] breathtaking state of diversity and beauty.
The trouble with the selfish gene story is not just that it is scientifically flawed; it’s also that it presents such an impoverished view of life’s dazzling magnificence. The discoveries of modern researchers showing how life evolved to its current [sic] state of lavish abundance reveal a spectacle of awe-inspiring complexity, mind-boggling dynamic feedback loops, and infinitely subtle interconnections.”
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