This morning on BBC Radio 4’s Thought for the Day, the Rev Giles Fraser gave a simplistic tour of the selfishness v altruism debate. He didn’t follow the many who rubbish Dawkins without reading his most important work; indeed, he quoted the man aptly and with approval. Nor do I dispute his conclusion that altruism is part of our make up. The me/you/we calculations are certainly more nuanced and complex than he gave credit for – witness decades of research on Game Theory – but, fair’s fair, there’s only so much you can do in a two minute slot.
No, my gripe is with his classic and widely replicated error of conflating gene and organism, jumping indiscriminately between genetic and human imperative as though the two were interchangeable. To posit a ‘selfish gene’ is neither to advocate ‘every man for himself’ nor to describe the human condition. Rather, it is to describe laws of evolution via random genetic mutation and natural selection; laws subsequently corroborated, massively, by findings derived using technologies unavailable to Darwin.
Speaking of genes, I offer this 700 worder on snakes, fear and self awareness. It’s one of many I never got round to sending from Vietnam in March.