What’s In It For Me?
Recently (like yesterday recently) I started reading a new book (new for me, it was first published back in the seventies) by Dawkins, called “The Selfish Gene,” while I’m only about fifty pages in, so far it is fascinating. Up until the book was first published, there were a lot of misconceptions (as there still are) about evolution, and the mechanics of evolution. What Dawkins offers in “The Selfish Gene” is a new paradigm of looking at the mechanics of evolution and the driving forces behind it.
In the preface to the edition I’m currently reading, he says it wasn’t uncommon for him to receive letters from readers explaining how this book caused them great feelings of despair and loneliness, and some even sinking into bouts of depression.
It reminds me of a scene in the movie “Knowing” with Nicolas Cage. He plays a professor of astrophysics, who is still suffering emotional pain and confusion from losing his wife, and struggling with raising a son on his own. His son’s school opens a time vault, when kids back in the fifties put in pictures of what they thought the future would look like. One creepy girl wrote a bunch of numbers as her picture. Then in the present, when they open up the vault, Cage’s character’s son gets the piece of paper with all the numbers on it. The numbers, of course, accurately predict various catastrophes, including the impending end of the world.
The scene I’m referring to is when he is standing in front of the class and poses the question (paraphrased):
What is the nature of the universe? Is there some grand plan, is all this unfolding according some grand scheme, or is everything we see just a result of random interaction of matter, with no intrinsic meaning whatsoever?
Of course all the kids in his class have expressions of “Dude who took a dump in your Cheerios this morning?”
But that is what those letter writers to Dawkins said that this book convinced them of. That the universe is nothing more than a random sequence of events, leading up to us, starting from a blog of organic matter in a pool of sludge millions of years ago, and somehow, through successive mistakes in replication, here we are. Bob’s your uncle.
Here’s the basic argument from “The Selfish Gene” Millions of years ago, there were a bunch of molecules that could reproduce themselves. In order to replicate themselves, they had to use elements form their environment. Whatever they could find in the sludge floating around them. Some molecules were better at replication that others. Either they were faster, or lived longer, or better at attracting the elements from their environment, the pool of sludge.
After a while, the ones that were better at replication outnumbered the ones that weren’t so good at replication. If you put a couple of rabbits in the same environment as a couple of turtles, after a few months, there will be many more rabbits than turtles. And if the rabbits and the turtles eat the same food, guess what is going to happen to the turtles?
This is how it all started with DNA. The DNA that was better at making copies of itself soon outstripped the DNA that was not so good. Now consider this: Each time they replicate themselves, they can make a mistake. Sometimes the resultant replication will be better at replication, sometimes it will be worse. So sometimes, when it makes a mistake in replication, it actually may improve its replication rate.
And the environment doesn’t contain an endless supply of resources to use in the replication process. Groups of these DNA molecules have to “compete” for resources. Sometimes a mistake is made in the replication process, and its “copy” is better at securing these resources. Anytime a mistake is made in replication that both increases its replication rate, and increases its efficiency in securing resources, the mistake is a “good” mistake, and will be propagated into the future. Mistakes that decrease it’s replication rate, and decrease its ability to get stuff to make more copies of itself would be “bad” mistakes, and wouldn’t propagate into the future.
You let this process go on for a while, and pretty soon these DNA molecules have come up with some pretty ingenious ways of replicating themselves. They’ve built structures around themselves, and used these structures to secure resources in order to reproduce.
Let this go on for millions of years, and some startling changes have happened to these original molecules. They have formed several different types of organisms. Some live in water some live on land. Some fly, some walk. Some climb trees, some live underground. Some band together into groups, or herds, and work together to secure resources to further their likelihood of replication.
This is where it gets interesting. Many believe that we are somehow programmed through our DNA for the survival of our species. What made Dawkins book such an interesting paradigm is that every so-called “altruistic” act that seems to be “taking one for the team,” can be explained in terms of pure selfishness from the individual gene’s point of view.
It might seem nice the bees and flowers can work together to help each other out, but the honeybee only cares that it gets the nectar. That it is helping the flower spread it’s pollen is of no consequence. From the flowers point of view, it couldn’t care less how successful the bees are at building a colony and feeding its queen. It only cares that it pays some nectar to get its pollen spread. It only appears to be altruistic because there is an overlap in each species selfishness. The same goes for animals within it’s own species. When chimps groom each other, it looks to us humans like they are simply being nice. But primatologists know they are really planting the seeds of reciprocity, no different from when Don Corleone did all those favors when he was young. He knew he could demand pay later on, like the funeral director.
To extend Dawkin’s selfish gene theory, one may conclude all the kindness, altruism, giving to the homeless, feeding the hungry, is based on pure selfishness, and desire for personal gain. That our selfish behaviors overlap into so called win/win scenarios only gives it the illusion of selfless altruism.
Even when Jesus told the parable of the sheep and the goats, the intention of the story was to explain what was needed in order to get into heaven. Those that fed the hungry, clothes and naked the sheltered the homeless were allowed into everlasting life. Those that didn’t were sent to hell. Literally. Jesus never said to give to the hungry just for the sake of giving to the hungry. Give to the hungry so you can get into heaven. That the hungry get some food out of the deal is as secondary.
Many people mistakenly think of selfishness as only one-way selfishness, or worse, getting something for yourself at the expense of somebody else. That, of course, doesn’t do anybody any good. It doesn’t take much to imagine that only looking out for number one regardless of the consequences to others will leave you hated, or in jail, or worse. It’s okay to make sure you’re always getting something out of the deal, so long as the other guy is as well.
Here’s another story of heaven and hell. In heaven, as well as hell, everybody has an endless supply of soup, but a really really long spoon. People in hell sit around and jealously guard their soup. Their spoon is so long that they can’t possible feed themselves, so they are always hungry, and worried that somebody is going to steal their stuff.
In heaven, on the other hand, people use their long spoons to feed each other, knowing full well that if they help out somebody else, they will get helped in return.
The law of reciprocity applies both in heaven, and in hell. If you feed people, you get fed. If you don’t, you starve.
Up to you.