Die for the group and spread your genes

I enjoyed this essay:

Where does good come from? – The Boston Globe: Instapaper

On a recent Monday afternoon, the distinguished Harvard biologist Edward O. Wilson was at his home in Lexington, talking on the phone about the knocks he’s been taking lately from the scientific community, and paraphrasing Arthur Schopenhauer to explain his current standing in his field. “All new ideas go through three phases,” Wilson said, with some happy mischief in his voice. “They’re first ridiculed or ignored. Then they meet outrage. Then they are said to have been obvious all along.”

Wilson is 81, an age at which he could be forgiven for retreating to a farm and lending his name to the occasional popular book about science. Over the past year he’s tried his hand at fiction writing, publishing a novel about ants — his scientific specialty — and landing a short story in The New Yorker. But he has also been pressing a disruptive scientific idea, one he reckons is currently in phase two of the Schopenhauer progression: outrage.

The idea is that if the group that benefits from altruism, the tribe will live to spread the genes. This “outrageous” idea by Edward O Wilson is not so silly.  Nor is it new.  It is the bread & butter of what I learned at the University of Canterbury in the 60s from Dr Bigelow.
I enjoyed his classes and book. He taught the simple idea that the unit of evolution is the “gene pool”, not the individual carrier of the genes. Amazon

Social cooperation, which leads to the Golden Rule and what we call the highest human qualities, was demanded by what we call the lowest of human qualities: the ferocity of human enemies. Shakespeare’s two opposed foes that still encamp us therefore evolved together. They were not even two different sides of the same coin, but were as intimately interdependent as our brains and hearts are. Cooperation was not substituted for conflict. Cooperation-for-conflict, considered as a single, hyphenated word, was demanded — for sheer survival.

page 7 & 8 The Dawn Warriors.

Researching this a bit more, it is evident that Wilson is adhering closely to Darwin:

It must not be forgotten that although a high standard of morality gives but a slight or no advantage to each individual man and his children over the other men of the same tribe, yet that an advancement in the standard of morality and an increase in the number of well-endowed men will certainly give an immense advantage to one tribe over another. There can be no doubt that a tribe including many members who, from possessing in a high degree the spirit of patriotism, fidelity, obedience, courage, and sympathy, were always ready to give aid to each other and to sacrifice themselves for the common good, would be victorious over most other tribes; and this would be natural selection (Darwin, 1891, Vol. I: 203; italics added).

Found that quote in an interesting paper on the history of these ideas while searching for Robert Bigelow AND Edmund O Wilson: Human Evolution and the Origin of War: a Darwinian Heritage

[A fitting post for Easter Sunday!]

2 thoughts on “Die for the group and spread your genes

  1. Thanks Kimi. I’ve been reflecting on this stuff and watching the video and listening to the audio in the next posts. It is interesting how today the theme is alive in the therapy work I do. Not so that people would notice, but I’m definitely thinking it is “not in your genes” or in the character or personality of the person. They learn to be this … whatever their dysfunction or trouble is. I’m thinking we are not blank slates, but we are scripted by our environment, culture, beliefs and so on. More than our genes? No our genes and our whole context work together.

    I keep thinking of the code as the business plan. You need one, but it is not the only thing you need to run a business.

Leave a Reply