Me, Myself and I: Children of the Selfish Gene

"'I Love Me, Myself, And I And the Whole World,' wouldn't fit. So I just left the most important part."

Let me begin by saying that I have yet to read the Richard Dawkins book to which the title of this post refers.  With that said, I’m aware of it’s overall premise.  Plus it’s on my summer reading list, so shut your bleeding hole.

For those of you who are equally unwell-read or just damned ignorant, the idea is not that there is a singular gene that determines the presence or degree of selfishness in an organism, but that genes are the fundamental forces behind the evolutionary process, powerfully pressing down the path pointing to the peak probability of their propagation.  (Yes, I did that.)

In most instances, what’s in the best interest of the gene is in the best interest of the organism.  After all, one is the vehicle for the other, so it makes sense that the two are usually on the same page.  There are certainly times when that’s not the case though.

Consider the tragedy of the male praying mantis, who the female often kills after copulation.  Why does he engage in this fatal behavior?  No, it’s not ’cause mantis females really know how to work that thang…whatever that would mean to a lime green, awkwardly shaped insect with pointy spines on its appendages.  (That’s a recipe for bad foreplay if you ask me.  But whatever.)  According to Dawkins, it’s because their genes are on a mission to ensure that they get copied – at any cost – and it’s only when an organism is intelligent enough to understand its own interests as distinct from its genes’ interests that it can rebel.

That brings us to good old mankind.  We’re pretty smart as animals go, so do I think that we’ve come to the point where we can ignore the pressure to act in our genome’s best interest?  Yes, I do.  But I’m not talking about situations in which parents die for their children or some guy donates a kidney to his aunt.  After all, these are simply the undercover machinations of selfish genes.  Those folks may suffer somewhat individually, but for their family’s shared genes it’s a net positive result.

No, I’m talking about the times when a total stranger takes a bullet for someone else or, in an everyday context, a volunteer spends a few hours a week helping underprivileged kids with their homework.  I can’t think of an argument that would explain how these acts help further the proliferation of their genes at all.  How sweet.

But not so fast.  Since the heroes aren’t acting in their genome’s best interest, does that mean that they’re being altruistic?  I say no.  Humans can short-circuit their programming and ignore their genes, but they simply cannot pull away from the warm embrace of selfishness.

On those rare occasions when we rise above our embedded biological imperative, we don’t replace selfishness with altruism.  We just replace the source of the selfishness: instead of sprouting from our genes, it flows from our ego.  That stranger takes the bullet because they’re motivated by a sense of duty.  The volunteer heads down to the youth center on Tuesdays and Thursdays for the same reason.

This notion of duty is inextricably tied to the notion of honor, and where there’s honor, there’s ego.   There’s the desire for self-aggrandizement.  There’s Me, Myself, and I.  Heroes big and small are willing to give their lives, or at least portions of them.  That’s certainly true.  But they do this to get a bigger life in return, and that bigger life exists in the psyche of others.  Where’s the sacrifice in that?

When Dick spends three nights in one week at his girlfriend’s place in Blüdhaven, even though he lives and works in Gotham, he ain’t doing that shit for his health.  On top of the sweet, sweet lovin’ she delivers, he also garners increased real estate in her heart and mind, all because he demonstrated a willingness to trade his convenience for hers.  This translates to real social currency, redeemable in the future.  I mean, why do you think they call them coochie coupons?

Now, take that social currency and multiply it by like, a gazillion.  That’s the kind of ego cash that heroes and philanthropists rack up when they do what they do.  Risk your neck for enough folks and you can become larger than life.  As a matter of fact, you don’t have to risk anything.  You just have to make people believe that whatever you did was all for them.  A certain Galilean Hebrew and his PR team pulled this off about 2000 years ago, and whether or not it’s true, dude is now like, the biggest superstar ever.

So, the next time you do something good for someone, think about that cascading warmth that you feel.  I’m willing to bet that it’s not coming from some inner spring of beautiful intentions.  Nope.  It’s just the excess heat generated by your rapidly inflating hot air ego balloon.


Filed under Philosophy

11 responses to “Me, Myself and I: Children of the Selfish Gene

  1. BULLSHIT!!!!!! I cant stand your “logic” sometimes but we are not going to argue about my “people are innately good” philosophy. Although some may be motivated by ego others (like me) or motivated by what is right and righteous. I do for others because it is human rather humane. I treat others the way I want to be treated. The warmth I feel for doing for others comes from my love of The Creator and the understanding that everyone is a reflections of and connected to me. The more love you give the more love exists it is that simple. When I do something it is not for the return once Ive done my deed it is up to the universe to decide how it wants to react, balance or respond to that. In many society’s you aren’t “rewarded” for “hero” behavior, it is expected, people are expected to be kind and loving and anything outside of that is considered childish, selfish or immature. In some places you are not even considered a part of the society if you don’t live your life in a loving giving manner. It is the expectation to “do good” or be human. A hero is someone who is willing to work toward the Greater good and not just what they personally want. And anyone can be a “hero” at any moment of any day. Are you, my brother, this selfish “ego” that you speak of?
    I WAS looking forward to your blog post and even though your intro was dope *daps*

    People are good damn it!!!!!!!!!!! I wish you would just learn this.

    • TH

      I would argue those that you claim would be ostracized from societies that value kindness as a way of life (somewhere far from Western civilization, I’m sure) are kind to others because it’s expected of them OR they fear being turned out of their communities. It’s not an act of kindness when the motive behind the action in question is fear of being thrown out of a community. I don’t think those people are kind as much as they are conformists. I think Ed’s point is that everything we do stems from an instinct to survive, which is fundamentally, well, selfish. I volunteer to help kids with their homework because I believe children are the future of humanity and i want humanity to do better. That’s kind of selfish. Are my actions good? Sure. Do they have a positive impact? I guess. But my motivation is primarily selfish. I don’t think it’s such a bad thing to be selfish in these regards. When something is personal to you, you’re more likely to stick with it and be sure if it’s success. I think that’s the hallmark of evolution and our success as a species

      • I disagree that fear is the motivating factor and they are conformist. What ever you feel or believe to be true about people is what you will find in the people you come in contact with. Even your view that doing for others is selfish vs natural is colored by your belief. You may be motivated by what you think is selfish intentions to do for others but many are not. They do simply because it is natural. You breath because it is instinct you treat others a certain way for the same reason. Or at least I do. Selfish is such an ugly word to me. It means that you have no factors that influence you more than your own desires. That is savage to me. We will have to agree to disagree on this one

      • TH

        Well. That was vicious and uncalled for. There’s a way to formulate an intelligent rebuttal without being disrespectful. This was extremely hurtful and I am NOT an overly sensitive person.

    • TH

      Please excuse my typos; I’m on my iPod touch because I’m too lazy to turn on my computer. I’m literate. I swear.

  2. Taj

    Ed – I’m surprised by your skeptical perspective in this area. I’m also taken aback by the lack of nuance in your ultimate conclusion. How can you be so certain and unequivocal about the underlying motives of others? How can you be so certain of something that is unprovable?

    • Thank you!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! Hey Taj.

    • Obviously, I can’t be 100% certain about what goes on in other people’s heads. I mean, if we really wanna go there, I can’t even be certain that anybody else EXISTS. With that said, a non-existent self-concept is so contrary to the observed human condition that to have it would probably mean that one is not sane. It may be diminished, it may act benignly, but it’s there. And it wants what it wants.

  3. TH

    This reminds me of a story someone once told about Abraham Lincoln: When he was a lawyer or something he was on his way to give some big speech in front of some bigwigs and had an argument w/ an aide. He told the aide EVERYTHING we do is borne of selfishness and the aide disagreed. They rode past a sow in a ditch having a hard time giving birth to a piglet. He had the carriage pulled over and helped the sow, ruining his suit in the process and ensuring he wouldn’t reach his destination in time. The aide said, “See? That was a completely selfless act” and Lincoln replied with, “Don’t be silly; if I hadn’t helped that sow I would’ve felt terrible about it all day.”

    • TH just hit the nail on the head with that Lincoln anecdote. There is always a motivation behind everything that we do, assuming sanity. No one can completely purge themselves of their sense of self – to do so would mean having no concept of a personal identity.

      Again, I ask you to think hard about that positive emotional feedback you receive after a good deed for which you receive no earthly reward. Even if you truly do it just for the feeling, what exactly IS that feeling? Listen closely: I think most of us will he hear a still, small voice saying, “Look. I did that.”

      But even if you don’t, you at least got that resultant warm feeling, and somehow, that feeling was worth at least as much to you as whatever “sacrifice” you gave up. Plus you get acknowledgement. So you still come out ahead.

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