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.