Survival of the nicest

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By Khaled Diab

The emerging notion that genes can be ‘selfless’ as well as ‘selfish’ suggests that working for the greater good is natural.

March 2009

Charles Darwin’s famous theory of natural selection and Richard Dawkin’s focus on the so-called ‘selfish gene’ are among the most widely misunderstood ideas of modern times.

At one end of the spectrum, creationist find the idea that we evolved from apes – or, worse still, that we can trace our lineage right back to single cell prokaryotes which emerged out of an inauspicious chemical soup of amino acids – insulting and believe that evolution is an elaborate excuse for a-morality. At the other end of the spectrum, the uglier manifestations of social Darwinism have completely misinterpreted the metaphor ‘survival of the fittest’ to justify their self-serving racist, imperialist and classist ideas.

But neither Darwin nor geneticists like Dawkins advocate the idea that cutthroat, ruthless competition is the only game in town, and co-operation between individuals, communities and even species permeates their work. Darwin even wrote in the Descent of Man that evolution would eventually lead a species to “acquire a moral sense or conscience”.

Still, while ‘selfish gene’ theories can explain a lot of behaviour, including co-operation and reciprocal altruism, they do not satisfactorily explain everything. Looking out for number one, no matter how enlightenedly individuals do it, cannot explain away all variations in human and animal conduct.

An extreme example of this is the enigma of why certain people are willing to lay down their lives for non-kin – soldiers, firefighters, accidental heroes and heroines. By saving the lives of people not related to them, they are actually putting the survival of their own genes in jeopardy.

Dawkins suggests that this can be explained by ‘misfiring’ – i.e. the application of an instinctive, genetic rule of thumb in situations it did not originally evolve to cover.

But could there be a ‘selfless gene’ out there? Could we be more than simple conduits or vessels which self-serving genes take for a ride? A growing number of scientists are beginning to advocate the existence of such selfless genes, i.e. genetic code that works to advance the survival of the group, species or even ecosystem above that of the individual.

Examples include genes that restrict how many offspring a predator has so as to avoid wiping out its prey, or genes that restrict the size of individuals within a species to limit its demand for food and other resources.

Dawkins himself sees some merit in species selection but not in group selection, because of the existence of ‘cheaters’ and ‘freeloaders’. But a few candidate examples of group selection have been identified and, as they actively look for them, scientists are finding more. Evidence is emerging that groups with the least number of cheaters thrive, while those with the largest number often perish, hence placing an evolutionary check on freeloaders.

One slimy example is microbial biofilms, which are colonies of bacteria living on a ‘commonwealth’ of slime that they secrete. Cheaters who live off the slime but do not contribute to it endanger the entire group, while colonies in which all bacteria pull their weight prosper.

By implication, this leads to the intriguing possibility that natural selection may operate, in one way or another, at the level of entire ecosystems. Some experiments have shown that ecosystem selection can and does occur, although other explanations cannot be ruled out.

If these ideas stand the test of time, they could revolutionise the way we view the natural world and our place in it. For instance, this might mean that ecosystems may react to climate change and other environmental pressures in unexpected ways that may not be explainable by the sum of their individual parts. In addition, it rings another alarm bell for humanity that if we don’t stop behaving like a ‘cancer’, nature may eventually find a way to evolve us out of the picture.

With imperfect and incomplete knowledge, it can be hard to tell how much science reflects reality and how much it reflects ingrained biases and prejudices. How much did the idea of the selfish gene fuel our individualistic, consumerist culture, and how much did the culture affect our interpretation of the scientific evidence? In contrast, how much is growing disenchantment with the notion that the dogged pursuit of self-interest will magically serve the greater good by harnessing greed skewing our view of the scientific evidence today?

To my mind, what is becoming increasingly clear is that co-operation is as ‘natural’ as competition, and that altruism is as natural as selfishness, and we need to find the right balance between the two. More importantly, our biology is only one factor in a complex equation and, ultimately, we are masters and mistresses of our own destiny.

This column appeared in The Guardian Unlimited’s Comment is Free section on 11 March 2009. Read the related discussion.

This is an archive piece that was migrated to this website from Diabolic Digest

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