The Utra-Selfish Gene





The Ultra-Selfish Gene



In David Attenborough’s nature documentary Frozen Planet there is some remarkable and rare footage of polar bears mating. The male begins a twenty-mile trek through deep snow lured by the scent of a distant female. He catches up with her and engages in courting behavior, which is not guaranteed to have a positive outcome. He meets with success, however, and there is some rather touching footage of the act of intercourse, which both seem to enjoy. Does the male then peel off and return to his solitary ways, confident that he has done his reproductive job? No, he continues to accompany the female in order to fend off potential rivals intent on impregnating her. Rivals indeed duly appear, determined individuals by the look of them, and there is distressing footage of bloody and prolonged fighting between the males. The original male succeeds in repelling the suitors, but he is wounded and exhausted from the effort. After a few days he deems it proper to leave the female in the belief that his sperm will not by displaced by anyone else’s. The two bears part company in a way that doesn’t seem particularly wistful and we learn from Attenborough that they will not meet again, the cubs to be raised by the mother. He remarks that the male is probably relieved to have the whole thing over with so that he can return to his peaceful solitary life. He ambles off into the sunset, bloody and worn out, but with mission accomplished.

            The question is why the male is prepared to go to so much trouble and take such risks. He could easily have been killed in one of the fights and might yet die from the wounds already inflicted. It can’t be because of the satisfaction he knows he will derive from his offspring or the prospect of future copulations with the female, since none of that will happen. Can you imagine any human male who would behave in such a selfless manner? First you copulate with a female and then you wait around to engage in possibly fatal fights with a series of nasty new suitors? Surely a male human would depart the scene long before having to face such rivals, even if that meant his sperm might be displaced by a fresh batch. It seems remarkably contrary to the bear’s individual self-interest: what does he get out of this? Don’t say he gets offspring—that is not a point about his desires and interests. From his selfish point of view it would be better to cut and run—his life would go better without all the waiting and fighting. So why does he do it? The answer, of course, lies in the genes: the genes program him to act in this way—to ignore his own best interests and engage in acts of self-sacrifice. They program him to act unselfishly, even to the point of potential suicide (presumably many bears do die in such fights).  [1] They do this because their sole concern is to make it into the next generation—their survival is at stake. It doesn’t matter if the animal that carries them dies in the process, so long as they get passed on. They are concerned about their own survival not the survival of their bodily vehicle. They would program an animal to kill itself if that achieved their need for immortality: that is, genes for suicide would survive better than genes for self-preservation if the former method led to more effective gene transmission.  [2] Their interests do not coincide with the interests of the animal that harbors them, though there may be overlap. 

            Thus I wish to say that the genes are ultra-selfish. They never program their host animal in a way that respects the interests of that animal. They don’t have an altruistic bone in their body. Sometimes people run away with the idea that the selfish gene is a gene for selfishness—genes act to make animals selfish. But this is a complete misunderstanding of the theory: it is the genes that are selfish, not the animal that contains them, and they can make the animal act in ways that violate its own self-interest, as with the persistent polar bear. Someone might reply that the genes can’t be completely selfish because they allow for the unselfish behavior of parenting and kin altruism. But the genes are not acting to benefit animals other than the one in which they reside; they are ensuring that their own survival is maximized—since they also reside in the bodies of genetically related animals. They program their carrier to help others for the same reason they program the bear to fight off rivals—to maximize their chances of surviving into the next generation. Whether any individual animal benefits is beside the point, at best a by-product of their selfish action.

            But surely the genes program animals to act in their own best interests most of the time—to be generally selfish. Don’t they implant a selfishness gene in the host animal? The reason for this is that the animal must survive if they are to survive, so the interests of the two coincide. Isn’t an animal a “survival machine” in the sense that its prime directive is individual survival? But if we look more closely even this is a distortion of the underlying truth. The animal isn’t aiming to survive but to reproduce—the former is just a means to the latter. Survival matters to the genes only because reproduction does, since that is what enables their immortality. The animal is less a survival machine than a sex machine (with apologies to James Brown): it is a machine for ensuring that reproduction occurs. If it were logically possible for an animal to reproduce without surviving to that point, that is how things would work (posthumous coition). Once reproductive life ends the animal is no use to the genes (except for extended family duties). From this perspective the selfishness of the genes should be apparent: they build and program an animal that will be an effective reproducer (gene transmitter), not one that will take its own survival and satisfaction as primary. They will make a body and mind geared to reproduction whether that suits the animal or not. This is why there are no contented and long-lived animals around that don’t reproduce—their genes don’t get passed on. Such an animal would be a genuinely selfish individual, caring only for itself and its own interests. But the animals that actually exist are not ideally selfish; in fact, they are slaves to the genes. The genes act always to serve their own interests, never the interests of their host—or any other animal. They are ultra-selfish.

            It might look as if the polar bear has an altruistic concern for the interests of future unborn generations, since he sticks around to make sure that his offspring will come to exist. But of course he has no such thoughts; and anyway they are dubiously coherent, since no such individuals exist at the time of the bear’s protective actions. The genes exist and are passed on (copies of them), but this has nothing to do with concerns about future generations and their happiness. The genes simply program the animal to blindly follow the directive of maximizing their presence in future animals. The animal will act unselfishly in order to obey this directive, even to the point of self-destruction. The genes program the animal to be unselfish because of their ultra-selfishness. So we must rid ourselves of the idea that the basic rule of life, seen from a gene’s point of view, is the production of selfish organisms: selfish genes are not genes for selfishness. Whether an animal is selfish or unselfish is neither here nor there; it all depends on what strategy best enables the genes to survive. Unselfish organisms are a good way in certain circumstances to further the interests of the ultra-selfish genes. If the selfish genes could achieve their desired immortality by building organisms that are entirely unselfish, they would; as it is they make them partially unselfish. Unselfish organisms are certainly what the genes need in certain situations—like the fighting polar bear. And the same is true for kin altruism, as well as for the basic design (physical and mental) of the organism. Reproduction is costly and dangerous in the state of nature; it isn’t what a determined egoist or hedonist would recommend. The genes make reproduction worth our while to some degree, but it isn’t the most prudent and self-serving of possible types of life. Animals are driven by their instincts (genes) in this direction, rather than deciding upon it as the most satisfying way to live (of course, it is possible to detach sex from reproduction). Selfish genes don’t make selfish organisms as a matter of course, and conceptually these are entirely separate matters. To repeat: selfish genes are not genes for selfishness. I would even say that, at a deep level, animals never act selfishly, precisely because they are controlled by ultra-selfish genes. They never put their interests above the interests of others, in

  [1] Then there is the question of the motivation of the mother: pregnancy and childrearing are not in her interests either, but they are in the interests of her genes. Motherhood has some claim to be the most diabolical invention of the genes—like carrying around a bomb. Motherhood has killed many a mother.

  [2] It’s hard to imagine how this could be so given the facts of biological life, but the conceptual point still holds: anything that enhances gene transmission will be selected for, no matter how unselfish it may be from the animal’s perspective. The wellbeing and survival of the individual generally lead to gene transmission, but this is not a conceptual necessity, more like a lucky accident.

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