Gene-Machine Darwinism & Genuine Altruism


This essay will look at the truth of the conditional statement of “if gene-machine Darwinism is true then none of us displays genuine altruism”.

I will first need to define what is meant by both the terms “gene-machine Darwinism” and “genuine altruism” in order to clarify the premises that the support my conclusion.

The majority of this essay will deal with defining genuine altruism and I will not spend time on discussing the truth or otherwise of the antecedent but instead whether “genuine altruism” follows from the position that gene-machine Darwinists take on this issue.

I will then present the truth of gene-machine Darwinism as a premise in order to fill the philosophical gaps between it and the truth of the consequent in the original conditional statement.

Finally I will bring these strands together to show why I therefore believe it is false that if gene-machine Darwinism is true none of us displays genuine altruism.

2.Gene Machine Darwinism

There are four main schools of thinking in relation to the work of Darwin, who range from the anti-Darwinists like Stephen J. Gould at one end of the spectrum to ultra-Darwinists like Richard Dawkins at the other1.

Briefly anti-Darwinists take the view that Darwinism is a false idea and may adopt a creationist or theistic view of evolution which takes the Book of Genesis literally.Then there are dualist Darwinians who while accepting many of Darwins ideas also believe that there are two kinds of substance; spirit and matter.So while they can agree with Darwin in terms of natural selection they believe that a God created the vital spark that kicked off evolution in the first place.We then cross the materialists threshold to those who do believe matter is the only kind of substance and that the laws of physics and natural selection not God explains our origins and where we are now as a species.At the conservative end of materialist thought are so called “blank-paper Darwinists” who while accepting natural selection believe that we are a blank slate and our character now comes mostly from our the social environment and culture.Finally there are “gene-machine Darwinist’s” like Richard Dawkins who believe that our evolution remains with us at a deep genetic level.Gene-machine Darwinist’s are interested investigating issues such as to what extent our ability to be genuinely altruistic are genetic as opposed to environmental and whether genes play a larger part in differences of the sexes than environment.A key part of the gene-machine idea is that at some point in evolution molecules called “replicators” were created which were able to make copies of themselves.However over millions of years these replicators mis-copied themselves and the result was several varieties of replicators, all descended from the same ancestor.Then as time went on these replicators had to compete with each other and this struggle to replicate, created without malice, hard feelings (or feelings of any kind for that matter), was selfish at a metaphoric level.Some replicators discovered they could protect themselves by building a physical wall of protein around themselves and these became the first living cells that we would recognise today.The replicators were in fact building survival machines for themselves to live in and these machines became more complex.We are these survival machines and the replicators are now called genes.Gene-machine Darwinist’s therefore believe that intelligence and the decisions we take are connected with the genes ability to survive evolutionary competition.However they do not suggest that any particular emotion we have is so ingrained that it cannot be prevented or adapted by self-control and rational judgement.

3.Genuine Altruism?

Genuine altruism can be defined as the ability to feel genuine concern for the interests of other individuals, and to give those at least some weight against our own.However the most important part of that sentence is the word “individuals” so in our case the ability for one human to feel genuine concern for another human being.This is an important distinction as I will go on to show.

Materialists think that genuine altruism does exist but the idea that human beings originated by the means Dawkin’s described must be false because only God can provide the divine spark that creates unselfish behaviour.

Some non-materialists (sometimes called evolutionary psychologists) argue that because we are the result of natural selection what we take for genuine altruism must in fact be well-disguised selfishness.

What these opposing views have in common is they both presuppose that if we are what we are entirely as a result of Darwin’s natural selection, then we must be fundamentally selfish, and altruism is an illusion.Now that the issue of genuine altruism has been clarified I shall go onto question the conditional statement.

4.Breaking Down The Conditional

So let us know turn to breaking down the conditional statement of “if gene-machine Darwinism is true none of us displays genuine altruism” in order analyse its truth.If we turn the question round we see it is asking the question of “is it true that if gene-machine Darwinism is true none of displays genuine altruism”.Let us know look at the initial premise and conclusion:

Premise – Our fundamental dispositions and emotions are products of natural selection.

Conclusion – Therefore none of us displays genuine altruism.

In order to see if the conclusion does follow from the premise we need to add another premise in order to bridge these two sentences.Therefore:

Premise 1 – Our fundamental dispositions and emotions are products of natural selection.

Premise 2 – Natural selection cannot produce anything genuinely altruistic.

Conclusion – Therefore none of us displays genuine altruism.

So we can now investigate the second premise and see if it is true that natural selection cannot produce anything genuinely altruistic.

If we take the classical Darwinist idea of natural selection as working at the level of the individual or group, there can be said to be some truth in natural selection being unable to produce anything genuinely altruistic.Kin-directed altruism works on the basis that it is in the genes interest to instil in its survival machines the inclination to be nice to their relations in order to carry on copying the genes in successive generations.In nature we see bees for example that work to help the mother bee produce because the young bees are more closely related to their sisters genetically than their own offspring.So looking at it from a gene and not an organism level kin-directed altruism exists in nature.

Then we have what is called “reciprocal altruism” which is altruism directed to unrelated others who share very few of your genes.Here you would expect that the carrier of one set of genes would not sacrifice themselves for another because that would be the equivalent of genetic suicide.But if we look at the work of Robert Axelrod in his “Tit for Tat” computer modelling2 we see that it is in fact advantageous for our genes to create complex evolutionary strategies which result in the machines acting altruistically.The “Tit for Tat” strategy is based on doing unto others as they’ve done unto you as the optimum strategy for survival.So our genes might be able to achieve replication and survival by creating in their machines (ie human beings) emotions of gratitude, empathy and forgiveness, which use the “tit for tat” strategy but not at a conscious level of the human being.Therefore metaphorically “selfish” genes can produce human beings with a “genuine” concern for the well-being of others.The individual may feel that helping an old lady across the road is genuinely altruistic (and at the level of the individual it is) but it is a result of a complex strategy by the gene to foster replication at the genetic level.

However sociobiologist David Barash believed that “reciprocal altruism” wasn’t altruism at all as it worked on the expectation of return.But genes cannot look forward and plan for future returns so at a genetic level Barash’s idea doesn’t hold water.Instead the genes have worked it out that it is in their benefit to instil in the survival machines that they make up a genuine concern for the interests of other because all things being equal the effect would be better for the selfish genes than a world of selfish human beings.This genuine altruism is not to be confused with unlimited altruism as this works against the “tit for tat” strategy because selfishness (as Barash would recognise) operates only at the genetic level and even then only in a metaphorical sense.

If the reader feels that this separation of the interests of the gene and the individual is a false one then they should turn their mind to the current issue of genetic screening for unborn babies.Suppose that UN decided that it wanted only blue-eyed children born.This would be great news for the genes that are responsible for blue eyes but not for the majority of humans who have brown eyes or perhaps even for you if you have brown eyes.

Another argument against the presence of genuine altruism is what philosophers call “psychological egoism” which is the idea that some people get pleasure from doing things for others and that our concern for others is actually a selfish concern for ourselves, for our own pleasure and ego.To go along with this line of thought we would need to also believe that to act according to our own desires is not genuinely altruistic.But what you desire to do is also what you choose to do and if desire is not genuinely altruistic then you can never choose to do something for the benefit of others and it makes the whole idea of altruism redundant.So by this rationale even Gandhi fasting until nearly dead in order to stop Muslim’s and Hindu’s killing each other in the 1950’s3 would not be altruistic because by choosing fasting he is therefore selfish.This does not make rational sense.


So let us return to one of our premises; that natural selection cannot produce anything genuinely altruistic.We now see from what I have outlined that this is in fact false and selfishness (at the individual level) does not flow from natural selection.

Therefore it is false that if gene-machine Darwinism is true none of us displays genuine altruism.Genuine altruism can in fact follows from gene-machine Darwinism.

While natural selection cannot produce individuals who are 100% altruistic and put others interests ahead of its own it can create kin-directed altruism and a genuine altruism towards unrelated others as long as it continues to follow the rules of “tit for tat” and does not allow cheats to prosper.

One final note is that although Dawkins claims the gene-machine theory gives a complete explanation of our origins this should not lead the reader to believe he also feels that as conscious beings influenced by our environment, culture and upbringing that we cannot shape our present and future.Gene-machine Darwinism only tells us how we arrived at where we are and what we are but does not dictate the road ahead.

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