5 – Can We Rise Above our Selfish Genes?
Dawkins has written in his classic book, “The Selfish
Gene”, that we have evolved because our genes are self-seeking,
self-replicating and self-sufficient hereditary particles which
have no altruistic attributes. If we accept his very rational
arguments, then we have to acknowledge there is a remarkable
our genetic behavior and our social behavior. We not only behave
selfishly to protect ourselves and our families, but our attitudes
toward Nature have been selfish for millennia. Only now are we
beginning to change from trying to control natural processes
for our own needs
to understanding ecological systems and how we can restore and
help them to maintain themselves. For example, we are now starting
restore prairies and wetlands, but our management of forests
and streams is still controversial. We have destroyed the codfish
off Newfoundland, and our farmed salmon are laced with pesticide
The challenge being put to us today is enormous, compared with
the more regional problems of prairies and wetlands, forests and
fish. We are being told that our thoughtless consumptive behaviors
since the industrial revolution are catching up with us. Even if,
this year, we were capable of stopping the annual increased amount
of CO2 released into the atmosphere, the average global temperature
would continue to rise for another 50 years (10). We must recognize
our wayward ways and change our behavior promptly, or face even
more serious consequences. Like teenagers, we would rather argue
about the severity of the consequences than make the hard choices
and act. As with teenagers, the more we delay taking action, the
worse the situation becomes, and the more vigorously we will have
to take corrective action (11).
answer to the question: can we rise above our selfish genes
is “yes”, because it is technically feasible now. The
answer to the related question, will we rise above our selfish genes
is also “yes”, eventually. The most difficult question
to answer is when.
1,000 years ago the trees on Easter Island were largely gone.
The palms and other
trees had been cut for
fuel wood, building
materials for homes and canoes, and also for moving their large
stone statues. The native islanders had exhausted their wood
resources for building any sizable vessel of escape. When Europeans
arrived on Easter Island in the 1700’s, they found only a
few old small canoes and flimsy rafts made of reeds. Archeologists
found that later islanders had left their highly valued chickens
in stone fortresses with entrances designed to prevent theft.
Unearthed human skeletons had skulls with head wounds, suggesting
once-prosperous, peaceful civilization had fallen into clan warfare.
If they tried to rise above their selfish genes, it was too late
we look back on these events with hindsight, we have to wonder
what the Easter Islander
said as he was cutting
down the last palm
tree? Did he, like modern loggers, shout “Jobs, not trees!”?
Or did he rationalize by saying “Technology will solve our
problems, never fear, we’ll find a substitute for wood”?
Or did he deny reality by saying “We don’t have proof
that there aren’t more palm trees somewhere else on this island,
so we need more research”? Like Easter Islanders, we humans
are all stranded together on an “island” (planet) with
limited resources. Surely the Easter Islanders could see that they
were depleting their resources, but it seems that they just couldn’t
stop. Will we be able to stop in time?
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