CHAPTER 5 – Can We Rise Above our Selfish Genes?

Richard 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 parallel between 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 to restore prairies and wetlands, but our management of forests and streams is still controversial. We have destroyed the codfish banks off Newfoundland, and our farmed salmon are laced with pesticide residues.

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).

The 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.

About 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 first 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 that this once-prosperous, peaceful civilization had fallen into clan warfare. If they tried to rise above their selfish genes, it was too late (4).

When 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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