Many followers of reason think it natural and rational to be selfish. They believe that’s just how evolution works. But Richard Dawkins, the cardinal spokesperson for that oversimplified and unnaturally selective view, is guilty of logical lapses and false prophecy. His pop-science of selfishness is widely misunderstood. “Selfish” genes that don’t cooperate don’t survive. A more fitting view is that there are evolutionary limits to selfishness. Nature dooms all that damages what it depends on.
The gene centered view of evolution was popularized by Dawkins’s The Selfish Gene, which mixed the best thinking available, with great prose, logical errors and sinfully unscientific sermonizing. It remains influential, even beyond its readers, its misleading title seeming sufficient to substitute for its contents.
Dawkins promoted this gist: “a society based simply on the gene’s law of universal ruthless selfishness would be a very very nasty society… Be warned that if you wish, as I do, to build a society in which individuals cooperate generously and unselfishly towards a common good, you can expect little help from biological nature…because we are born selfish”.
But Dawkins’ doctrine of everlasting selfish doom, a kind of an evolutionary original sin, contains errors. He over-extrapolates from incomplete categories, and makes an error so common it has its own name, the fallacy of composition. Dawkins’s devil isn’t in the details, but in straying too far from them.
Dawkins defines: X as “altruistic if it behaves in such a way as to increase another such entity’s [Y] welfare at the expense of its own. Selfish behavior has exactly the opposite effect.” His scheme sees only two outcomes, selfish or altruistic, and is zero-sum: X gains by Y’s loss. This accurately describes genes competing against variations of themselves for the single slot of dominance in future populations. But does all of creation fit into that scheme? Clearly not, since it excludes: X and Y both lose; X and Y both gain cooperatively. Many biologists confuse cooperation with altruism, but by Dawkins’ definition win-win cooperation is neither selfish nor altruistic. Yet this logical space is crucial for all species with team survival strategies.