Selfish Gene Hypothesis Theory

The following sample essay on Selfish Gene Theory dwells on its problems, providing a shortened but comprehensive overview of basic facts and arguments related to it. To read the essay, scroll down. Therefore, if people acted purely in their self-interest as relayed in the often misunderstood purest form of the selfish gene theory, this person would not contribute to the common account in the first place and would reap the rewards of everyone else’s contribution. Contributions to the common fund started at approximately 50% of the total points of each player but this decreased over the course of the game as some people put less in the common account.

Justifications for the decline in cooperation were that the only way to punish people who were not contributing to the common account was to decline to contribute to that account also.

It begs the question as to how sustainable cooperative and social behaviours are without a significant deterrent to behaving selfishly. When this game was conducted with opportunity to heavily punish non contributors by using their own points to deduct from those of the non-contributing players this was consistently selected.

This pattern of behaviour meant that cooperation no longer decreased over the rounds so cooperative behaviour was maintained by reward and punishment as it often is in society.

More recent neurobiological evidence supports the notion that even this seemingly altruistic behaviour by the actor is selfish at a genetic level, De Quervain et al (2004) found that when a person punishes another for non-cooperative behaviour the dorsal striatum is stimulated and as this is the circuitry involved in reward-related activity there is a direct fitness benefit being bestowed by this behaviour to the actor.

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Additionally, there are indirect benefits for the group to which the actor belongs as this behaviour increases their survival chances and productivity.

Therefore the overall fitness benefits to the person’s genes through the ultimate maintenance of the group and societal norms which help to preserve that group outweighs the personal sacrifices made to maintain this system of cooperative and social fairness which has fitness benefits for those who engage in it (Hamilton, 1964, 1975). If selfish behaviour increases a persons’ overall fitness then it would seem obvious that genes which promote selfishness should increase their presence in the gene pool and that altruistic genes would therefore be outbred.

This would mean that Dawkins (1976) explanation for cooperative and social behaviour would be fundamentally flawed. However, game theory has shown how important the combination of those who behave selfishly and those who behave in a seemingly altruistic way is to the evolution of the genes that promote these behaviours. A game called ‘prisoners dilemma’ demonstrates that when two people behave altruistically they increase the overall fitness of both parties and hence the gene that promotes this behaviour is likely to survive and be replicated.

When both parties behave selfishly both decrease their overall fitness which makes the gene responsible less likely to survive and be replicated and when one partner behaves selfishly it is their own fitness that will increase but if there is discrimination from those who have the altruistic genes in their willingness to interact with those carrying the selfish gene then this explains why the population is not overcome by those carrying the selfish gene. Dawkins purports that consciousness has evolved to be able to override the influence of the genes and that the more executive decisions are made at the helm of this consciousness.

It is the relationship between the genes and consciousness that determine how a person will behave and the influence of the environment and its culture shapes consciousness more than genes do. Dawkins acknowledged a meme as a unit of culture that can be passed from person to person at a much faster rate than genes would be and therefore memes create rules for cooperative and social behaviour and these rules help to maintain systems of cooperation by punishing those who do not engage fairly in social interactions.

Therefore where behaviours cannot be explained by genes they are explained by memes and Cartesian-dualism. Because ultimately genes are primarily concerned with their own replication, they influence people to behave in ways that are most likely to meet this need; altruistic and cooperative behaviour has evolved as a consequence of its success at replicating itself and therefore cooperative and social behaviour is explained by the SGT as having evolved at the level of the genes through selfish means.

Cooperative and social behaviour at the level of the organism is therefore only a mechanism to ensure that the needs of the genes are being met. The survival of the fittest is therefore not a competition for resources and advantageous selfish behaviour but it is an enhanced chance of survival and reproduction bestowed on those who behave in efficient ways such as through cooperative and social behaviours (Margulis & Lovelock, 1974) Conclusively, Dawkins SGT appears to be able to offer adequate explanations for cooperative and social behaviours that enhance the fitness of the actor and those who share the same genes.

If the fitness is not directly or indirectly enhanced with an immediate effect then this can be explained as having a lifetime fitness benefit by this same theory but it is worth noting that measuring lifetime fitness benefits is difficult to do which limits this explanation. The weaker the genetic connection between the actor and the recipient the weaker the theory becomes when offering explanations for cooperative and social behaviours, especially as the behaviour of the actor becomes increasingly altruistic. Therefore from the perspective of the SGT even apparently cooperative and social behaviour at the level of the organism is always one of selfish motivation at the level of the genes; put succinctly, ‘scratch an altruist and watch a hypocrite bleed’.


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