Social Evolution Forum
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Selfish Genes Made Me Do It! (Part II)

To recap, in the first installment I pointed out that the three post-war decades were remarkably clean, in terms of corporate malfeasance. Then, during the 1980s, there was a series of scandals primarily involving insider trading. The trend really intensified during the 2000s, when we saw one scandal after another, with Enron as an emblematic case. Last time that we saw anything similar was a century  ago during the Gilded Age.

What explains this wave of corporate fraud? I trace it to the cultural shift, taking place during the late 1970s, that affected attitudes toward selfishness – the rise of the “greed is good” social mood. This shift coincided with the publication of The Selfish Gene in 1976.

I am far from saying that the fall of Enron is Richard Dawkins’ fault (despite The Selfish Gene being the favorite book of Jeff Skilling). The causation clearly goes in the opposite direction. The cultural shift was happening anyway, due to much more fundamental societal processes than the work of a single intellectual, no matter how brilliant. (And to make it clear, I think that The Selfish Gene is a brilliant book.) What likely happened was that Jeff Skilling simply seized upon certain ideas in The Selfish Gene because they resonated with his own inclinations (it should be noted that Dawkins himself claims that Skilling misread the main message of the book). Other ‘heroes’ of the 2000s, the Kozlowskis and the Madoffs, probably never read the book.

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The fantastic success of the book (more than a million copies sold) may have been due, in part to the ‘social demand’ for it, but only in part; as I said it’s a brilliant and very well written book. And yet, it is deeply flawed.

Popularizing the insights of the evolutionary biologist George C. Williams (most notably, his 1966 book, Adaptation and Natural Selection: A Critique of Some Current Evolutionary Thought) Dawkins demolishes the explanation of morality advanced by the naïve group selectionists. The two evolutionary mechanisms that Dawkins likes, on the other hand, are kin selection of William D. Hamilton and reciprocal altruism of Robert Trivers. To this day, Dawkins is a vehement opponent of multi-level section (the sophisticated version of group selection).

But this leaves Dawkins in the lurch. Human altruism and capacity for cooperation are much broader than helping kin, or establishing mutually profitable relationships. In fact, helping family members to profit at the expense of the society at large is not a moral behavior, at least in Western Europe and North America. “Amoral familism” is why, according to Edward Banfield, Southern Italians are unable to cooperate.

Having demolished one explanation, The Selfish Gene failed to provide a better, more convincing one. In the end, Dawkins is reduced to writing,

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. Let us try to teach generosity and altruism, because we are born selfish.

Similarly, to George C. Williams morality was “an accidental capability produced, in its boundless stupidity, by a biological process that is normally opposed to the expression of such a capability.” Earlier, Herbert Spencer advanced much the same view (thus contributing to the rise of Social Darwinism – which, curiously, coincided with the previous era of massive corporate malfeasance a hundred years ago).

The primatologist Frans de Waal calls this the “veneer theory,” which supposes that human morality is “a cultural overlay, a thin veneer hiding an otherwise selfish and brutish nature”.

I am pretty sure that Richard Dawkins is, and George Williams, and Herbert Spencer were highly moral human beings, and they would never perpetrate massive corporate fraud that Jeff Skilling committed. But their flawed understanding of the human nature made them pessimists about our capacity for morality, altruism, and cooperation. They ended up saying, yes, the human is a selfish beast, so we have to will him to become moral. In other words, this is a kind of voluntarism.

Jeff Skilling and Bernie Madoff chose a different route: Yes, the human is a selfish beast, that’s the way things are. And I, being the smartest guy around, am going to get very rich!

So I would argue that the main idea of The Selfish Gene readily lends itself to be misused by the Jeff Skillings of the corporate world. But my critique of the book goes deeper. Dawkins, Williams, and Spencer theories offer no practical route to making our societies more altruistic, increasing social trust and cooperation. As far as I can tell, their recipe is to just try harder to overcome our inherently selfish natures.

The alternative understanding of human nature, based on gene-culture coevolution and multilevel selection (both cultural and genetic), which is supported by the recent explosion of experimental evidence, does much better. We now know that humans are heterogeneous – some are free riders and other cooperators. Even cooperators behave differently in different situations, cooperating under some conditions,, withdrawing cooperation under others. We are starting to understand how we can ‘nudge’ more cooperative behaviors (there is a growing literature on ‘priming’). Having a better understanding of the human nature enables us to design more effective institutions. Just think of the work of the great late Elinor Ostrom on practical approaches human groups use to manage natural resources and avoid the tragedy of the commons.


Join the discussion


  1. Admittedly I don’t know any rich people, but my impression is that they aren’t so much “greedy” and “selfish” as desperate to be admired, accepted, worshiped, whatever, by as many people as possible. They can’t seriously “want all that money”–surely having 100 billion is not that different from having 1 billion in terms of the good meals, nice houses, etc. it can buy. So maybe the greedy, selfish people are the most abjectly social-dependent of us all.

    • Richard says:

      Those who made their fortune (rather than inheriting it or marrying in to it) are almost all driven or passionate, but I would not say that many (or even most) of them are driven to be admired/accepted/worshiped (while I would say most politicians are driven by that). Some of them could care less what the rest of humanity thinks of them. They just want to do what’s best for them, and while the difference between 100B and 1B really isn’t going to make a difference in terms of lifestyle, many of them just want to keep score and keep winning. Michael Jordan could have retired (and did) at the height of his powers. He certainly was rich enough to live a great lifestyle forever, but he kept coming back to play basketball. Because he loved winning.

  2. Vineyard says:

    Another often quoted influence is Ann Rand’s “Atlas Shrugged” and her theory of objectivism + the works of Friedrich August von Hayek. (People who are imo. fliriting with anarchism.)

    The social change beginning with the 70ies is indeed a mystery.

    One interesting explaination was in E. Todd “La Illusion economique”, were he described a change in educational level of different populations during that time and that most of the Western Countries reached a “cultural limit” for an unknown reason.

    Based on their major dominant family structures , these countries followed two different options for this problem.

    – A continued high Level of education ,but a massive decline in birth rates
    – A stable growing population, but a decline in educational levels.

    • Peter Turchin says:

      My Aeon article describes one possible explanation of why the social shift occurred in the late 1970s:
      link to

      • Vineyard says:

        Well, the 2020ies will most likely be an interesting decade. I’m really looking forward to the different scenarios for this period in your new book. I know that they arn’t predictions, but one of these scenarios might become real very soon.

  3. Vineyard says:

    But to talk again about Amoral behavior, this was also majorly present in the case of Enron. The later investigations, which were also showed in the great docomentary “The Smart Guys in the Room” showed that the early 2000’s that the California Energy Crisis was to blame to forced shut downs by Enron employs, a fact proven by taped telephone calls.

    Another of these taped calls was even more disgusting. During the Forest Fires in the same time, the employs in action were actually HAPPY about this catastrophe, because it would increase shortages and their profits. They were laughing and yelling “Burn Baby, burn”.

  4. Steven says:

    This is a gross misinterpretation of Richard Dawkins’ work. The word “selfish” in the selfish gene theory was clearly metaphorical. Any idiot ought to realise that arrangements of DNA cannot possess selfish intentions. They merely replicate and mutate and the better adapted ones are naturally selected, including those that code for more cooperative behaviours. Richard did admit to one or two misplaced emphases in the book, and has spent the intervening decades re-clarifying his position, but he can’t be responsible for the Jeff Schillings or Bernie Madoffs of this world any more than Darwin or Mendel could be held responsible for Nazi eugenicists. Turchin says that Dawkins “claims” that schilling misinterpreted the book. Surely he should know full well that he did. As for the explanation for human scales of cooperation, you don’t need to invoke “group selection” to understand it. Plain old genetics and memetics (or cultural evolution, if you prefer) and their co- evolution will suffice. See Steven Pinker’s essay and related contributions on the subject of group selection on the website and make your own minds up.

    The fact that The Selfish Gene didn’t go into depth on practical measures, such as Ostrom’s blueprint for commons management, should not be a criticism. It is simply not Dawkin’s field, and is well beyond the book’s purpose. It was enough for him to point out that in our our urgent efforts to build a sane, sustainable future we must rely upon our unique, rational, reflexive and future-imagining powers to achieve it, because genes can neither imagine futures nor act for the good of whole species.

    • Peter Turchin says:

      Steven, you are entitled to your opinion, but you will use civil language in the comments to this blog. In particular, calling your opponents ‘idiots’ is not acceptable. This is one and last warning.

    • Tim Tyler says:

      Pinker is deeply confused about both group selection and cultural evolution – judging by that article. However, it’s true that you can use kin selection instead of group selection and get the same results in every case studied using both approaches.

    • susara says:

      I agree. The Selfish Gene” was in the first place a book about genetics, not social psychology, so the fact the Dawkins doesn’t go into great depth about how to address practical ethical problems in society isn’t really a fair critique, in my opinion. The book discusses the mechanics of evolution; orders of magnitude in abstraction below the discussion of complex human social behaviour.

      Poor Dawkins has been regretting using the word ‘selfish’ for decades. Outside of atheism he and Rand have little in common.

      But yes, it’s a pity that Steven used the word ‘idiot’, it diminishes the value of a fair comment.

  5. Joe Brewer says:

    Hi Peter,

    Thank you for this very thoughtful commentary on human moral social behavior. I agree with you that the anchoring effects of any attempt to frame human nature (or biological processes more generally) as inherently selfish will misconstrue the evidence and inhibit the development of scientifically more robust theories of human sociality.

    Adding to the discussion, I’d like to offer up a few articles I’ve written on this topic:

    How Will the 99% Deal with 70 Million Psychopaths

    (An exploration of the evolution of morality in hunter gatherer societies with implications for world governance today)

    The Death of Self-Interest Fundamentalism

    (A brief history of the way Rational Choice Theory arose and why it was flawed from the beginning)

    The Real Reason Conservatives Always Win

    (An argument that parallels the dynamics you theorize about frontier boundaries between social groups, which supports the notion of multi-level selection in shaping social morality)

    I have been a fan of your work for some time now and love seeing the discussions you seed and share with the world.


    Joe Brewer
    Research Director, Culture2 Inc.

  6. Concom says:

    If you remember, the essence of Geckko’s speech (and the reason for its success among the shareholders), was not so much that “greed is good”, but more in that “excessive bureaucracy is bad”. Thus, he was not praised “evil”, but used it to fight against even greater (in his view) evil. In this movie example we can see how “greed and selfishness” act as effective regulators of the hierarchical structure.

    Unfortunately, fierce debate around the issue of levels of selection and different kinds of selfishness-vs.-cooperation opposition, made the audience forget about the basic meaning of “selfishness” (which is not related to emotions or moral evaluations, but rather measurable resource-sharing behavior of the individual within the society).

    Let us remember that (1) Selfishness – is not an absolute trait of the individual (trait that can be measured separately and independently for each individual), (2) Selfishness – is a relative trait of the individual (trait that can only be measured by comparing individuals with each other within their community). (3) Thus, Selfishness can not be the opposition to cooperation by definition (because it can be defined only for individuals that already somehow cooperate). Moreover, Selfishness is one of the special forms of cooperation.

    Selfishness is not so mach genetically based, but rather institutionally based. Position of the individual in the hierarchy largely determines its “selfishness” (in the lower level more selfish behavior is expected; on the contrary the higher levels are more dependent on the cooperation and loyalty).

    Returning to the “Wall-street” movie, perhaps we can say that greed is not bad and not good (or can be both), greed is the force that shapes hierarchical structure of organizations.

    • Peter Turchin says:

      I disagree with your definition of selfishness. The usual definition of selfishness is to oppose it with altruism. Another antonym is ‘groupishness’. The latter is an actual term that Jon Haidt put into the circulation.

      Your point about Gekko’s speech is good. He excoriates the leadership of the company for paying themselves big salaries – which exposes him to a charge of double-dealing. After all, the leadership is simply exercising their right for greed.

      • Concom says:

        Of course we are free to start using any definition of selfishness (semantic, psychological, social, conceptual, etc.), but sooner or later (if we are really interested in the research questions), we will have to take measurements of what we loosely call “selfishness” before, and the only measurement-based definitions will be valuable for future research.
        Next you (with necessity) come to the conclusions made by me above. And it’s more than “my definition of selfishness” is a straightforward scientific reasoning.

        How can you measure “groupishness” of particular individual without taking into account other individuals in his group?

  7. Tim Tyler says:

    Most in the know consider modern forms of group selection and kin selection to be the same thing these days. The idea that group selection made better predictions in some areas mostly collapsed around 2009 – with most of the major proponents publicly giving up that claim. So how can Dawkins be “in the lurch” for endorsing kin selection, but not group selection? He isn’t. All that is happening here is that the penny hasn’t yet dropped for some group selection advocates.

    Humans cooperate through being memetic kin – as well as genetic kin. Their selfish memes manipulate them into cooperating. This happens because contact between friendly humans is how memes spread. Memes create a radically different selective environment – where being cooperative and friendly pays off genetically in a way that it didn’t among cavemen. The idea that kin selection theory doesn’t apply to groups of human strangers because they are not blood relatives is just out-of-date bunk that predates the theory of cultural evolution that Dawkins helped to pioneer.

    • Stevie Smith says:

      Re: my December 6th comment and Peter Turchin’s reply. I was referring to Jeff Skilling and Bernie Maddof, and yes indeed any other idiot or fool who could possibly confuse the clearly metaphorical use of “selfish gene”. How could it possibly make sense that a gene was actually selfish in the greedy human sense? For that you’d need a complex brain with a theory of mind able to distinguish between self and other, among other things. Molecules of DNA don’t have brains. And yet you write that you “argue that the main idea of The Selfish Gene readily lends itself to be misused by the Jeff Skillings of the corporate world”. Are you sure? Or would it be fairer to say that the Jeff Skillings of the corporate world didn’t cop on to the main idea of the Selfish Gene?

      I thought that your suggested links between Dawkins’s book and the rise in corporate dishonesty was worse than uncivil, it was crude.I agree with Tim Tyler, above, and with Pinker, Dawkins and Coyne. Group selection is just a different accounting method. The equations of group selection theory might be mathematically sound but need not exist in living processes. What exists in physical reality are genetic and memetic replicators – some of which drive individually selfish behaviours and others that lead to highly cooperative/groupish behaviours – that vary and differentially survive in a selective environment. You can’t claim that your opponent (Dawkins) is somehow flowing against the tide of scientific evidence and ‘left in the lurch’ without explaining what mechanisms physically exist in this “group” world. In order to survive, in order to evolve, surely something physical should exist in the first place. So what survives, what physically exists at the ‘group level’ that is something extra, something more than the genes that survive, or the memes that survive, from one generation to the next?

      • Richard says:

        What is physical about a meme?

        • Joe Brewer says:

          I can answer this one… memes are entirely physical. If they take the form of a practice or behavior that spreads by imitation (such as a particular way to make arrow heads or the practice of wearing pants), the physical mannerisms combined with physical artifacts will show that they are part of the physical world. And if the memes in question are patterns of thought, they can be observed in their frame semantic structure, information processing modes as activation networks in the brain, and social interaction dynamics as architected information between people. Again, in all of these examples, the memes are part of the physical world.

          • Richard says:

            Um, OK. so if you’re counting stuff that’s in the brain, then cultural stuff that figures in to multi-level selection is also physical, as culture is nothing more than the way people think.

            Then everything’s physical!

          • Joe Brewer says:

            Yes, exactly. There is no false dichotomy of mind/body dualism here. With an appropriate empirically responsible philosophical framework, we can explain it as emergent dynamic processes embedded in complex adaptive systems — all of which are of the material world.

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