Richard Dawkins – The Selfish Gene Audiobook Selfishness or altruism?
Man: a survival machine guided by selfish genes? In any case, this is the theory defended by Richard Dawkins in “The Selfish Gene”.
But then, if selfishness is the guiding principle, why do we sometimes see altruistic behavior in animals as in humans?
Using game theory, Dawkins explains why the selfish survival strategy applied by genes can manifest itself in the form of altruism. Richard Dawkins – The Selfish Gene Audiobook .
The Selfish Gene
In “The Selfish Gene”, a fascinating book that has become a classic, the scientist gives a new perspective to the concept of natural selection developed by Charles Darwin. For Dawkins, natural selection does not operate at the level of species or individuals. It takes place at the gene level.
The different body types (animal, plant, mineral) are vehicles with limited lifetimes that carry ephemeral combinations of genes. But the gene does not necessarily disappear when its host goes out. The gene can survive through a large number of successive bodies.
His survival technique? Jump from one body to another. To achieve this result, it creates copies of itself, especially through sexual reproduction. When the copy is faithful, we can speak of longevity in the form of a copy. Thus, Dawkins views genes as potentially immortal units.
According to the scientist, genes are therefore replicators (that is, unconscious bodies that can create copies of themselves) and we are only their temporary survival machine.
However, nothing prevents a complex machine with certain preprogrammed orientations in its genetic code from modifying its decisions through learning. The ethologist recognizes the role of free will.
You have just seen the Selfish Gene theory: natural selection takes place at the level of the gene (and not at the level of the species).
In the rest of this article, you will discover the main practical lessons that can be learned from millennial strategies applied by genes.
The Limits of the Prisoner’s Dilemma
According to the Selfish Gene theory, we should expect to see only selfish behavior in nature. Either the reign of each for himself. Yet we observe a lot of seemingly altruistic behavior.
Are these behaviors dictated, not for the good of the gene, but for the higher good of the species? No, for Dawkins, these are simply associations of mutual benefit. And the main beneficiary remains the selfish gene.
Think of birds that remove ticks from each other. Think of animals that give the signal when a predator arrives, at the risk of drawing attention to them. Or to gather in herds to escape predators. Or even to cleaning fish which remove parasites from the teeth of fish larger than themselves and which are spared in exchange for the service rendered.
In short, there is no shortage of examples of cooperation via delayed altruism in species capable of recognizing themselves.
The model prisoner’s dilemmacannot explain these situations.
Prisoner’s Dilemma refers to a situation where two players would benefit from cooperating, but where, in the absence of communication between the two players, each will choose to betray the other if the game is only played once. The reason is that if one cooperates and the other betrays, the cooperator is heavily penalized. However, if both players betray, the outcome is less favorable to them than if the two had chosen to cooperate.
Indeed, the prisoner’s dilemma teaches us that in a short-term game (ie with a single iteration), the best strategy is not to cooperate. It is simply the cheapest choice.
In other words, this dilemma teaches us that short-term games are games of conflict (they are zero-sum games).
So, what explains the presence of altruistic behaviors in nature?
The Iterated Prisoner’s Dilemma
When there are multiple successive turns, as is often the case in nature, the game changes. A new configuration appears: the iterated prisoner’s dilemma.
In this new game, rehearsals provide an opportunity to build trust, mistrust, reciprocity, forgiveness and revenge. The “time” dimension allows the appearance of cumulative effects of decisions between people who often come together.
A new question then arises: what is the best individual strategy when there are potentially several iterations?
To answer this question, scientists have run several computer simulations. They made 14 different strategies face-to-face over several rounds. For example, there were strategies like:
- Cooperate 100% (cooperate all the time regardless of the adverse response)
- Desert 100% (desert all the time regardless of the adverse response)
- Cooperate and randomly desert Give-and
- -take (start by cooperating on the first move, then imitate the opposing strategy on the following moves; this strategy has a short memory since it quickly forgets bad actions)
- Grudge (long memory strategy that does not forgive)
Overall, the best strategies are those that practice kindness and forgiveness, but without allowing oneself to be exploited.
The “give and take” strategy thus obtained the best average results against all the other strategies. It is an effective strategy which will tend to influence others and therefore to spread among the population.
On the other hand, the strategy of the grudge with long memory (the one who does not forgive) obtained the least good results. She locks herself into cycles of mutual revenge even against a potentially repentant adversary.
This demonstrates that, in a long-term game, cooperation and mutual assistance will be the best options for selfishly motivated strategists aiming for efficiency. In other words, in a selfish world, including well-understood reciprocity, kindness (building trust through giving, receiving and giving back) turns out to be the best strategy.
Note that in the Darwinian sense, what defines a strategy is not its intention (its deep motivation) but its attitude (its revealed preference). In this pragmatic view, egoism as a motor becomes altruism as a result. And this principle, the efficient gene has integrated it well. He chooses this “altruistic” strategy because it allows him to maximize his life expectancy.
The practical lessons
The gene is an unconscious organism which blindly follows a coded strategy. This evolutionary strategy is constantly confronted with feedback from nature : it is validated by survival and reproduction; and it is invalidated by the disappearance of the gene.
Lessons can be learned from the selfish gene’s millennial survival strategy:
- In short-term games, whoever faces you is an opponent;
- Turn short-term (conflicting) games into long-term (collaborative) games by introducing engagement;
- In long-term games, collaboration is the best strategy. Collaboration is based on trust. Kindness enables trust;
- Favor long-term games to capitalize on the compound interest due to the “time” effect (skills, knowledge, relationships);
- Don’t get locked into cycles of revenge. Practice forgiveness in front of someone who is able to adjust accordingly. Take the initiative to turn a lose-lose situation into a win-win situation.
PS: I especially enjoyed this book and hope you find this article useful. I highly recommend this reading.
PPS: In this article, I did not mention the case of cooperation within the family. In this case, the author’s explanation is that the gene will help copies of itself that are in other bodies. Moreover, he will cooperate all the more as the replicas are similar to himself. Richard Dawkins – The Selfish Gene Audiobook .
To go further, read the book “The Selfish Gene” (Richard Dawkins).