Why are people so nice?

There are some pro­grammes broad­cast by the ven­er­able Beeb that, to use those well-worn words, jus­ti­fy in them­selves the exist­ence of the licence fee. One such is In Our Time, a BBC Radio Four series that invest­ig­ates the his­tory of ideas using a format in which nation­al treas­ure Lord Bragg of Wigton quizes three aca­dem­ics on seem­ingly ran­dom sub­jects of eru­di­tion, from Carl Jung to neg­at­ive num­bers to Goethe.

Yesterday, the show centred on altru­ism. The stu­dio pan­el included Professor Richard Dawkins, whose book The Selfish Gene (1974) is per­haps one of the most influ­en­tial single volumes in recent years, par­tic­u­larly with­in my own spe­cialty of psy­cho­logy. The idea behind the selfish gene was not new in 1974, and I doubt that genes-obsessed bio­lo­gists were stirred much by its appear­ance, but the idea that a fun­da­ment­al mor­al value — that of doing good unto oth­ers, par­tic­u­larly at a cost — might have its ori­gin in the rep­lic­a­tion of essen­tially ‘selfish’ genes was an irony so deli­cious that it helped cement the pos­i­tion of the genet­ic basis of beha­viour with­in psy­cho­logy (and, en passant, delivered a final bitch slap to beha­vi­our­ism). Since then, no psy­cho­logy under­gradu­ate has emerged from their stud­ies without passing through the ‘Dawkins sheep dip’.

Anyway, lots of people find the idea to swal­low. Some think that Darwinian evol­u­tion (the evol­u­tion of spe­ci­ation on the basis of non-ran­dom selec­tion of ran­domly mutat­ing organ­isms) is too reduc­tion­ist to be use­ful. Reductionism, by the way, is tech­nic­ally defined as tak­ing the fun out of bull­shit dis­cus­sions con­duc­ted by people who want it to be com­plex­ity all the way down. Others think that selec­tion does not oper­ate at the level of the gene, but at the group, or soci­ety. Others still hold for Lamarckian evol­u­tion (where, for example, a moth­er who hap­pens to be a box­er will give birth to a girl with a mean left hook). It’s very inter­est­ing stuff, and on this pod­cast you can hear Dawkins hav­ing a bit of a ding-dong with a philo­sophy pro­fess­or who, I’m slightly embar­rassed to say, comes from my alma mater, the University of Exeter.

I’ll leave you with this thought: we share half our DNA with bana­nas.

Carry on.

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Author: Ian Hocking

Writer and psychologist.

8 thoughts on “Why are people so nice?”

  1. Pleased some­body finds some­thing to jus­ti­fy the licence fee! Since I earn my liv­ing writ­ing adverts for com­mer­cial radio, the BBC kind of gets up my nose. They have a bloated budget and no com­mer­cial con­cerns…

    But they do the arch­ers and Doctor Who and if they didn’t, I’m pretty sure no com­mer­cial media would.

    Double edged sword. If there was noth­ing but com­mer­cial radio and TV, we’d all end up watch­ing noth­ing but celebrity game shows.

    I only wrote this because I can­not con­trib­ute ANYTHING to the genet­ics dis­cus­sion! I’m too thick!

  2. Right you are, Rolski, but, when I think about it, I watch vir­tu­ally noth­ing that hasn’t been pro­duced by the BBC (though I’ve loved a lot of com­mer­cially-pro­duced TV shows in the past). I hope your jingles are bet­ter than the ones for Gemini FM, our loc­al (Exeter) radio sta­tion, at least the ones I serm to hear two minutes after mak­ing the mis­take of switch­ing to it. I think the last com­mer­cial was a chor­us of barely-in-tune ‘yokels’ (i.e. act­ors with Bristolian accents who think they sound like Devoners) scream­ing about sham­poo, or some­thing. *shud­der*

  3. I just love that “Wigton”. Anyone who comes from, and tips their hat to, Wigton, just has to be OK.
    Silloth would be even bet­ter, but Wigton is fine. It is where people from Silloth go to school.

  4. True enough, Joe. Thanks for the tip with the Segundo show — I caught it (the show) for the first time in the autumn when there was an inter­view with David Mitchell. The Dawkins one was good. Why can’t we have more voices with sense in the media?

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