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.