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Hands or Genes?

In response to:

Can Our Species Escape Destruction? from the October 13, 2011 issue

To the Editors:

John Terborgh’s reliance upon selfish genes to “shed light on many facets of human behavior” [“Can Our Species Escape Destruction?,” NYR, October 13, 2011] strikes me as expressing both his conservative standpoint and his frustration at the manifest resistance to the urgent need to meaningfully respond to the gathering global climate catastrophe that threatens to obliterate both partisans of Gaea and of selfish genes.

I believe the selfish gene notion is contradicted by no less a Darwinist than Charles himself, who explored in The Descent of Man (1871) the evolutionary and survival value for our species of social cooperation and morality. It is the plasticity and survival inclinations of human social groups that suggests there is, in fact, potential for saving response to self-destructive industrial excess.

For example, in Jared Diamond’s Collapse (2004), he contrasts the ecological and political misery of Haiti to the relative sustainability of the Dominican Republic on the other side of the same island as a consequence of a series of historical and political circumstances. It was not selfish genes that did in Haiti, or beneficent genes that helped the Dominican Republic. It was a matter of responses to historical circumstances, to contingency. Diamond makes clear that both authoritarian and participatory systems have led historically to sustainable ends, or to collapse.

It’s up to all of us, regardless of ideology, to undertake corrective climate action now. Building an efficiency renewable energy system, practicing a sustainable industrial, agricultural, and forestry ecology is a clear technical possibility and one that will lead toward an ecological, prosperous, and sustainable future. And it is also possible to continue the self-destructive conduct of industrial business as usual.

What happens is in our hands, not in our genes.

Roy Morrison
Director, Office for Sustainability
Southern New Hampshire University
Warner, New Hampshire

John Terborgh replies:

Humans are more controlled by our genes than it is popular to think. Sex, thirst, hunger, fear—these are fundamental drives possessed by animals and humans alike, but how many more innate urges are there lying behind our cravings, ego, ambitions, feelings of security or insecurity, etc.? To conclude that genes create tendencies in our behavior is not to deny the virtues of cooperation, empathy, and morality. If this is what Roy Morrison thinks I am saying, he is mistaken.

What I am saying is that some of our egocentric traits—e.g., selfishness, pride, cliquishness—are antagonistic to other traits—cooperation, compassion, generosity, tolerance—that are needed to create a peaceful global community of humans with equal rights and equal dignity. Somehow the tension between what we are as individuals and what we need to be to succeed as members of a harmonious society must find resolution. I’m not claiming I know how to do it; only that successfully accomplishing it is essential to the well-being of the human enterprise.

Thus I agree with Mr. Morrison (and Darwin) that social cooperation and morality have survival value at the societal level. However, natural selection acts on individuals, favoring those who contribute the most genes to succeeding generations. Under natural selection, individuals succeed who accumulate more resources, whether through simple hard work, by dominating, deceiving, or excluding others, or by controlling multiple mates (animals do all of these).

Evolutionary success via these means engenders traits—competitiveness, selfishness, philandering, despotism—that are contrary to human goals on a higher level. My plea is that we try to understand the tensions between the individual and society and legislate ways to blunt the worst manifestations of selfishness. In fact, we already do so in that we have legislated progressive taxation, labor laws, public support of pensions and medical care for the elderly, the banning of polygamy, etc.—but clearly these measures have not restrained the opening of a huge disparity in income distribution in which the net worth of the top 1 percent exceeds that of the bottom 90 percent. Is this a healthy and desirable outcome of social legislation? Clearly, we still have a long way to go.

The essential message of Jared Diamond’s book Collapse was that societies that were able to reevaluate their most fundamental assumptions and adjust in the face of ecological crises were those that survived, whereas others failed. The world is beset with crises today—economic, social, environmental, security (nuclear weapons), demographic—yet a divided global community is unable to achieve adequate traction on any of them. We see this in our own society in the inability of Congress to deal with the budget crisis and many other issues. Just as natural selection determines the success or failure of individuals, a sort of pseudo natural selection operates among nations: those that possess unity (even if despotically imposed) will be able to engage the global challenges and adjust, whereas those that fall into a frenzy of internal bickering and blame-mongering will fall behind. Which will it be for us? The current indications are not encouraging.

Morrison’s assertion that “what happens is in our hands, not in our genes” raises the timeless question of whether we have free will. Centuries ago, the question was passionately argued on theological grounds, but as a scientist, I’m convinced that the real answer lies at the intersection of genetics and neurobiology and is unlikely to be anything so simple as “yes” or “no.”

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