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39 We, and all other animals, are machines created by our genes… a predominant quality to be expected in a selfish gene is ruthless selfishness. This gene selfishness will usually give rise to selfishness in individual behaviour. However, there are special circumstances in which a gene can achieve its own selfish goals best by fostering a limited form of altruism at the level of individual animals. “Special” and “limited” are important words in the last sentence. Much as we might wish to believe otherwise, universal love and the welfare of the species as a whole are concepts which simply do not make evolutionary sense. … if you wish, as I do, to build a society in which individuals cooperate generously and unselfishly toward a common good, you can expect little help from biological nature. Let us try to teach generosity and altruism, because we are born selfish. Let us understand what our own selfish genes are up to, because we may then at least have the chance to upset their designs, something which no other species has ever aspired to. —Richard Dawkins, The Selfish Gene 3 Selfish Genes, Sociobiology and Animal Respect rod preece The economy of nature is competitive from beginning to end.… No hint of charity ameliorates our vision of society, once sentimentalism has been laid aside. What passes for cooperation turns out to be a mixture of opportunism and exploitation.…Given a full chance to act for his interest, nothing but expediency will restrain [an animal or human], from brutalizing, from maiming, from murdering.… —Michael T. Ghiselin, The Economy of Nature and the Evolution of Sex Selfish gene theory is perhaps currently the most popular general theory in the life sciences. It constitutes the philosophical postulates of, and justi fication for, the gene’s-eye view of animal behaviour as expounded by the devotees of sociobiology. “We are survival machines,” proclaims Richard Dawkins, “robot vehicles blindly programmed to preserve the selfish molecules known as genes.” This he wrote in his 1976 The Selfish Gene. In his 1995 River Out of Eden: A Darwinian View of Life, Dawkins reiterated and furthered this conception of the nature of human and nonhuman animal. There has been much criticism of this theory, most incisively by Stephen Jay Gould,1 apparently without withering its popularity unduly. Most of the criticism, however, has been of the theory as science, or of its conception of human nature, rather than, as I consider in this essay, its relationship to long-rejected themes of Western thought, and the ethical implications for our attitudes towards animals. As Dawkins acknowledges, selfish gene theory is a materialist and determinist theory. It is the kind of theory that provoked Michael Oakeshott to exclaim in caustic despair: When a geneticist tells us that “all social behaviour and historical events are the inescapable consequences of the genetic individuality of the persons concerned” we have no difficulty in recognizing this theorem as a brilliant illumination of the writings of Aristotle, the fall of Constantinople , the deliberations of the House of Commons on Home Rule for Ireland , and the death of Barbarossa; but this brilliance is, perhaps, somewhat dimmed when it becomes clear that he can have nothing more revealing to say about his science of genetics than that also is all done by genes, and that this theorem is itself his genes speaking.2 40 Rod Preece Richard Dawkins’s selfish gene theory is, on the basis of selfish gene theory itself, the consequence not of Dawkins’s perceptive insights but of Dawkins’s genes! Not only is selfish gene theory reductionist, but, when confronted, Edmund O.Wilson, the author of Sociobiology3 and advocate of the theory of kin selection, proudly proclaimed himself a reductionist .4 Reductionism is not, however, the failing of theories of naturalist determinism alone. It is equally a failing of their primary opponents, the advocates of environmental determinism. Neither Nature nor Nurture theory in their radical forms allows the animal (or human) to be an individual , spontaneous, creative, independently choosing, caring, feeling being in and of itself. It is only such insofar as its genes or environmental conditions require it. And, if that is so, what is there about the intrinsic animal for us to respect or be considerate of? If either theory is correct, the animal is indeed a machine and there are no adequate grounds for denying Descartes’s treatment...


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