Every Selfish Gene Must Also Cooperate

Is ruthless selfishness natural and rational? The idea that this is just how “selfish genes” and evolution work is unnaturally selective. Without certain kinds of cooperation, no gene can survive (that's using the term cooperative in a similar metaphoric way that genes can be described as "selfish"). 

Every Selfish Gene Must Also Cooperate

Is "ruthless selfishness" natural and rational? The idea that this is just how “selfish genes” and evolution work is unnaturally selective. Here’s why:

1. “Selfish” genes that don’t also "cooperate" don’t survive. Evolution’s logic ensures it. (That's using the term "cooperate" with the same metaphoric license as labeling genes "selfish"). 

2. In The Selfish Gene, Richard Dawkins popularized, spectacularly, the idea that selfishness is natural. In stellar prose Dawkins presented his ideas so successfully that they became influential beyond the book’s readership. But The Selfish Gene had an oddly selective focus and contained “rogue sentences.” E.g., “a society based simply on the gene’s law of universal ruthless selfishness would be a very very nasty society.” In getting individuals to “cooperate generously and unselfishly towards a common good, you can expect little help from biological nature ... because we are born selfish.

3. Dawkins focusses on selfishness and altruism, defining X as altruistic if it increases “another such entity’s welfare [Y’s] at the expense of its own. Selfish behavior has exactly the opposite effect.” His scheme is binary and zero-sum: X gains by Y’s loss. It accurately describes genes competing against their alleles (their variants) for the single slot of dominance in future populations. But Dawkins’s selfishness and altruistic aren’t the only logically possible outcomes, e.g., X and Y both lose, or X and Y both gain. While many biologists confuse cooperation with altruism, using Dawkins definitions, win-win cooperation is neither selfish nor altruistic. Regardless, evolution doesn’t ignore cooperation’s advantages.

4. For Dawkins the devil isn’t in the details, but in straying too far from them. He over-extrapolates from incomplete categories, and commits a “fallacy of composition.” Those involve extending properties of parts inappropriately to wholes. An absurd example is: Each atom in a teacup is invisible, therefore the teacup is invisible. Similarly, projecting a “selfish” zero-sum property of genes onto everything built by genes, to conclude everything that has “evolved ... should be selfish” is mistaken (if, using Dawkins’s definition, selfish gain is at the expense of others).

6. Dawkins does describe needed cooperation: Every “selfish” gene needs a vehicle (body) and its many other genes (at least 181) for the “intricate cooperative venture” of propagation. Genes that cooperate well with vehicle mates prosper. Those that harm their vehicles don’t. So Dawkins’s “little help” from nature is actually a selection for certain kinds of cooperation.

7. Sadly the cooperative aspects of evolution aren’t so well known. And those “rogue sentences” have lent the shield of science to the bad idea that a “universal ruthlessness” governs biology. Cooperation abounds. All genes need it.

8. Game theory led Dawkins to modify his initial position; he subsequently wrote about how in evolution “cooperation and mutual assistance can flourish.” Studying “the Prisoner’s Dilemma” proved that cooperating generously can be an evolutionarily stable strategy, with higher productivity than selfishness.

10. In the 30th-anniversary edition, Dawkins noted that “‘born selfish’ is misleading,” and asked readers to, “mentally delete that rogue sentence and others like it.” Sadly, the unsimple details of nature’s mix of competition and cooperation haven’t spread as successfully as the initial rogue proclamations.

11. The cooperative aspect of genes in vehicles provides a cautious general maxim. Nature selects against all that damages the vehicle(s) it depends on. Just as no gene can survive without its vehicle, neither can parts of any interdependent aggregate (e.g., individuals of an interdependent social species need others in their survival vehicles). This “vehicular viability” logic maps evolutionary and logical limits to selfishness. We’re likely the first species to know this, or to have any non-genetically determined choice about the matter.

12. Team survival logic is built into human social emotions and ethical instincts, which likely evolved to limit team-(vehicle-)damaging selfishness. Self-maximization that ignores “vehicular viability” often yields poor social coordination results, e.g., hunting in teams, managing “the commons,” or Prisoner’s Dilemma (in which “rationalists” lose to golden-rule adherents, and Jewish ethics beat Christian). That’s one way “rational” economic self-interest has become a poor proxy for our real and biological interests.

The pop science of selfishness needs an upgrade. Cooperation, selfishness, and altruism are all natural and rational. Each is sometimes fittest for the circumstances. Dawkins says he could have called his book The Cooperative Gene. Evolution would be better understood if he had.


Illustration by Julia Suits, The New Yorker Cartoonist & author of The Extraordinary Catalog of Peculiar Inventions.

This is what aliens would 'hear' if they flew by Earth

A Mercury-bound spacecraft's noisy flyby of our home planet.

Image source: sdecoret on Shutterstock/ESA/Big Think
Surprising Science
  • There is no sound in space, but if there was, this is what it might sound like passing by Earth.
  • A spacecraft bound for Mercury recorded data while swinging around our planet, and that data was converted into sound.
  • Yes, in space no one can hear you scream, but this is still some chill stuff.

First off, let's be clear what we mean by "hear" here. (Here, here!)

Sound, as we know it, requires air. What our ears capture is actually oscillating waves of fluctuating air pressure. Cilia, fibers in our ears, respond to these fluctuations by firing off corresponding clusters of tones at different pitches to our brains. This is what we perceive as sound.

All of which is to say, sound requires air, and space is notoriously void of that. So, in terms of human-perceivable sound, it's silent out there. Nonetheless, there can be cyclical events in space — such as oscillating values in streams of captured data — that can be mapped to pitches, and thus made audible.


Image source: European Space Agency

The European Space Agency's BepiColombo spacecraft took off from Kourou, French Guyana on October 20, 2019, on its way to Mercury. To reduce its speed for the proper trajectory to Mercury, BepiColombo executed a "gravity-assist flyby," slinging itself around the Earth before leaving home. Over the course of its 34-minute flyby, its two data recorders captured five data sets that Italy's National Institute for Astrophysics (INAF) enhanced and converted into sound waves.

Into and out of Earth's shadow

In April, BepiColombo began its closest approach to Earth, ranging from 256,393 kilometers (159,315 miles) to 129,488 kilometers (80,460 miles) away. The audio above starts as BepiColombo begins to sneak into the Earth's shadow facing away from the sun.

The data was captured by BepiColombo's Italian Spring Accelerometer (ISA) instrument. Says Carmelo Magnafico of the ISA team, "When the spacecraft enters the shadow and the force of the Sun disappears, we can hear a slight vibration. The solar panels, previously flexed by the Sun, then find a new balance. Upon exiting the shadow, we can hear the effect again."

In addition to making for some cool sounds, the phenomenon allowed the ISA team to confirm just how sensitive their instrument is. "This is an extraordinary situation," says Carmelo. "Since we started the cruise, we have only been in direct sunshine, so we did not have the possibility to check effectively whether our instrument is measuring the variations of the force of the sunlight."

When the craft arrives at Mercury, the ISA will be tasked with studying the planets gravity.

Magentosphere melody

The second clip is derived from data captured by BepiColombo's MPO-MAG magnetometer, AKA MERMAG, as the craft traveled through Earth's magnetosphere, the area surrounding the planet that's determined by the its magnetic field.

BepiColombo eventually entered the hellish mangentosheath, the region battered by cosmic plasma from the sun before the craft passed into the relatively peaceful magentopause that marks the transition between the magnetosphere and Earth's own magnetic field.

MERMAG will map Mercury's magnetosphere, as well as the magnetic state of the planet's interior. As a secondary objective, it will assess the interaction of the solar wind, Mercury's magnetic field, and the planet, analyzing the dynamics of the magnetosphere and its interaction with Mercury.

Recording session over, BepiColombo is now slipping through space silently with its arrival at Mercury planned for 2025.

Learn the Netflix model of high-performing teams

Erin Meyer explains the keeper test and how it can make or break a team.

  • There are numerous strategies for building and maintaining a high-performing team, but unfortunately they are not plug-and-play. What works for some companies will not necessarily work for others. Erin Meyer, co-author of No Rules Rules: Netflix and the Culture of Reinvention, shares one alternative employed by one of the largest tech and media services companies in the world.
  • Instead of the 'Rank and Yank' method once used by GE, Meyer explains how Netflix managers use the 'keeper test' to determine if employees are crucial pieces of the larger team and are worth fighting to keep.
  • "An individual performance problem is a systemic problem that impacts the entire team," she says. This is a valuable lesson that could determine whether the team fails or whether an organization advances to the next level.
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Photo by Martin Adams on Unsplash
Culture & Religion
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