The Selfish Gene

Over the last two years I've started to think a bit more about the driver behind what motivates me to do what I do. There are the standard assumptions, such as money, ego, pride, and whatnot. But a trait that I've heard people associate with me more recently is selfishness; something I've actively tried to curtail by putting the needs and wants of others ahead of my own whenever possible. Most of us do have some degree of selfishness, but has mine become a key driver behind what I do both personally and professionally?

Richard Dawkins put out a book three decades ago called "The Selfish Gene", which explores selfishness and altruism through a gene-centred view of an individual or community. Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI said this book was "a classic example of science fiction" but, while reading through the chapters, I could see a great deal of the logic behind the arguments. The book is no more science fiction than any other tome on the human condition. People are people, and we are inherently selfish as a means of self-preservation. We help others who are related to us and, in addition to the genetic relations we're born with, we can create new relations cognitively. A completely logical statement1.

One particular quote that has stuck in my mind reads as follows:

A gene might be able to assist replicas of itself that are sitting in other bodies. If so, this would appear as individual altruism but it would be brought about by gene selfishness.

An interesting concept. This would mean that — potentially — a lot of the things that I've done for people without asking for anything in return were done with the expectation that I would get something in return nonetheless. These altruistic acts being more of an investment for future returns rather than a genuine desire to help people in some manner. Is this accurate? Have the things I've done for others really just been for myself?

There are a number of examples that people could point to over the last few months that would make this idea appear valid, and hundreds or thousands more over the last few years. Another philosophical argument is that there's no such thing as free will. If I am subconsciously acting selfishly and deluding myself to see these actions as "the right thing to do, just because", then am I truly in control of my decisions?

As with a lot of books that talk about humanity, there are a number of generalisations that can be seen in everyone we know. I'd like to think that while some of the good things I do for others may be with selfish intent, the vast majority are done because I want to help people accomplish goals. As silly as it may sound, the altruistic approach that was championed in real science fiction stories like Star Trek was incredibly influential while growing up and continues to be so. Making the world a better place one interaction at a time is something I strongly believe in. If this belief is just a delusion conjured up to defend my own selfishness, then what would that say about my ability to introspect and grow as a person? After nearly 40 years on this world, have I not overcome genetic programming?

Perhaps I'm overthinking this. Either way, it was an excellent read and one that I'll likely embark upon again at some point in the future.


  1. Mind you, just because something is logical does not necessarily mean it's always correct. Especially when humans are involved.