Evolutionary theory, in particular Richard Dawkins' arguments in 'The Selfish Gene', has always been used as support for egoism. In Simon Blackburn's work 'Ethics: A Very Short Introduction', he attempts to argue against this particular flavor of egoism as a way of defusing a threat to ethics. Dawkins' arguments are well-founded, with only one minor flaw. However, I find that though Blackburn succeeds at reconciling evolutionary theory and Dawkins with ethics itself, he does so interestingly in that he fails entirely in his intermediate purpose of arguing against the egoism that Dawkins presents.
Firstly, I will summarize the position Dawkins takes on egoism and genetics. His view is one of egoism at the lowest possible level, that everyone is selfish due to the nature of genes. He goes back to the first hypothetical replicator (Dawkins' own term), a molecule that could make copies of itself. This replicator would not have copied itself perfectly every time, and random copying errors over extremely large periods of time would have led to the formation and predominance of better and better replicators. The replicators that could reproduce most effectively survived to reproduce, while those that were less effective and efficient became extinct. In essence, each replicator does, even if without a conscious will, what is best for itself, and in doing so “lives on” in its descendents. Today, these replicators work along the same concepts – only under the names of DNA and natural selection. Since these replicators – and thus modern-day DNA – have the ultimate purpose of reproducing themselves, Dawkins claims that our ultimate purpose is for them to reproduce (Dawkins 12-20). And so at the lowest level, everyone is selfish because everyone's genes are functionally selfish, existing for nothing but themselves. Dawkins is careful to point out that this low-level genetic selfishness need not manifest itself in higher-level selfishness; indeed, apparent altruism on the individual level can often be explained as simply selfishness on the gene level.
[...] He states that “Genes are not selfish they just have different chances of replicating themselves in different environments” (Blackburn 38). However, in The Selfish Gene, this is exactly what Dawkins defines as being selfish (Dawkins 45). Dawkins takes great pains to point out that he is not anthropomorphizing, not using selfish in a personality sense since genes are not alive or conscious but strictly in a functional sense. Unfortunately, this is the brunt of Blackburn's argument against egoism. Everything he describes prior to this has been a setup, either directly or indirectly, for the simple yet seemingly profound statement that genes are not selfish. [...]
[...] One way Blackburn errs is by assuming a dichotomy of extremes (Blackburn 38). He forces his reader to choose between a society in which every individual is altruistic, and a society in which every individual is selfish. This is not realistic, by any means. Though he is correct in saying that a society made completely of altruists is more stable and well-off than one made entirely of selfish individuals, this is by no means the most stable society possible, nor is it realistic by any means. [...]
[...] The Selfish Gene itself is cited as an example of this confusion, in which the gene being selfish is extrapolated to the individual's psychology being selfish, and everything transcending selfishness can be attributed to some “strange miracle”. To point out how this is false, Blackburn states that a society composed entirely of altruists will fare much better than a society composed entirely of selfish individuals. In addition, he claims that the traits that individuals admire in each other are likely to be successful both for individuals and the society as a whole. [...]
[...] In either case, the selfishness is the product of mental processes, either conscious or unconscious. However, a gene, which is a being devoid of mental processes, may make the egoist hesitate. The retaliation is of course that since selfishness can be applied to the gene, egoism can as well but it is still entirely plausible that the egoist would be unwilling to accept this, citing some fundamental difference between the two. In this case, the argument would by necessity become more personal; important questions would include whether principles of egoism are applicable to bacteria and non- human animals. [...]
[...] genetic selfishness need not manifest itself in higher-level selfishness; indeed, apparent altruism on the individual level can often be explained as simply selfishness on the gene level. Blackburn's refutation is not to Dawkins specifically, but to evolutionary theory as a whole as a threat to egoism. Dawkins' argument is included as a part of this, though they are all quite closely related to each other. Thus, I will summarize Blackburn's entire refutation, which he conducts by trying to dispel three confusions (his own term; Blackburn 34). [...]
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