Richard Dawkins is an evolutionary biologist. His very famous book "The Selfish Gene" (an international bestseller, translated into over 25 languages with more than a million copies) extends the explanation of evolution given by Charles Darwin by designating the gene, rather than the species, as the unit of natural selection.


If much has been written on his approach, causing heated discussions, it's because this book disrupts the traditional conceptions on humans and proposes a pretty simple explanation to human tensions. Richard Dawkins considers that the living been serves as a survival machine for what pilots them : the genes. This approach is revolutionary because it proposes to look at the person no longer as an entity on its own, but as a multitude of entities, the genes, each pursuing their somewhat uncertain goal. We would not be one person, but an association of many small programs that would give us the illusion of been one, of been oneself. Fascinating, isn't it?

His work received a huge response in the scientific as well as ethic and philosophic world because it enables us to better understand the complexity of life and the human person. In this view a person would be a kind of ecosystem housing genes that cooperate most of the time with each other to ensure their reproduction. But sometimes these genes conflict with the interest of the organism, at the expense of the individual, as it is the case with genetic disorders like mucoviscidosis.

A cat among the pigeons and a light shed on the living

The genius of Richard Dawkins vision also involves having reconciled the concept of "selfish genes" ―because the genes have only one goal, replication, and have thus a "selfish" nature― with its opposite: empathy, cooperation, sense of justice. Because all these qualities, also found in other species than humans, are all valid strategies that allow genes to reproduce. Altruism and purely personal interests are, therefore, not opposed.

Richard Dawkins has been vividly criticized for having taken a gene's-"eye" view to explain how altruistic or individualist behavior emergence in humans and other species. Many religious, but also atheists tied to traditional human-centrist dimension (the idea that human is, by nature, different from the rest of creation, that human is more special than the rest) were shocked by "the reduction of the noblest human's behavior, such as altruism, to a vulgar strategy developed by genes to breed". "Being reduced to the state of living being subject to the laws of life" was a dramatic fall for those who stood perched on the human-centrist pedestal.

Too bad they did not perceive the step that humanity had just crossed by abandoning this sin of pride that had cut us from the rest. By finding their place among the other species, human also found the means to feel part of a whole. Too bad also, they did not understand the crucial importance of this approach in the social sciences. By illuminating the origin of conflicts, injustices and human violence, this approach suggests, for the first time in human history, all kinds of rational and pragmatic solutions to reduce them. We could not begin to overcome our limitations without first understanding its origins. Many of these limitations that hold back us in our personal and collective development are surmountable; provided we give ourselves the means to take the necessary steps.

One slight note of caution: we support Dawkins' view on evolution but we do not support him in his crusade against religion. We think, as other evolutionists (including Frans de Waal) also do, that they are rather sterile and even counterproductive.

 

If we wish to build a society in which individuals cooperate generously and selflessly for the common good, we should not expect much of the biological nature. Let us try to teach generosity and altruism because our cooperative abilities are naturally limited. Being aware of the tyranny of genes will enable us to overcome it. (R. Dawkins, The Selfish Gene).

 

The refusal to acknowledge human nature is like the Victorians’ embarrassment about sex, only worse: it distorts our science and scholarship, our public discourse, and our day-to-day lives. (S. Pinker, The blank slate).

 


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