Richard Dawkins: Our big brains can overcome our selfish genes

From a lecture by the Charles Simonyi professor of the understanding of science, given at the Royal Institution, in London
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The Independent Online

"What comes naturally" is a topic which Darwinism might be expected to illuminate. Darwinian natural selection gives us just about everything else in our nature – our bones, our organs, our instincts. If there is a reason to exclude our values, it had better be a good one.

The values of sustainability are important to all of us here, and I enthusiastically include myself. We therefore might hope that these too are built into us by natural selection. I shall tell you today that this is not so. On the contrary, there is something profoundly anti-Darwinian about the very idea of sustainability. But this is not as pessimistic as it sounds. Although we are products of Darwinism, we are not slaves to it. Using the large brains that Darwinian natural selection has given us, it is possible to fashion new values that contradict Darwinian values.

From a Darwinian point of view, the problem with sustainability is this: sustainability is all about long-term benefits of the world at the expense of short-term benefits. Darwinism encourages precisely the opposite values. Short-term genetic benefit is all that matters in a Darwinian world. Superficially, the values that will have been built into us will have been short-term values, not long-term ones.

But this is not a reason for despair, nor does it mean that we should cynically abandon the long-term future, gleefully scrap the Kyoto accords and similar agreements, and get our noses down in the trough of short-term greed. What it does mean is that we must work all the harder for the long-term future, in spite of getting no help from nature, precisely because nature is not on our side.

Humans are no worse than the rest of the animal kingdom. We are no more selfish than any other animals, just rather more effective in our selfishness and therefore more devastating. All animals do what natural selection programmed their ancestors to do, which is to look after the short-term interest of themselves and their close family, cronies and allies.

If any species in the history of life has the possibility of breaking away from short-term Darwinian selfishness and of planning for the distant future, it is our species. We are earth's last best hope, even if we are simultaneously the species most capable in practice of destroying life on the planet. When it comes to taking the long view we are literally unique. No other species is remotely capable of it. If we do not plan for the future, no other species will.

There is a tension between short-term individual welfare and long term group welfare or world welfare. If it were left to Darwinism alone there would be no hope. Short-term greed is bound to win. The only hope lies in the unique human capacity to use our big brains with our massive communal database and our forward simulating imaginations.

Brains, although they are the products of natural selection, follow their own rules, which are different from the rules of natural selection. The brain exists originally as a device to aid gene survival. The ultimate rationale for the brain's existence, and for its large size in our own species, is like everything else in the natural world, gene survival. As part of this, the brain has been equipped by the natural selection of genes with the power to take its own decisions – decisions based not directly upon the ultimate Darwinian value of gene survival, but upon other more proximal values, such as hedonistic pleasure or something more noble.

It is a manifest fact that the brain – especially the human brain – is well able to over-ride its ultimate programming; well able to dispense with the ultimate value of gene survival and substitute other values. I have used hedonistic pleasure as just an example, but I could also mention more noble values, like a love of poetry or music, and, of course, the long-term survival of the planet – and sustainability.