According to the Selfish Gene theory, there is no meaning to life beyond the meaningless reproduction of genes: we are just survival machines for our genes.
I suggest that, notwithstanding the initially unpromising impression, the Selfish Gene theory, when taken in conjunction with the creativity thesis below, can be liberating, and can lend to constructing a meaning or purpose to life, bringing about peace, prosperity, care for the environment, and harmonious social coexistence.
The Main Premises
1. The Capacity for Creativity
To make the best use of the idea of the Selfish Gene we need to identify the most essential characteristic of humans and then explore the implications in terms of the Selfish Gene. I suggest that this characteristic is our capacity for creativity: namely, that should we exercise our will to do so, we humans are able to create our own resources, and to resolve political and interpersonal conflicts creatively, without the need to resort to aggression, predation or parasitism. This creativity is made possible by the capacity for knowledge processing; i.e., the capacity for the acquisition, application and transmission of knowledge. Within this context, having creative lifestyles means being engaged, for instance, in agriculture, manufacturing, research and services, as well as arts.
In genetic terms, it can be suggested that what has occurred in the 3,000,000 or 4,000,000 years since australopithecines has been a steady increase in the dominance of the genes which underpin creativity. Even now, there is no reason to assume that this process will stop. I suggest three interrelated reasons must have made this trend possible.
First, those humans who are creative will be able to cooperate, as they do not need to resort to aggressive, predatory, or parasitic behaviour in their dealings with other people (behaviour hereafter known as “the disruptive lifestyle”).
Second, because the creative lifestyle needs protection against the disruptive lifestyle, and because those with creative lifestyles can cooperate provided that they agree on certain morals (i.e., they can agree on how to define disruption), they can consequently build political power. In Knowledge Processing, Creativity and Politics (KPCP), I suggested that political power is itself an outcome of moral agreement and that, although ideologies define who can participate in political power, an ideological group will still rely on moral agreement to have political power.
Third, that those with the disruptive lifestyle cannot cooperate (unless they feign it and falsely profess “moral causes”) which, although possible and usually assumed to be commonplace, puts them in a precarious position. So perhaps the feeling that humans have, that good wins in the end, may not be just wishful thinking. Now if we are able to say that morality is possible because of certain genes that underpin creativity and that morality is needed for creativity to be viable, we can make two important inferences even at this early stage of the argument. First, that the best morality is what suits creativity best. Second, that morality and creativity may be a way of existence for certain moral or creative selfish genes.
2. Morality and Power
Although the curbing of disruptive behaviour by enforcing moral rules is a condition for maintaining the creative lifestyle, the definition of morality is not a straightforward matter. From the perspective of the Selfish Gene we should not expect that genes will aim at perfect morality. If genes aim at anything, it is for their reproduction by whatever means possible, whether we find that pleasing or repugnant. One such possible way is through semblance and manipulation, and this, added to our limited knowledge of what constitutes good moral rules or values, means that political power may be taken advantage of. This possibility would be more acute considering that power can offer access to a variety of resources. We should therefore expect that conflicts of interests and power struggles would be played out in the form of conflicting moral rules and values. Moreover, we should expect confusion, involving most aspects of morality, to be engendered not because of nescience necessarily, but because of the deliberate intent for manipulation and obfuscation.
I suggest that the whole of the political history and the political landscape we see today has resulted from evolving and adopting different methods whereby humans were able to decide upon the moral rules that should govern their behaviour and thus protect the creative lifestyle (see KPCP).
Had human beings not evolved from apes, they may have evolved liberal democracy right from the beginning, because liberal democracy can peacefully sort out the struggle for power. Alas, we are evolving apes, and that is why we failed and evolved religions and other ideologies instead. The whole of human history so far has been shaped in the wake of this failure. What will happen in the future depends on how far we can curb the remaining influential ideologies, mainly religious, and how far liberal democracy will be able to rid itself from the remaining relics of its ideological past (KPCP).
3. The Aesthetic Faculty
Part of the capacity for creativity is embodied in the aesthetic faculty that we enjoy along with many other animals. Within the evolutionary perspective, it can be suggested that the faculty for appreciating beauty is there to undertake at least two purposes. On the one hand, it is as a rule of thumb for detecting what is beneficial and therefore what enhances chances of survival. If this is the case, then we could also assume that natural selection must have favoured the evolution of this aesthetic faculty over other probable alternatives, such as a capacity for gathering and examining greater amounts of information. However, considering the amount of brain power this latter alternative would have needed–which would not have been available in the genealogy of humans or other animals–we can appreciate why natural selection would favour the aesthetic faculty. There is no doubt that even though the aesthetic faculty is modified in the human case by culture, it is biological. However, I would suggest that the role of the aesthetic faculty has, in the case of humans, expanded to involve aesthetic attachment to patterns and ideas that can capture a phenomenon succinctly. Here, it might be useful to recall what M. Gazzaniga (1988) dubs as the “interpreter’s mechanism”: that humans have an innate inclination to search for patterns in what they see and perceive. So, it can be argued that this “interpreter’s mechanism” might also be engaged in an automatic search for patterns of beauty, and perhaps this is one of the reasons why we have a love for music and poetry, as they involve patterns of notes and words.
On the other hand, aesthetics is a means for advertisement which is probably employed in two interrelated social arenas. First, sexual selection, which is widely examined and represented in the evolutionary psychology literatures. Second, the context of social selection. The idea here is that humans select each other not only for physical and mental capacities but also for moral qualities (KPCP). However, my hunch is that aesthetics is closely involved with morality. If this is true, then we should expect that, for instance, our selection of friends will not be dependent solely on assessing the moral implications of their actions. Such capacity, even if available, would not be very practical, as it would be time-consuming, and most people do not have moral criteria readily available to them, nor would it be apparent to them which moral criterion should be used to assess the category . As Antonio Damasio, based on his neuroscientific research, argues plausibly: contrary to what Kant assumed, being capable of a high degree of moral reasoning does not ensure moral action. Morality, for Damasio, needs emotional involvement.
My belief is that we depend on the judgement of beauty in the action of our social surroundings. In the sense that we observe that our would-be friends are not of the kind who may gratuitously hurt the feelings of other people, or make them feel inferior regardless of whether their subject deserves moral censure or not. So, if this is true, we should be able to find ourselves discounting the taking of moral stands in favour of a creative approach which will, as it were, keep a smile on the face of person who makes a blunder but who is still loveable.
Considering that we act in conjunction with emotions, we can assume, therefore, that the aesthetic sense must also be a kind of emotion, perhaps associated with the basic or primary emotions of interest and pleasure. We can therefore suggest that we may enjoy an emotional attachment to constructing ideas. What I am saying accords with Edward Wilson’s take on this matter. For him, one of the five criteria that distinguishes science from pseudoscience is economy: “Scientists attempt to abstract the information into the form that is both simplest and aesthetically most pleasing–the combination called elegance–while yielding the largest amount of information with the least amount of effort” (Wilson, 1998, p.57).
I am not claiming any authority in regard to aesthetics, however I find myself agreeing with Wolfgang Welsch and Darwin, at least on certain points. First, that the aesthetic sense or faculty must have originated before humans evolved. Second, there must be some emotion involved in aesthetics. As Welsch says: “Darwin, of course, did not yet know much about the nervous system, but interestingly he was aware that aesthetic sense does not arise from a specifically aesthetic capacity alone but rather originates in a more complex network, one also including emotional and intellectual components.” Third, we need not see the appreciation of aesthetics as a mere appreciation of utility, although it may have arisen in the context of utility. This approach apparently contradicts the utilitarian view that I suggested earlier. However, my suggestion that aesthetic appreciation may be a kind of “rule of thumb” leaves some part of aesthetics that does not fall under a directly utilitarian domain. Moreover, if we also assume that aesthetics, as a part of creativity, is a way of survival for certain selfish genes, then we may not suspect that every aesthetic choice a person makes must be motivated by conscious or unconscious utilitarian consideration.
Now let’s consider the implications of the Selfish Gene in the light of what has been said so far. The life of individuals is not central to Life. Human beings are just the survival machines for their genes. This can imply that all our values and feelings–sex, pleasure, or happiness–are means of manipulation instilled in us either by our own genes or by the survival machines of others’ genes. None of these values or feelings last, and they all end in the misery and pain of senescence and death, and while awaiting this, they aim at nothing but to reproduce their genes. Indeed, the Selfish Gene even undermines the commitment to one’s own self-interest, as this commitment usually aims at propagating our genes. This can make us despondent, considering that the whole business of reproduction is, in itself, meaningless. However, the Selfish Gene not only undermines the concepts that we may cherish, perhaps unwarrantably, but it can also cast doubt over some concepts in our lives that can have clearly undesirable effects. For instance, adopting the theory of the Selfish Gene as a worldview, we would no longer necessarily see the world as depicted by nationalists and racists, so this might undermine our commitment to these latter ideologies. If I am right in suggesting that human evolution is driven by the struggle between creativity against the primitive reliance on violence as a means for resolving the conflicts of interests, we can expect that creative people from different backgrounds and ethnicities will find greater affinities among themselves than with the psychopaths among their fellow co-ethnicities or co-races.
The Selfish Gene can also put some behavioural patterns under greater critical light, for example, suggesting to represent jealousy as a strategy for ensuring the reproduction of the gene that prescribes it will raise doubt about the moralistic tone in which jealousy is usually presented.
The Selfish Gene theory can also help us provide explanations to our religious interlocutors about the sources of their practices, and such explanations would therefore render these practices as meaningless, if not ridiculous. For instance, we can explain that sexual jealousy has taken a religious guise–particularly true of Islam–in the form of the demand of females for modesty and separation from males (i.e., the wearing of veils, the keeping to the home, and the obedience to men), and the Selfish-gene explanation therefore makes these actions unwarranted.
However, in the light of the idea of creativity, in combination with the Selfish Gene, we now have a better opportunity to expose and clarify some malpractices. For instance, we know that Islam has been associated with violence right from its earliest history. Because of this reliance on violence, the values that are promoted are those that attract warriors. Islam demands, in fact, suppressing through violence anyone who rejects Islam. Obviously, this licences individuals who may be intellectually dull but are mentally-and physically capable of violence to suppress intellectuals, and thus achieve a greater social status. This also means that the ones who can claim to be the most faithful to Islam and who are also prepared to use violence will conquer the moral person who has no pretence and is a free thinker, or doubtful.
Men are also allowed to practise polygamy in Islam. Warriors were also greatly privileged in the Islamic past by allowing pillaging of the conquered people and taking over their lands and womenfolk, as wives or sex slaves. This is a practice that continued for many centuries afterwards, and it may arguably have been reenacted again in Algiers and in Iraq. From both the genetic point of view and theoretically, Islam may be seen as encouraging the genes for violence and fanaticism. If this is true then we can expect less creativity from the Islamic world. However, I must add that the dreadful condition of the current Islamic world has more to do with Islam as an ideology than with the genetic composition of the population (see KPCP on how ideologies suffocate civilizations within a few generations, even before genetic makeup changes).
Beauty Is What Gives Us Meaning
Now let’s see which values that we place on various entities can survive the meaningless effect of the Selfish Gene. In contrast to all other entities, life as a phenomenon cannot only survive intact but may even appear more admirable. Just to think that some purposeless things, such as pieces of DNA or RNA–for no other reason apart from being able to reproduce themselves (for which most of them, rely on cannibalizing other nucleic acids or their products) can achieve this splendour–is more than amazing. To think that it is mainly some copying errors of the genetic material that lead to all this variation and richness of life also brings great admiration or even endearment.
This wonderment is bound to increase if we consider further that, as systematically argued by Plotkins, life is a manifestation of knowledge, and is discovered by means of natural selection. Bearing this in mind makes us consider that the beings of every species are the bearers of very specific knowledge, of their own environment and genealogy, accumulated through billions of years. Such consideration would only increase our appreciation for the value of each species, and the necessity of preserving each of them.
To move to our own species, we can note that our constitution and brain prepare us to discover knowledge systematically rather than heuristically in the way natural selection does. So here we are given a very good reason to admire humans as representing the tip of an extension of the genetic mass of the world, as this has resulted in an organism so passionately attracted to knowledge processing. This capacity is manifested in civilization and the impressive knowledge that has already been gained. This passion for knowledge is so strong that it defies any fears, as is exemplified in the exploration of space.
The Meaning of Life
The meaning that I suggest should be derived from our conception of human nature is that we can be creative and celebrate creativity, that we can let ourselves fall in love with the beauty of nature, be enchanted by the permutation of life, and enjoy the knowledge that we can derive from nature.
We are a part of nature and therefore a product of natural selection. We are equipped with the capacity to systematically and consciously discover knowledge, to which we may be attached aesthetically as well. We can satisfy this passion by applying ourselves to the cause of discovering greater knowledge.
For this to happen, however, we need society to promote creativity to the maximum. This aim should also bring about peace, as peace is a condition for creativity. This aim will also bring prosperity, as the seeking of creativity and the avoiding of disruptive behaviour would result in the preserving of what has already been created and would also allow a greater number of individuals to engage in creative activity. This shows why liberal democracy has flourished and even why the contribution to human civilization by the ancient Greeks is so disproportionately great in comparison to what other past civilizations offered. Seeking knowledge and creativity would also help in preserving the beauty of nature, because of the passion for beauty and the knowledge involved in the variation of biological entities of the world.
Of course the meaning suggested here may be seen as subjective in that we may be unable to confirm that we are endowed with respect and the feeling of wonderment for life. It may also be seen as subjective in the sense that to commit ourselves to creativity is not automatic. One will need to remind oneself of this option whenever he or she is uncertain about choices to be made.
However, we do not need a great many evidences to confirm the existence of the aesthetic faculty. It is translated into all kinds of arts that are involved in human life. So what remains to be done is to make a good case for the idea that admiration for life is underpinned by a sense of beauty (although this may remain as a matter of surmising, without a clear conclusion).
In regard to the subjectivity of commitment to the cause of creativity, we need to remember that human genealogy shows a clear preference to creativity, as evidenced in the increased brain size and dexterity of human beings. The fact that creative people are also seen as “sexy” may be the manifestation of this evolutionary trend. Perhaps another manifestation of the dominance of creativity may be the existence of people who may not be capable of violence.
As these discussions show, setting this meaning for life would not just be an idle exercise of contemplation. Nor would it be an arbitrary goal. Rather it is of great moral importance. It is obvious that almost all people, at least at some point in their lives, depend on their own or others’ creativity for their survival. Creative lifestyles, as noted before, are manifest in agriculture, animal husbandry, manufacturing, and in research and the services. Thus, promoting creativity and adopting it as the aim of life means promoting the well-being and prosperity of the greatest number of people. We can therefore say that the whole point of morality is to bring about the creative lifestyle. If morality is not possible without creativity then we can also assume that the best morality may be what brings about the best condition for creativity.
Two Possible Objections
An objection may arise regarding the implication of this ground for respecting human beings, which may be interpreted as setting less value on other living beings and some humans who are less fortunate in knowledge processing. The respect for the various permutations of natural selection involves respect for all creatures. However, we should also appreciate that we are a part of the food chain. We ourselves and our resources are attacked by other living organisms. For this we should use our best means to prevent attack without causing unnecessary damage.
Likewise, we should also realize that the whole of human evolution has taken place in the course of the struggle between conflicting lifestyles, particularly between predatory and parasitic lifestyle, on the one hand, and a lifestyle reliant on creativity, on the other hand. The opening or the niche into which humans have been evolving has favored the creative beings. The advantage of the creative being is not only manifest in being able to creatively obtain resources but also in their capacity to cooperate, as cooperation does not conflict with their lifestyles. This is the reason that we are more docile, and indeed we have a preference for creative individuals. It must also be one of most important reasons–if not the most important reason–that humans evolved a brain size four times as large as the earliest hominids. This evolution towards more creativity is bound to continue.
Perhaps, one day humans will become completely peaceful and gentle. Until then, however, many will suffer. It is possible that many peaceful and creative people will suffer at the hands of aggressors or those who have greater propensity to using violence. It is also possible that many with great physical and mental advantages for using violence may suffer as they restrain themselves not to use violence against some intelligent but selfish people.
In any case, knowing the nature of conflicts that we are facing, and knowing that we are vehicles of genes competing against their alleles in the gene pool, we can effect in ourselves an attitude of detachment and spectatorship. With such an attitude we can remove the sting from all-consuming ill-feeling and resentment, in case we were at the receiving/losing end in a conflict or competition. Perhaps, we may even be able to afford just monitoring ourselves and others, and “let the best gene win,” without caring so much about their fate, as long as we can preserve beauty of life and the earth, because perhaps this is what gives meaning to life.
Gazzaniga, M. (1998). The Split Brain Revisited, Scientific American, 279(1).
Dawkins, R. (1989). The Selfish Gene.
Welsch, Wolfgang. “Animal Aesthetics.”
Khurshid, Showan. (2006) Knowledge Processing, Creativity and Politics.
Plotkin, H. (1994). Darwin Machines and the Nature of Knowledge.
Wilson, E.O. (1998). Consilience
Damasio, Antonio. (1995). Descartes’ Error.