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Why genes are not selfish and people are nice

In my latest book I suggest that if we want to put the world to rights we have to re-think all the big ideas that underpin our lives. Agriculture demonstrates in spades why this is so.

The world’s food supply needs re-thinking, absolutely and across the board. Partly, obviously, it’s a matter of what we do and how we do it – the practicalities of farming and growing, and also the processing (baking, butchering, brewing and all the rest) and the marketing; and, enveloping everything, food culture, which particularly means cooking.

But to achieve all this we cannot simply think and act ad hoc. Of course we need to set up new kinds of farms and shops and start cooking in different ways – but to ensure that the new ways of doing things are secure we need to create, or re-create, the right kind of economy: one that favours small farms and small businesses, as opposed to the kind we have now, which sweeps them aside. We need a different kind of science, to aid the crafts of which everyday life is composed – as opposed to the science that replaces human skill with big machines and industrial chemistry. We need different politics – governments which, as Abraham Lincoln put the matter, are “of the people and for the people”; not, primarily, an extension of the boardroom. Underpinning everything we need a different attitude to life – one built on conviviality and cooperation, and care for our fellow creatures, as opposed to the all-out, to-the-death, devil-take-the-hindmost, neodarwinian competition that is the basis of the modern neoliberal economy and of all present-day government policy. We need, in short, a new Zeitgeist. 

Though you might not guess it from the title, all this – the creation of a new Zeitgeist – is the subject of my latest book, Why Genes are Not Selfish and People are Nice. Here is the thesis in a nutshell:

In the basement of everybody’s mind, taken for granted, mostly unexamined, lie the ideas that form the Zeitgeist: the spirit of the age. If whose deep-seated ideas are sound, factually and morally, then we have a good chance of running our lives sensibly and convivially, and without destroying our fellow creatures, or wrecking the fabric of the world. If the deep ideas of the Zeitgeist are misguided, factually wrong and/or morally suspect, then we will not form good relationships with other people and are likely to wreck everything else.

The present Zeitgeist is horribly misguided. All the big ideas that inform our lives – personally, politically, economically, and as a biological species – are at least deeply suspect. Ideas that are totally opposite to those that now prevail seem far more likely to be right. The world is in such a mess that many a sober-sided intellectual has warned that the next few decades could be our last in a tolerable form. To put things right we have to dig down to the basement of our minds and re-think all the unexplored assumptions on which current strategies are based.

The first of these assumptions is that of materialism: the idea that the universe, including all living things, is just stuff — or as the Roman poet Lucretius put the matter, just “atoms and the void”. In modern, western thinking of the kind that now dominates there is no sense of transcendence: that there is more to the universe than meets the eye, or ever can meet the eye; and that this “more” includes an underlying or an in-built intelligence; and that the universe has an agenda, and purpose. This is what most people have intuitively believed through all of known history and there is increasing evidence from hard-nosed physics that consciousness is indeed built in to the fabric of the universe. Certainly, there is no reason to deny the idea of transcendence – and I stress “reason”.  Yet the modern materialists rule it out a priori.

Then there’s “scientism” — the belief that science is the only legitimate and indeed is the royal road to truth; everything that can be known or is worth knowing. Science is one of humanity’s greatest achievements and assets but over-belief in its insights is deeply pernicious. For science can deal only with particular kinds of question (it is, as as Sir Peter Medawar said, simply “the art of the soluble”). It cannot and does not tackle the key concept of transcendence — except of late to tell us that consciousness may indeed be part of the “stuff” of the universe. None of its conclusions are bedrock: all its theories are provisional, waiting to be knocked off their perch. Even maths, the great arbiter of scientific truth, always makes use of untestable assumptions. Of course, too, although its insights are pertinent to moral issues, science itself it has no moral content. Politicians who claim to be “science-led” and therefore modern merely demonstrate that they don’t know what science is.

Then there’s neodarwinism [but later, in The Great Re-Think, I coined the expression “metadarwinism” – meaning “beyond Darwin”]: the notion that life is driven by all-out competition, an in-built need and desire to come out on top, one long punch-up from conception to the grave. It just isn’t so. Competition is an inescapable fact of life but the essence of life, the sine qua non, is cooperation. All creatures must strive to survive and reproduce but the best way to achieve both is by cooperating. Out of neodarwinian competition has come the modern ultra-competitive global economy known as neoliberalism. Modern governments urge us above all to compete in the global market and the result is fraught and nasty – and in the end is inefficient. We would achieve far more by working together.

Then there is our anthropocentricity:  the idea that human beings are the only creatures that count: that all the rest is for our convenience. This conceit is reinforced by a mortal fear of anthropomorphism: at least from the 17th to the late 20th century biologists were not allowed to suggest that other animals think or feel emotion, because these refinements were deemed to be exclusively human. Other creatures, it was declared, are just machines.

These ideas and a few more define the prevailing attitude to life and to our fellow human beings. Since the world is seen simply as material stuff the only values taken seriously are those of the material kind. We are entitled to treat the fabric of the Earth simply as a “resource” – and our fellow creatures too, since they are just unfeeling machines. Since we are all locked in to the neodarwinian struggle, made formal in the neoliberal economy, we are all obliged to fight head-to-head to acquire us much stuff as possible in the shortest time and so become rich and dominate the rest. Modern science is telling us exactly how the world works, and modern science-based (“high”) technologies give us the power to do whatever we want. So we have the modern conception of “progress”: the process by which we compete to turn the resources of the Earth and of our fellow creatures into commodities to be sold for money so as to increase our wealth and our dominance.

What foul nonsense. Yet this is the sub-text, and often the principal, emphatic message, of all today’s “major” political speeches. If we want a world that’s fit for our own and other people’s children and grandchildren, and for our fellow species, then we have to re-think from first principles. We also need to dislodge the people who now run the world – which will be doubly difficult because they are kept in power by the very ideas that we now need to re-frame. The kind of ideas we really need –  which are more likely to be true — and the ways we can bring them to the fore, are the main thrust of my book.

Colin Tudge’s book, Why Genes are Not Selfish and People are Nice, is published by Floris Books, Edinburgh.