Monday, December 21, 2009

The Selfless Gene

Biology fascinates me. I love the work of Stephen Jay Gould who theorized how change in evolution happens at the edges, the margin, the fringe. He calls this ‘punctuated equilibrium”, and it explains how evolution doesn’t take place on a predictable, linear path but with unpredictable and dramatic bursts coming from the outer reaches of the species. The same can be said of the world of ideas and innovation.

Another biologist, Richard Dawkins, a brilliant communicator, created a lot of confusion when he called his 1976 book on evolution, ‘The Selfish Gene’. The book details the brutal efficiency of evolution, but the phrase itself has entered common usage to mean that human beings are genetically programmed for selfishness. It means nothing of the sort – and isn’t it great when research comes along that proves the exact opposite.

The NY Times reported last month that research into young babies demonstrates that we are born with an in-built instinct to help others. Before parents have even begun to teach the rules of social behavior, researchers saw kids as young as 12 or 18 months in small, selfless acts of kindness. This innate generosity and willingness to share and cooperate is unique to humans; even our closest ancestors have no interest in helping out a fellow chimpanzee unless there is something in it for them.

Researchers are quick to point out that there is ample evidence that selfishness plays a part in our make-up too. As one of the researchers puts it, “That’s why we have moral dilemmas, because we are both selfish and altruistic at the same time.”

These findings confirm what radical optimists already believe, and it’s nice to have some science to put in the back pocket.