Does self-preservation and the propagation of our genes drive selfish or collective behaviour?
Twice in recent days I have found myself stuck behind vehicles belching thick black smoke. The first vehicle was an ageing van in desperate need of a service. The second was a newer hatchback, tuned to extract the maximum performance from its diesel engine. The effect from both was the same, bathing every pedestrian, cyclist, and trailing vehicle in a dangerous fog.
What struck me about this was the irresponsibility. The lack of empathy from the drivers for their fellow citizens.
If I was being generous, I’d suggest the van was owned by a self-employed delivery driver. As this review of a role as a self-employed delivery driver on Indeed.com says:
“Recommended if you are single and in shared housing as you do not earn enough to help cover family costs.”
Given this, maintaining the van properly may be challenging. But what about the boy racer? I can understand the desire to have a fast car. I can’t understand the moral arithmetic that says my desire for a fast car is more important than the health of the people in my community.
Acting beyond self-interest
Richard Dawkins might have an explanation for this. Maybe the Boy Racer’s selfish genes have the best chance of propagation if he has a fast car? Or maybe he thinks it does. It feels like a somewhat dated symbol of virility and success now. Though that isn’t stopping me from spending money to polish up my own ageing sports car. Did someone whisper “mid-life crisis”?
The idea of the selfish gene though doesn’t rule out apparently altruistic behaviour, or contribution to the collective good. If it did, we wouldn’t have the roads on which to drive in the first place. As David Sloan Wilson pointed out in a talk for the RSA about his book, “This View of Life: Completing the Darwinian Revolution”, there may be no conflict between ideas of evolution focused on the individual and those focused on the survival of the collective. What we know is that over hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions of years, our branch of the primate tree has been different because we have co-operated more than we competed.
It is this simple evidence of the success of the world we have created through co-operation that makes me such a sceptic about more radical ideas of individualism. Like those of Ayn Rand, whom a friend told me they have been reading a lot recently.
Rand’s Objectivist philosophy has a few appealing parts for me. It is fundamentally materialist for a start. That doesn’t mean she advocated that we all own lots of stuff, but rather that we are all just stuff. Consciousness emerges from physics and biology, not the other way around. In line with this belief, Rand also rejected faith, and her followers have campaigned against the role of organised religion in government. For Rand, reason was the most important human quality. All of that, I could be on board with.
Where I start to have trouble with Rand’s philosophy is her extension of this idea into the need for absolute freedom. Rand advocated a form of laissez-faire capitalism that restricted any state interference in individual or corporate behaviour. That means no child labour laws, no minimum wage, and no clean air legislation.
Carrot and stick
As my experience on the road shows, voluntary co-operation is not enough to ensure ‘good’ behaviour by everyone in our expanded society. Unrestricted freedom may have worked when we lived in small tribes. Those who chose to act against the best interests of the tribe could do so, and the tribe might choose to shun them. As an individual there might have been little they could do to affect the well being of the rest of the tribe, and they might not have survived for long without its support. But that was their choice.
In a high tech metropolis of millions of people, this thinking doesn’t work so well. One person exercising their unrestricted freedom can cause enormous harm to others. A corporation even more so. Sometimes there will be people who, for whatever reason, are willing to operate to their own benefit and at the expense of others. The price of the continuing progress of society is that we work as a collective to reign those people and organisations in. I’m willing to accept some constraints on my freedom as a price worth paying.
Where this falls down is when large parts of society work against their own self-interest, and that of their children. One of the aspects of the Brexit debate that I struggled most with, is the propensity for people to vote to leave the European Union when it is so nakedly against the interests of their children. I know that many people may not agree with or accept this argument, and that’s their prerogative. But I know of cases where people, having been told by their adult children just how negatively Brexit will affect them, and been well-informed enough to see the argument, went on to vote for it anyway.
Likewise, some of the reactions to the COVID-19 lockdown. Some people’s outright refusal to accept the advice to the detriment of themselves and their children is hard to comprehend. It baffles me because it goes against everything I understand about evolved human behaviour. The only explanation I can find is one of disconnection.
Many of us seem to feel like we have given up too much freedom and control. This is why the Brexit message to ‘take back control’ was so powerful. Never mind that the Brexiteers were trying to reclaim power from the wrong people and the wrong institutions.
The UK is famously hyper-centralised, with vast amounts of power wielded from London. This power has often been expressed through a range of universal standards, be it for education, or healthcare. The effect is to try to make everyone in the UK part of the same tribe. The EU by contrast is inherently a tribe of tribes: the recognition of difference is built into its constitution. That reality has only been evidenced by the individual approaches taken by each country to respond to the coronavirus, including shutting their own borders.
I don’t think you can build a single tribe of 70m people. I think there are things that will bring us all together. There are shared beliefs, rules and needs that connect us. But I also think there is a lot of difference, and some of that difference is geographical. Try to collect us into a single tribe with its centre in London and we naturally feel disconnected. We are more likely to strain against laws and powers that are distant and faceless, be that by voting for disruptive choices, driving vehicles that poison the air, or ignoring guidelines to protect ourselves, our families, and our communities from infection.
If we bring the size of our groups down, connect those powers back to communities, people might feel a little more responsible for conforming to and indeed, reinforcing them.