Biology For Liberals: Human Reciprocity and Its Evolution
UNTIL RECENTLY, IT was quite common to hear the claim that human nature was fundamentally selfish and disconnected from the common good. The genesis of this idea—at least in modern American times—can be traced back to the publication of Atlas Shrugged, by Ayn Rand, a 1,200 page novel that advocated the unfettered pursuit of self-interest as the organizing principle for society. Despite the fact that the book became a best-seller, not many critics and intellectuals took it or its thesis seriously. Who could possibly believe that a society based strictly on selfishness could work?
That skepticism was obliterated over the next several decades. One of the key blows was struck by Richard Dawkins, whose book The Selfish Gene, which appeared in1976, argued that the gene is the fundamental unit of natural selection and has only one imperative: successfully reproducing itself in competition with other genes. We (and other animals), as bearers of these “selfish” genes, will therefore carry those traits—and only those traits—that help these genes reproduce. Dawkins implied that this was all you needed to know to understand human nature, and the idea quickly led to an explosion of selfish gene-based explanations for every aspect of human behavior.
Then, in 1980, Milton Friedman, with his wife, Rose, published Free to Choose, a no-holds-barred polemic in favor of self-interested individuals making “rational,” unregulated decisions against anything that interfered with this process, especially government action. So, in a powerful conjunction of economics and evolutionary biology, Ayn Rand’s glorification of selfishness gained the imprimatur of serious science. Being selfish was just human nature and should not be fought. Indeed, any attempt to do so was bound to do more harm than good. Thus was the original reaction to Atlas Shrugged turned on its head. Who could possibly believe that a society based on anything other than selfishness could work?