CHAPTER 3
The elusiveness of altruism

Empirical evidence of altruism discovered by the Batson researchers will not convince sociobiologists. Their initial reaction is apt to be that it is not altruism in the ordinary sense that they are concerned with, but altruism in the biological sense. It is not a matter of actions that reflect concern for others, but of actions that threaten the reproductive prospects of the actor, while enhancing the reproductive prospects of others. However, we have seen this concern escalate into a vendetta against all semblance of altruism. Clearly the ordinary sense is at stake. Part of what is involved is the nature of understanding itself. The biological is supposed to provide a factual description of the way life actually is. References to selfishness, or to selfish genes for that matter, are only metaphors drawn from the ordinary meaning of selfishness and altruism. They are not to be taken literally. What the literal reality is, or whether it makes sense even to think in such terms, is an issue that is not normally considered. However, this issue of the nature and role of metaphor is crucial for unraveling what is at stake in treatments of altruism.


THE METAPHORIC NATURE OF THE SELFISH GENE

The power of Dawkins' portrayal of the selfish gene is due in large measure to the skill with which he develops this metaphor. His “biography of the selfish gene”1 represents a highly literate and imaginative account of reality. It is important to see that

____________________
1
Richard Dawkins, The Selfish Gene (London: Granada, 1978).

-57-

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