An Introduction to Evolutionary Ethics

By Scott M. James | Go to book overview

Part I
From “Selfish Genes” to Moral
Beings: Moral Psychology after
Darwin

You get a lot more with a nice word and a gun than with a nice word.

(Al Capone)

In the opening passages of The Selfish Gene, Richard Dawkins has us imagine a gangster (let’s call him Sonny) who managed to live a long and prosperous life in the Chicago underworld. Dawkins asks us to consider the kinds of qualities Sonny must have had to survive so long in such an environment. Well, we might reasonably guess that Sonny was not uniformly benevolent or generous or tenderhearted. At the very least, Sonny must have been tough. He must have been keenly aware of others’ loyalty. He must have been quick to spot deception and merciless with competitors. He must have been, according to Dawkins, “ruthlessly selfish” at the core. (Fans of The Sopranos will have no trouble getting the picture.) The point of Dawkins’ story, however, is that Sonny is our mirror: insofar as we’re prepared to ascribe these qualities to Sonny, we should be prepared to ascribe these same qualities to ourselves. We are, after all, survivors of our own rough neighborhood. Here’s how Dawkins explains it.

Our genes have survived millions of years in a highly competitive environment. But this was possible only because genes are self-serving. And creative. Along the way genes developed ingenious vehicles to ensure their survival and reproduction. Some of those vehicles are quite simple. Others verge on the miraculous. But simple or miraculous, the underlying idea is the same: the living forms we see around us – birds and bees, ferns and foxes – are, in the end, “gene machines.” And so it is with us: Human beings

-7-

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