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Sustainability Doesn’t Come Naturally: A Darwinian Perspective On Values:

Professor Richard Dawkins

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Why do men want to be rich and powerful? Remember the parable of the moth and the candle. In our society wealth tends, on the whole, not to be translated into genetic success. We have to think our way back to a time when society might have been more like the West African pop singer who has been married 80 times and is married to his entire backing group. In our society wealth more usually buys things like Rolls Royces, although occasionally it can buy what it primitively used to, which would have been a harem and therefore reproductive success. It’s just another illustration of the parable of the moth and the candle.

Evolutionary psychologists have coined the term environment of evolutionary adaptedness, or EEA, for the set of conditions in which our wild ancestors evolved. There is a lot we do not know about the EEA. The fossil records are limited and some of what we guess about it comes from a kind of reverse engineering, from examining ourselves and trying to work out the sort of environment to which our attributes would have been well adapted. We know from fossil evidence that the EEA was located in Africa, probably but not certainly scrubby savannah land. It is plausible that our ancestors lived in these conditions as hunter gatherers, perhaps in something like the way modern hunter gatherer tribes live but, at least in earlier periods, with a less developed technology. We know that fire was tamed more than a million years ago by Homo erectus. We know various other things, but not a great deal. Whenever the exodus from Africa happened, and that is controversial, there has evidently been time for humans to adapt to local conditions. Arctic humans are very different from tropical ones, physically as well as culturally. There has been time for biochemistries to diverge in response to diet. Some peoples, perhaps those with herding traditions, retain into adulthood the ability to digest lactose, a sugar found in milk. In other peoples, only children can digest milk, and the adults suffer from an unpleasant condition – lactose intolerance. Presumably such differences have evolved by natural selection quite rapidly in different cultural environments. If natural selection has had time to shape our bodies and our biochemistries since some of us left Africa, it should also have had time to shape our brains and our values over the rather longer time that we consider our ancestors to have lived in the EEA.

Various researchers, notably Gordon Orians of the University of Washington, have been round the world on rather a cushy research assignment, looking at gardens – at what sort of gardens people like – to test the hypothesis that there is some sort of innate specification of the kind of world we like to live in, which is reflected in the gardens we cultivate. Is it something like the EEA? You might guess that an important virtue of a site for our ancestors to live in might have been the presence of water. Maybe this is why everybody loves a stream or pond in their garden, and why so many of us claim to be lulled to sleep by the reassuring sound of running water. There have been studies in which children have been asked to judge which kind of landscape they find most attractive, and Orians at least claimed that very young children are most drawn to East African savannah. I must say that I am a little bit sceptical of the inferences drawn from this, but you can see that it is an interesting kind of approach.

Fear of heights, which is not shown by steeplejacks building skyscrapers in New York, is shown by virtually all of the rest of us. Vertigo and the common dreams of falling might well be natural in species that spend a good deal of their time up trees, as our ancestors did. Fear of snakes and spiders and scorpions might, with benefit, be built into any African species. If you have a nightmare about snakes, it is just possible that you are actually dreaming about snakes, rather than symbolic phalluses.

Biologists have often noted that phobias against snakes and scorpions and heights are a lot more common than phobias against electric light sockets, motor cars and guns. Yet, in our temperate and urban world, snakes and spiders on the whole no longer constitute a source of ever-present danger, whereas electric sockets, guns and cars are potentially lethal.

It is notoriously hard to persuade drivers to slow down in a fog, or refrain from tailgating at high speed. The economist Armen Alchian has ingeniously suggested that we should abolish seat belts and instead compulsorily fix a sharp spear to all cars in the middle of the steering wheel, pointing straight at the driver’s heart. I think I would find it persuasive, whether or not for atavistic reasons. I also find intellectually persuasive the following calculation: if a car travelling at 80 miles per hour is abruptly slammed to a complete halt, this is equivalent to hitting the ground after falling from a New York skyscraper. In other words, when you are driving fast, it's exactly as if you were hanging from the top of the Empire State Building by a rope, sufficiently thin that its probability of breaking is equal to the probability that the driver in front of you will do something really stupid. I know almost nobody who could happily sit on a window sill up a skyscraper, and very few who do things like bungy jumping willingly. Yet almost everybody happily drives at high speed along motorways, even when they clearly understand in a cerebral way that the dangers are precisely equivalent. I think it quite plausible that we are genetically programmed to be afraid of heights, but not to be afraid of travelling at high speeds horizontally in wheeled vehicles, because our ancestors would never have met them.

Continuing our guesswork about our ancestors' world – the EEA – there is reason to think that we lived in stable bands, either roving and foraging like modern baboons or, perhaps, more settled in villages like present day hunter gatherers, such as the Yanomami of the Amazon jungle. In either of these cases, stability of grouping in villages or roving bands means that individuals would tend to encounter the same other individuals repeatedly through their lives. Seen through Darwinian eyes, this could have had important consequences for the evolution of our values. In particular it might help us to understand why, from the point of view of our genes, we are so absurdly nice to each other and I shall be referring back to that in a moment.

I now finally want to come to sustainability itself and the values that might encourage it. From a Darwinian point of view, the problem with sustainability is this: sustainability is all about long-term benefits of the world or of the ecosystem at the expense of short-term benefits. Darwinism encourages precisely the opposite values. Short-term genetic benefit is all that matters in a Darwinian world. Superficially, the values that will have been built into us will have been short-term values not long-term ones.

People of goodwill such as, I suspect, everybody in this room, are rightly preoccupied with sustainability, with renewable resources, with taking the side of the future against short-term private gain. Not surprisingly, the rhetoric of such people tends to place nature on a pedestal, where every prospect pleases and only man is vile. For reasons we have just seen, alas, it is not like that, quite the contrary. But as I said at the outset, this is not a reason for despair, nor does it mean that we should cynically abandon the long-term future, gleefully scrap the Kyoto Accords and similar agreements, and get our noses down in the trough of short-term greed. What it does mean is that we must work all the harder for the long-term future, in spite of getting no help from nature, precisely because nature is not on our side.

There is a confusion here with another strand of rhetoric – that of the noble savage. Tribal, so-called primitive, peoples have been thought to be in tune with nature, conserving stocks for the future, taking only what they need, living in harmony with the land, respecting their prey even as they kill them. This rhetoric falls foul of the facts. Unfashionable though it may be to say so, it is looking more and more likely, for example, that the magnificent Pleistocene megafauna of North America died out as a direct consequence of the arrival, perhaps some 13,000 years ago, of hunter gatherers, who had walked across what was then the Bering land bridge. Primitive agriculture too tends to be of the slash and burn variety, which is the very opposite of sustainable, the very opposite of forward-looking.

Humans are no worse than the rest of the animal kingdom. We are no more selfish than any other animals, just rather more effective in our selfishness and therefore more devastating. All animals do what natural selection programmed their ancestors to do, which is to look after the short-term interest of themselves and their close family, cronies and allies. If any species in the history of life has the possibility of breaking away from short-term Darwinian selfishness and of planning for the distant future, it is our species. We are earth's last best hope, even if we are simultaneously the species most capable in practice of destroying life on the planet. When it comes to taking the long view we are literally unique. No other species is remotely capable of it. If we do not plan for the future, no other species will.

In the 1950s when it was becoming fashionable to worry about over-population and pollution, ecologists talked about prudent predators. Human fisheries, whale fisheries and so on, would ideally protect future stocks by banning, say, small-mesh nets. Wholesale slaughter of whales, at least theoretically, was supposed to be replaced by carefully managed cropping. Those 1950's ecologists thought that wild predators were equally prudent conservationists. They thought wild predators didn't over-hunt their prey. They called them 'prudent predators.' Nobody was suggesting that these prudent predators were consciously or deliberately foresightful, in the way that human conservationists are, or can be. So it had to be done by some kind of natural selection, and the name 'group selection' was used. Those groups or species whose individuals single-mindedly pursued prey stocks to extinction would themselves go extinct. The world would be left with those groups or species whose individuals behaved, albeit unconsciously, in a prudent, conservationist, far sighted, sustainable way. It is a pity, and I wish it were otherwise, but group selection models don't work. Differential group survival obviously happens, in the trivial sense that some groups go extinct and others survive, but there is no evidence that any form of group selection drives evolution. Group selection is based on no coherent theory. The only coherent theory of adaptation we have is the neo-Darwinian theory of differential survival of replicators, usually genes in gene pools. Any other kind of Darwinism, if it is to work at all, must substitute a true replicator for the gene. The 'meme', for example, has been suggested as the cultural analogue of the gene. There could, at least in theory be a meme-based version of Darwinism. Memes, like genes, are true replicators. But I shall say no more about memes today. Groups and species are not replicators.

To see why the idea of prudent predators is theoretically unsound, imagine that a race of prudent predators somehow managed to come into existence. Each individual in the population restrains itself from over-hunting the food supply. It sacrifices its own short-term gain in the interests of a sustainable long-term supply for the species. Now imagine what will happen if a single mutant arises who ignores long-term sustainability and instead goes all out for short-term gain. Whose genes will spread through the population – the genes of the selfish exploiter or the genes of a typical member of the prudent majority? You can see the answer, and mathematical models confirm it. The majority will soon cease to be a majority. In the jargon of our subject, prudent predator is not an evolutionarily stable strategy.

I suppose I should mention here that there is a workable modern theory which calls itself group selection, but it isn't true group selection at all. It is something very different, masquerading under the name group selection. The so-called 'new' group selection is a hamfisted way of re-expressing the well established Darwinian theories of kin selection and reciprocation, which we have had for a long time. We have long understood that natural selection can favour genes that make individuals look after their close kin, who statistically share the same genes, or will look after unrelated individuals with whom they can build up relationships of mutual back scratching. That is not group selection, and it certainly does not provide a satisfactory theory of prudent predators.

There is a tension between short-term individual welfare and long term group welfare or world welfare. If it were left to Darwinism alone there would be no hope. Short-term greed is bound to win. The only hope lies in the unique human capacity to use our big brains with our massive communal database and our forward simulating imaginations. This is what the Kyoto Accords and similar initiatives are all about. To a Darwinist it is not surprising that it is so hard to get agreement in support. It is not good enough, of course, to just write down a prescription for the future of the world as though we were a benevolent dictator, with the power to make things happen. Alas, we are not a benevolent dictator, and even dictators who start off benevolent seldom remain so. We seem to be stuck with some sort of democracy and we had better make the most of it.

To resolve the tension between short-term and long-term interests is hard. How do you get people – millions and millions of mostly nice (but not overwhelmingly nice), people, somewhat altruistic (but not very altruistic), people – to agree to forgo some of their own short-term gains and do something about the long-term future of the world? As a leader, assuming you do not have dictatorial powers, how do you persuade people and still get elected next time around? Two connected theoretical frameworks are often invoked, known as ‘The Tragedy of the Commons’ and ‘The Prisoner’s Dilemma’, from which lessons can be drawn. I haven’t time to explain these, so must hope that they are sufficiently well known under these names.

The optimal, or more strictly called evolutionarily stable or collectively stable, individual strategies for prospering in a many person Prisoner’s Dilemma game have been much studied. Under some conditions a limited form of altruism can prosper in a fundamentally selfish world. It is also interesting to think of mega-strategies that a government might employ for engineering the rules of the game in the right direction – engineering the game in such a way that individual players are more likely to prosper from their own forward looking altruism.

Taxes are a good example. Nobody likes paying taxes, but most of us recognise them as necessary. We pay them as a necessary evil – a tithe on our own short-term selfish gains in the interests of society as a whole, and, we hope the long-term future. Even if we have no children we recognise, as a purely Darwinian machine would not, the long-term desirability of educating the children of our society. We want to live in a nation that educates its young and cares for its old, so we pay our taxes even though we may grumble as we do so. What we find much harder – I speak for myself, but I have never heard anyone dissent – is the thought that we are paying our taxes and somebody else is not. We are deeply indignant at what we perceive as unfairness. I think this sensitivity to unfairness is probably another of the fundamental values built into us primitively. Most of us do not too much mind giving up some selfish benefit for the future benefit of the community, so long as we can be reassured that the system is fair and is being properly enforced, so that others are not getting away with failing to play their part.

The same is true of the Tragedy of the Commons. All the cattle owners know that if too many cattle are placed on the common land, overgrazing will lead to erosion and starvation. All individuals can see that it would be better if they all showed restraint, and rationed their use of the common land. The Tragedy of the Commons is that the benefit of cheating accrues to the individual who does the cheating and him alone, but the cost of cheating is borne by everybody equally, not just the cheat but everybody else too. So, in a world of voluntary restraint and no policing, cheating unfortunately makes sense. If you rely on voluntary rationing somebody will break the convention and in this case put too many cattle out on the common. What honest participants in the tragedy of their commons crave is strong policing to punish cheats. The only alternative is fencing. Divide the land up, so that each individual farmer has his own small plot and that way the costs of overgrazing are borne by the individual overgrazer just as exclusively as the benefits of grazing. This is ultimately why the majority of farmland is fenced and it is, incidentally, why territoriality is so common in the animal kingdom as well. It is the tragedy of the sea and of the atmosphere that they cannot be fenced in this way. So whales are hunted to extinction. Greenhouse gases are spewed out, to the immediate benefit of the industries doing the spewing, but the costs are shared equally by everybody.

I began by saying that Darwinism was not friendly to the values of sustainability. To the extent that our values stem from the Darwinian selection of our ancestors, this sounds like a pessimistic conclusion. The only solution to the problem of sustainability is long-term foresight, and long-term foresight is something that Darwinian natural selection does not have. I have said that hope lies in a uniquely human capacity for foresight. But how, you might ask, do we manage to have foresight given that we ourselves are products of Darwinian natural selection, which favours only short-term gain? Some people have even complained at what they see as an inconsistency in my position. How can I on the one hand say that we are the products of Darwinian selection of selfish genes, which is incorrigibly shortsighted, yet at the same time say that salvation lies in humanity’s capacity for looking far ahead?

The answer lies in the fact that brains, although they are the products of natural selection, follow their own rules, which are different from the rules of natural selection. This is obvious in the case, for example, of contraception. Contraception is clearly anti-Darwinian. It would be hard to imagine anything more anti-Darwinian than contraception. Yet we do it. The brain is big enough to over-ride the genes in this case. The brain exists originally as a device to aid gene survival. The ultimate rationale for the brain’s existence, and for its large size in our own species, is like everything else in the natural world, gene survival. As part of this, the brain has been equipped by the natural selection of genes with the power to take its own decisions – decisions based not directly upon the ultimate Darwinian value of gene survival, but upon other more proximal values, such as hedonistic pleasure or something more noble. It was Darwinian selection of genes that built into our brains values such as hedonistic pleasure, orgasm, enjoyment of a sweet taste, or determination to kill oneself in a Jihad – also obviously an un-Darwinian act. It is a manifest fact that the brain – especially the human brain – is well able to over-ride its ultimate programming; well able to dispense with the ultimate value of gene survival and substitute other values. I have used hedonistic pleasure as just an example, but I could also mention more noble values, like a love of poetry, or music, and of course the long-term survival of the planet – and sustainability.

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Sustainability Doesn’t Come Naturally: A Darwinian Perspective on Values: