Tag Archives: How the Mind Works

What is your purpose in life?

steven-pinker-brownI’m currently reading Steven Pinker’s How the Mind Works. Very interesting book.

I thought this section quoted below on the gene-centred theory of evolution is enlightening. Many people interpret this idea wrongly. I know I did for 30 years – as I refused to read Dawkins’ The Selfish Gene thinking it was a justification fro a selfish society (see Dealing with Dawkins).

This is particularly relevant to the discussion of purpose.

But almost everyone misunderstands the theory. Contrary to popular belief, the gene-centered theory of evolution does not imply that the point of all human striving is to spread our genes. With the exception of the fertility doctor who artificially inseminated patients with his own semen, the donors to the sperm bank for Nobel Prize winners, and other kooks, no human being (or animal) strives to spread his or her genes. Dawkins explained the theory in a book called The Selfish Gene, and the metaphor was chosen carefully. People don’t selfishly spread their genes: genes selfishly spread themselves. They do it by the way they build our brains”. “By making us enjoy life, health, sex, friends and children, the genes buy a lottery ticket for representation in the next generation, with odds that were favorable in the environment in which we evolved. Our goals are subgoals of the ultimate goal o£ the genes, replicating themselves. But the two are different. As far as we are concerned, our goals, conscious or unconscious, are not about genes at all, but about health and lovers and children and friends.

The confusion between our goals and our genes’ goals has spawned one muddle after another. A reviewer of a book about the evolution of sexuality protests that human adultery, unlike the animal equivalent, cannot be a strategy to spread the genes because adulterers take steps to prevent pregnancy. But whose strategy are we talking about? Sexual desire is not people’s strategy to propagate their genes. It’s people’ strategy to attain the pleasures of sex, and the pleasures of sex are the genes’ strategy to propagate themselves. If the genes don’t get propagated, it’s because we are smarter than they are. A book on the emotional life of animals complains  that if altruism according to biologists is just helping kin or exchanging favors, both of which serve the interests of one’s genes, it would not really be altruism after all, but some kind of hypocrisy. This too is a mixup. Just as blueprints don’t necessarily specify blue buildings, selfish genes don t necessarily specify selfish organisms. As we shall see, sometimes the most selfish thing a gene can do is to build a selfless brain. Genes are a play within a play, not the interior monologue of the players.

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