Natural selection and species self-destruction

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Late in The Greatest Show on Earth, Richard Dawkins reiterates a key point from his earlier book The Selfish Gene: namely, that there is nothing in natural selection to prevent a species from engaging in behaviour that is profoundly self-destructive in the long run. As he evocatively puts it:

“But, the planning enthusiast will protest, when all the lions are behaving selfishly and over-hunting the prey species to the point of extinction, everybody is worse off, even the individual lions that are the most successful hunters. Ultimately, if all the prey go extinct, the entire lion population will too. Surely, the planner insists, natural selection will step in and stop that happening? Once again alas, and once again no. The problem is that natural selection doesn’t ‘step in,’ natural selection doesn’t look into the future, and natural selection doesn’t choose between rival groups. If it did, there would be some chance that prudent predation could be favoured. Natural selection, as Darwin realized much more clearly than many of his successors, chooses between rival individuals within a population. Even if the entire population is diving to extinction, driven down by individual competition, natural selection will still favour the most competitive individuals, right up to the moment when the last one dies. Natural selection can drive a population to extinction, while constantly favouring, to the bitter end, the competitive genes that are destined to be the last to go extinct.” (p.389 hardcover)

The natural response to reading such a passage is to consider how it applies to human beings. A superficial reading is a dangerous one, as Dawkins describes at length in The Selfish Gene. It is possible for human beings to plan and to avoid the kind of deadly spiral he describes; it simply isn’t an inevitable product of evolution that we will do so. Probably without realizing it, Dawkins uses a terrible example to try to illustrate this human capability. He cites the “quotas and restrictions,” limitations on gear, and “gunboats patrol[ling] the seas” as reasons for which humans are “prudent predators” of fish. Of course, we are anything but and are presently engaged in a global industrialized effort to smash all marine ecosystems to dust. Nevertheless, the general capability he is alluding to could be said to exist.

In many key places, we need to accomplish what Dawkins wrongly implies we have achieved with fishing: create systems of self-restraint that constrain selfish behaviour on the basis of artificial, societal sanctions. Relying upon the probabilistic force of natural selection simply won’t help us, when it comes to problems like climate change. So far, our efforts to craft such sanctions (which would probably include ‘positive’ elements such as education) have been distinctly unsuccessful.

Perhaps if people could grasp the fact that there is nothing in nature – and certainly nothing supernatural – to protect humanity from self-destruction, they will finally take responsibility for the task themselves. The blithe assumption that a force beyond us will emerge to check the excesses of our behaviour is dangerously wrong. Now, if only people could show some vision and resolve and set about in rectifying the most self-destructive traits of our species, from indifference about the unsustainable use of resources to lack of concern about the destructive accumulation of wastes. In this task, we actually have an advantage in the existence of states that exist largely to constrain individual behaviour. The kind of behaviours that produce the self-destructive spiral in Dawkins’ lions can potentially averted by putting their human equivalents into the shackles of law.

Author: Milan

In the spring of 2005, I graduated from the University of British Columbia with a degree in International Relations and a general focus in the area of environmental politics. In the fall of 2005, I began reading for an M.Phil in IR at Wadham College, Oxford. Outside school, I am very interested in photography, writing, and the outdoors. I am writing this blog to keep in touch with friends and family around the world, provide a more personal view of graduate student life in Oxford, and pass on some lessons I've learned here.

8 thoughts on “Natural selection and species self-destruction”

  1. One can hardly argue with your eloquent statements and with Darwin’s dramatic portrayal of the way of nature. Humans have taken this process one step further as they plan to destroy competition as fast a s possible. Sometimes, even a perceived threat is enough to act aggressively. This was clearly demonstrated for me in Tibet. The Chinese “liberators and modernizers” are simply invaders with their own agenda and selfish needs.

  2. The kind of behaviours that produce the self-destructive spiral in Dawkins’ lions can potentially averted by putting their human equivalents into the shackles of law.

    Wouldn’t promoting economic growth – in a carbon unconstrained way – be the most serious of these behaviours?

    If so, should the law be set up to suppress businesspeople and the politicians who support them?

  3. [S]hould the law be set up to suppress businesspeople and the politicians who support them?

    No, for both ethical and pragmatic reasons. Private enterprise produces many of the things that enrich human life: from travel to nice cameras. What the law needs to suppress is greenhouse gas emissions (among other things) and business models and practices that rely on their unconstrained emission.

    We need to find a way of sustaining human civilization while not crashing up against the physical limits of the natural world.

  4. This is getting to the first principle justification of government – to protect a common good. We’ve sorta figured that out by now for things like roads (oops, bike paths too!), hospitals, national defence, etc. The issue with climate change is not just about realizing the need to avoid free-ridership and protect the common good. .. its about applying those ideas to something so big, so international, so intergenerational, so redistribute, that the challenge is much greater. (Didn’t someone a while ago post a list of reasons why this problem confounds our systems more so than others?)

  5. One of the trickiest things about climate change is that many activities that cause it are otherwise laudable. Economic development raises living standards and can reduce extreme poverty; travel enriches lives and may foster global citizenship and tolerance; it’s nice to live in houses that are a pleasant temperature all the time; etc, etc.

    In many cases, thrift and simplicity aren’t obvious virtues in and of themselves.

    That’s what makes climate change seem like a cruel trick for those who believe in a benevolent deity.

  6. “Joseph Schumpeter was one of the few intellectuals who saw business straight. He regarded business people as unsung heroes: men and women who create new enterprises through the sheer force of their wills and imaginations, and, in so doing, are responsible for the most benign development in human history, the spread of mass affluence. “Queen Elizabeth [I] owned silk stockings,” he once observed. “The capitalist achievement does not typically consist in providing more silk stockings for queens but in bringing them within the reach of factory girls in return for steadily decreasing amounts of effort…The capitalist process, not by coincidence but by virtue of its mechanism, progressively raises the standard of life of the masses.” But Schumpeter knew far too much about the history of business to be a cheerleader. He recognised that business people are often ruthless monomaniacs, obsessed by their dreams of building “private kingdoms” and willing to do anything to crush their rivals.”

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