A Selfish Confusion

Recently in public discourse ‘selfishness’ has become a somewhat confused term.  I think that the word ‘selfish’ used to be more clearly delineated.  Due to works such as Richard Dawkins’ ‘The Selfish Gene’, the meaning of the word ‘selfish’ has become somewhat confused.  Today I am going to try and pull apart the difference between evolutionary selfishness and common selfishness.

It is not difficult to discern why Dawkin’s characterized genes as selfish.  Genes perpetuate at the individual level, therefore genes that allow the individual to survive perpetuate.  The genes that perpetuate themselves endure, and the genes that don’t perpetuate themselves… we don’t talk about those genes.

I would say that calling genes selfish is an analogy.  Selfishness, I think, is a characteristic of an agent.  Genes do not have motives or intentions, they succeed based on algorithmic principles.  A gene does not choose to be, it is only by chance that genes are the way they are (though for the most part it is not due to chance that genes perpetuate).

Agent selfishness, on the other hand, is someone making a choice to serve their own self interests at the expense of the group.  This decision is not necessarily algorithmically sound – the group will often turn on selfish individuals.  It is indeed quite possible that in many cases selflessness is algorithmically the better decision.

The problem is that the analogy seems to have overturned the original meaning – people first understand genetic behavior analogously using selfishness, and then turn around and think that when people act in algorithmically intelligent ways they are being selfish agents.

Thank you for reading,

Ryan Workman


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