Unraveling Morality: The Interplay of Evolution, Economics, and Ethics

Jaseem Pasha, MD
May 24, 2022

While many equate evolution with the “survival of the fittest” mantra, there’s a lot more nuance to Darwinian theory, especially regarding behaviors like altruism, compassion, and cooperation. In his seminal work, “The Selfish Gene,” Richard Dawkins posited that genes, in their drive for self-replication, can sometimes encourage altruistic behavior if it benefits their propagation1. But how does this reconcile with corrupt behaviors we witness in specific economic systems?

Dawkins and the “Selfish” Gene

Contrary to what the title might suggest, “The Selfish Gene” is not an endorsement of selfishness in human behavior. Instead, Dawkins explores the idea that while genes may be ‘selfish’ in their quest for replication, this can lead to cooperative and altruistic behaviors at the organism level. In short, what might seem advantageous for a gene doesn’t necessarily manifest as selfishness in the organism[1].

Dawkins has not claimed that corrupt economic behaviors are directly tied to genetic programming. Instead, he delves into how complex behaviors can emerge from simple genetic imperatives.

Evidence of Altruism and Cooperation in Nature

Nature is replete with examples of altruism and cooperative behaviors:

  1. Symbiosis: Clownfish and anemones share a mutualistic relationship where both species benefit[2].
  2. Kin Altruism: Vampire bats have been observed sharing food with kin, especially when the latter is hungry[3].
  3. Reciprocal Altruism: Certain bird species take turns warning against predators, benefiting the group at potential individual risk[4].
The Greater Good Principle in Evolution

Across the biosphere, the principle of the greater good, or cooperation for mutual benefit, is evident. One can conclude that evolution itself could not have progressed without these principles. From single-celled organisms banding together to form multicellular organisms to complex animal social structures, cooperative behaviors have been vital to evolutionary success[5].

Akin to Religious Teachings

The greater good principle observed throughout the biosphere bears a striking resemblance to the Golden Rule found in many religious scriptures:

  • Bible: “So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you” (Matthew 7:12).
  • Quran: “And do good unto others as God has done good unto you” (Quran 28:77).
  • Bhagavad Gita: “One should never do that to another which one regards as injurious to oneself” (Gita 6:17).

While genes drive certain behaviors in organisms, equating these genetic motivations directly with complex societal behaviors, like economic corruption, is a leap. Evolutionary biology offers us insights into the origins of cooperative and altruistic behaviors, reminding us that the principles of the greater good are intertwined with the very fabric of life on Earth.

[1] Dawkins, R. (1976). The Selfish Gene. Oxford University Press.

[2] Szczebak, J. T., Henry, R. P., Al-Horani, F. A., & Chadwick, N. E. (2013). Anemonefish oxygenate their anemone hosts at night. Journal of Experimental Biology, 216(5), 970-976.

[3] Carter, G. G., & Wilkinson, G. S. (2013). Food sharing in vampire bats: reciprocal help predicts donations more than relatedness or harassment—proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, 280(1753), 20122573.

[4] Ridley, M. (2005). The Origins of Virtue. Penguin UK.

[5] Nowak, M. A. (2006). Five rules for the evolution of cooperation. Science, 314(5805), 1560-1563.

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