Bad Biology & Its Adherents

Worth a read, how neoliberals’ ignorance of science allows them to wilfully misinterpret it to support their selfish pathologies, how social Darwinists are a fraud and chimps like to hug, (the author is rather too rosy in his views of some historic leaders but those are tangental items anyway to his main points). (ht2 James)

How bad biology killed the economy

An unnatural culture of greed and fear has brought the global economy to its knees. We need to start playing to our pro-social strengths, says Frans de Waal

The CEO of Enron – now in prison – happily applied ‘selfish gene’ logic to his human capital, thus creating a self-fulfilling prophecy. Assuming that the human species is driven purely by greed and fear, Jeffrey Skilling produced employees driven by the same motives. Enron imploded under the mean-spirited weight of his policies, offering a preview of what was in store for the world economy as a whole.

An avowed admirer of Richard Dawkins’ gene-centric view of evolution, Skilling mimicked natural selection by ranking his employees on a one-to-five scale representing the best (one) to the worst (five). Anyone with a ranking of five got axed, but not without first having been humiliated on a website featuring his or her portrait. Under this so-called ‘Rank & Yank’ policy, people proved perfectly willing to slit one another’s throats, resulting in a corporate atmosphere marked by appalling dishonesty within and ruthless exploitation outside the company.

The deeper problem, however, was Skilling’s view of human nature. The book of nature is like the Bible: everyone reads into it what they like, from tolerance to intolerance and from altruism to greed. But it’s good to realise that, if biologists never stop talking about competition, this doesn’t mean that they advocate it, and if they call genes selfish, this doesn’t mean that genes actually are. Genes can’t be any more ‘selfish’ than a river can be ‘angry’ or sun rays ‘loving’. Genes are little chunks of DNA. At most, they are self-promoting, because successful genes help their carriers spread more copies of themselves.

Like many before him, Skilling had fallen hook, line and sinker for the selfish-gene metaphor, thinking that if our genes are selfish, then we must be selfish, too. He can be forgiven, however, because even if this is not what Dawkins meant, it is hard to separate the world of genes from the world of human psychology if our terminology deliberately conflates them.

Keeping these worlds apart is the greatest challenge for anyone interested in what evolution means for society. Since evolution advances by elimination, it is indeed a ruthless process. Yet its products don’t need to be ruthless at all. Many animals survive by being social and sticking together, which implies that they can’t follow the right-of-the-strongest principle to the letter: the strong need the weak. This applies equally to our own species, at least if we give humans a chance to express their cooperative side. Like Skilling, too many economists and politicians ignore and suppress this side. They model human society on the perpetual struggle that they believe exists in nature, which is actually no more than a projection. Like magicians, they first throw their ideological prejudices into the hat of nature, then pull them out by their very ears to show how much nature agrees with them. It’s a trick for which we have fallen for too long. Obviously, competition is part of the picture, but humans can’t live by competition alone.

I look at this issue as a biologist and primatologist. One may feel that a biologist should not stick his nose into public policy debates, but since biology is already part of it, it is hard to stay on the sidelines. Lovers of open competition can’t resist invoking evolution. The e-word even slipped into the infamous ‘greed speech’ of Gordon Gekko, the corporate raider played by Michael Douglas in the 1987 movie Wall Street: “The point is, ladies and gentleman, that ‘greed’ – for lack of a better word – is good. Greed is right. Greed works. Greed clarifies, cuts through and captures the essence of the evolutionary spirit.”

The evolutionary spirit? In the social sciences, human nature is typified by the old Hobbesian proverb Homo homini lupus (‘Man is wolf to man’), a questionable statement about our own species based on false assumptions about another species. A biologist exploring the interaction between society and human nature isn’t doing anything new. The only difference is that, instead of trying to justify a particular ideological framework, the biologist has an actual interest in the question of what human nature is and where it came from. Is the evolutionary spirit really all about greed, as Gekko claimed, or is there more to it?

This line of thinking does not just come from fictional characters. Listen to David Brooks in a 2007 New York Times column that made fun of social government programmes: “From the content of our genes, the nature of our neurons and the lessons of evolutionary biology, it has become clear that nature is filled with competition and conflicts of interest.” Conservatives love to believe this, yet the supreme irony of this love affair with evolution is how little most of them care for the real thing.

In a recent presidential debate, no fewer than three Republican candidates raised their hand in response to the question: “Who doesn’t believe in evolution?” American conservatives are social Darwinists rather than real Darwinists. Social Darwinism argues against helping the sick and poor, since nature intends them either to survive on their own or perish. Too bad if some people have no health insurance, so the argument goes, so long as those who can afford it do. This year, senator Jon Kyl of Arizona went one step further – causing an outcry in the media and protests in his home state – by voting against coverage of maternity care. He himself had never had any need for it, he explained.

The competition-is-good-for-you logic has been extraordinarily popular ever since Reagan and Thatcher assured us that the free market would take care of all of our problems. Since the economic meltdown, this view is obviously not so hot anymore. The logic may have been great, but its connection to reality was poor. What the free-marketeers missed was the intensely social nature of our species. They like to present each individual as an island, but pure individualism is not what we have been designed for. Empathy and solidarity are part of our evolution – not just a recent part, but age-old capacities that we share with other mammals.

Many great social advances – democracy, equal rights, social security – have come about through what used to be called ‘fellow feeling’. The French revolutionaries chanted of fraternité, Abraham Lincoln appealed to the bonds of sympathy and Theodore Roosevelt glowingly spoke of fellow feeling as “the most important factor in producing a healthy political and social life”.

The ending of slavery is particularly instructive. On his trips to the south, Lincoln had seen shackled slaves, an image that kept haunting him, as he wrote to a friend. Such feelings motivated him and many others to fight slavery. Or take the current US healthcare debate, in which empathy plays a prominent role, influencing the way in which we respond to the misery of people who have been turned away by the system or lost their insurance. Consider the term itself – it is not called health ‘business’ but health ‘care’, thus stressing human concern for others.

Moral primates?

Human nature obviously can’t be understood in isolation from the rest of nature, and this is where biology comes in. If we look at our species without letting ourselves be blinded by the technical advances of the past few millennia, we see a creature of flesh and blood with a brain that, albeit three times larger than a chimpanzee’s, doesn’t contain any new parts. Superior our intellect may be, but we have no basic wants or needs that cannot also be observed in our close relatives. Like us, they strive for power, enjoy sex, want security and affection, kill over territory and value trust and cooperation. Yes, we use cellphones and fly aeroplanes, but our psychological make-up is essentially that of a social primate.

Without claiming other primates as moral beings, it is not hard to recognise the pillars of morality in their behaviour. These pillars are summed up in our golden rule, which transcends the world’s cultures and religions. “Do unto others as you would have them do to you” brings together empathy (attention to others’ feelings) and reciprocity (if others follow the same rule, you will be treated well). Human morality could not exist without empathy and reciprocity – tendencies found in our fellow primates.

After one chimpanzee has been attacked by another, for example, a bystander will go over to embrace the victim gently until he or she stops yelping. The tendency to console is so strong that Nadia Kohts, a Russian scientist who raised a juvenile chimpanzee a century ago, said that if her charge had escaped to the roof of her house, there was only one way to get him down. Holding out food would not do the trick; the only way would be for her to sit down and sob, as if she were in pain. The young ape would rush down from the roof to put an arm around her. The empathy of our closest relative exceeds its desire for a banana.

Consolation has been studied extensively based on hundreds of cases, as it is a common, predictable behaviour among apes. Similarly, reciprocity is visible when chimpanzees share food specifically with those who have recently groomed them or supported them in power struggles. Sex is often part of the mix. Wild males have been observed to take great risk raiding papaya plantations to obtain the delicious fruits for fertile females in return for copulation. Chimps know how to strike a deal.

There is also evidence for pro-social tendencies and a sense of fairness. Chimpanzees voluntarily open a door to give a companion access to food, and capuchin monkeys seek rewards for others even if they themselves gain nothing from it. We demonstrated this by placing two monkeys side by side: separate, but in view. One of them needed to barter with us using small plastic tokens. The critical test came when we offered them a choice between two differently coloured tokens with different meanings: one token was ‘selfish’, the other ‘pro-social’. If the bartering monkey picked the selfish token, it received a small piece of apple for returning it, but its partner got nothing. The pro-social token, on the other hand, rewarded both monkeys equally at the same time. The monkeys developed an overwhelming preference for the pro-social token.

We repeated the procedure many times with different pairs of monkeys and different sets of tokens, and found that the monkeys kept picking the pro-social option. This was not based on fear of possible repercussions, because we found that the most dominant monkeys (who have least to fear) were in fact the most generous. More likely, helping others is self-rewarding in the same way that humans feel good doing good.

In other studies, primates will happily perform a task for cucumber slices until they see others being rewarded with grapes, which taste so much better. They become agitated, throw down their measly cucumbers and go on strike. The cucumber has become unpalatable simply as a result of seeing a companion get something better. I have to think of this reaction each time I hear criticism of the bonuses on Wall Street.

Don’t these primates show the first hints of a moral order? Many people, however, prefer their nature ‘red in tooth and claw’. There is never any doubt about continuity between humans and other animals with respect to negative behaviour: when humans maim and kill each other, we are quick to call them ‘animals’, but we prefer to claim noble traits for ourselves. When it comes to the study of human nature, however, this is a losing strategy because it excludes about half of our background. Short of divine intervention, this more attractive side of our behaviour is also the product of evolution, a view increasingly supported by animal research.

Everyone is familiar with the way mammals react to our emotions and the way we react to theirs. This creates the sort of bond that makes millions of us share our homes with cats and dogs rather than iguanas and turtles. The latter are just as easy to keep, yet lack the empathy that we need to get attached.

Animal studies into empathy are on the rise, including studies into how rodents are affected by the pain of others. Laboratory mice become more sensitive to pain once they have seen another mouse in pain. Pain contagion occurs between mice from the same home box, but not between mice that don’t know each other. This is a typical bias that is also true of human empathy: the closer we are to a person, and the more similar we are to them, the more easily empathy is aroused.

Empathy has its roots in basic body mimicry – not in the higher regions of imagination or in the ability to reconstruct consciously how we would feel if we were in someone else’s place. It began with the synchronisation of bodies: running when others run; laughing when others laugh; crying when others cry; or yawning when others yawn. Most of us have reached the incredibly advanced stage at which we yawn even at the mere mention of yawning, but this is only after lots of face-to-face experience.

Yawn contagion works in other species, too. At Kyoto University, investigators showed laboratory apes the videotaped yawns of wild chimps. Soon, the lab chimps were yawning like crazy. With our own chimps, we have gone one step further. Instead of showing them real chimps, we play three-dimensional animations of an ape-like head going through a yawn-like motion. In response to the animated yawns, our apes yawn with maximal opening of the mouth, eye-closing and head-rolling, as if they are going to fall asleep at any moment.

Yawn contagion reflects the power of unconscious synchrony, which is as deeply ingrained in us as it is in many other animals. Synchrony is expressed in the copying of small body movements, such as a yawn, but it also occurs on a larger scale. It is not hard to see its survival value. You’re in a flock of birds and one suddenly takes off. You have no time to figure out what’s going on, so you take off at the same instant. Otherwise, you may be lunch.

Mood contagion serves to coordinate activities, which is crucial for any travelling species (as most primates are). If my companions are feeding, I decide to do the same because, once they move off, my chance to forage will be gone. The individual who doesn’t stay in tune with what everyone else is doing will lose out, just like the traveller who doesn’t go to the bathroom when the bus has stopped.

Social creatures

Natural selection has produced highly social and cooperative animals that rely on one another for survival. On its own, a wolf cannot bring down large prey, and chimpanzees in the forest are known to slow down for companions who cannot keep up due to injuries or sick offspring. So, why accept the assumption of cut-throat nature when there is ample proof to the contrary?

Bad biology exerts an irresistible attraction. Those who think that competition is what life is all about, and who believe that it is desirable for the strong to survive at the expense of the weak, eagerly adopt Darwinism as a beautiful illustration of their ideology. They depict evolution – or at least their cardboard version of it – as almost heavenly. John D Rockefeller concluded that the growth of a large business “is merely the working out of a law of nature and a law of God”, and Lloyd Blankfein, chairman and CEO of Goldman Sachs – the biggest money-making machine in the world – recently depicted himself as merely “doing God’s work”.

We tend to think that the economy was killed by irresponsible risk-taking, a lack of regulation or a bubbling housing market, but the problem goes deeper. Those were just the little aeroplanes circling King Kong’s head (“Oh no, it wasn’t the aeroplanes. ’Twas beauty killed the beast”). The ultimate flaw was the lure of bad biology, which resulted in a gross simplification of human nature. Confusion between how natural selection operates and what kind of creatures it has produced has led to a denial of what binds people together. Society itself has been seen as an illusion. As Margaret Thatcher put it: “There is no such thing as society – there are individual men and women, and there are families.”

Economists should reread the work of their father figure, Adam Smith, who saw society as a huge machine. Its wheels are polished by virtue, whereas vice causes them to grate. The machine just won’t run smoothly without a strong community sense in every citizen. Smith saw honesty, morality, sympathy and justice as essential companions to the invisible hand of the market. His views were based on our being a social species, born in a community with responsibilities towards the community.

Instead of falling for false ideas about nature, why not pay attention to what we actually know about human nature and the behaviour of our near relatives? The message from biology is that we are group animals: intensely social, interested in fairness and cooperative enough to have taken over the world. Our great strength is precisely our ability to overcome competition. Why not design society such that this strength is expressed at every level?

Rather than pitting individuals against each other, society needs to stress mutual dependencies. This could be seen in the recent healthcare debate in the United States, where politicians played the shared-interest card by pointing out how much everybody (including the well-to-do) would lose if the nation failed to change the system, and where President Obama played the social responsibility card by calling the need for change “a core ethical and moral obligation”. Money-making cannot be allowed to become the be-all and end-all of society.

And for those who keep looking to biology for an answer, the fundamental yet rarely asked question is why natural selection designed our brains so that we’re in tune with our fellow human beings and feel distress at their distress, and pleasure at their pleasure. If the exploitation of others were all that mattered, evolution should never have got into the empathy business. But it did, and the political and economic elites had better grasp that in a hurry.

Frans de Waal is CH Candler professor of psychology at Emory University and director of the Living Links Center at the Yerkes National Primate Research Center. He is the author of nine books, including Chimpanzee Politics and Our Inner Ape. His latest book, The Age of Empathy, is published by Harmony Books.

15 Responses to “Bad Biology & Its Adherents”

  1. libhomo Says:

    This article and Skilling’s nonsense show no understanding of the concept of selfish genes. One of the main things that selfish genes explain is altruism, which cannot be explained by a view of evolution which only works at the level of the individual organism.

    Bad science education leads to bad ideology again.


  2. RickB Says:

    (Oh yes and Adam Smith, he likes him too much, but it is true those who quote him today do selectively choose which bits to pay attention to)
    I’m not sure I understand, I know him and Dawkins have differences although both do observe altruism is at work and not the aberration the Free Market fetishists claim. De Waal is for it at the individual level I guess, I think he is also reacting to the misinterpretations of the selfish gene meme (!) which are numerous and put to political/economic use as a cover/justification for even more greed and theft.

  3. Bina Says:

    “Man is wolf to man” isn’t such a bad adage after all. Not when you consider that wolves, like us, are social creatures who tend to do a lot of things communally (they babysit one another’s pups in a kind of doggy daycare, for example–and sometimes hunt in packs, sharing larger kills with the group) while still retaining the ability to go off on their own for a while if need be. Every domestic dog is descended from the wolf, and the dog’s loyalty and empathy for its humans is legendary. Hmmm, where could the dogs have gotten that from? The wolves have long had a bad rap, and I’m so glad Farley Mowat set me straight about them when I was young enough to absorb the lessons of Never Cry Wolf.

    As for Richard Dawkins, may I please be forgiven for finding him arrogant and assholish even when he’s right?

    • RickB Says:

      Yes. Even he admits he can open his mouth for a soundbite with a bit too much readiness and he does lack political, cultural and social awareness, but you can’t be an expert in everything!
      I’m with you on the wolves, Hobbes gave them a bad rap indeed (though of course Cats R The Besterest, Mogwai sez), yet again more misinterpreting science/naturalism to make points in favour of the ruling class’ lack of humanity. I wonder will anyone study their tampered with evolution that produces the shadows of fully rounded humans they are.

    • libhomo Says:

      I really admire Dawkins. Any atheist who doesn’t pander to religion is automatically labeled as “arrogant and assholish.” It’s the same for women who don’t pander to misogynists, queers who don’t pander to heterosexists, and any person of color who doesn’t pander to racists. Often, the people who do the labeling are self loathing members of those groups who buy into the brainwashing of society, often subconsciously.

  4. ralfast Says:

    I see an exploitation (and capitalism is anything if not exploitation) of science and philosophy to justify that which if you read the original works (as libhomo points out) does not support that interpretation. Then you have idiots who then blame the original thinkers for the way their thoughts were exploited by others.

    • RickB Says:

      Yeah it’s always interesting when fundies say Darwin (and of course never read his book or learn about the history & science) led to Nazism as they busily practice war, torture, homophobia, white power and misogyny…hmmm,

  5. czander Says:

    It’s not about Greed

    There are between 7 and 14 articles and blogs a day all identifying the crisis of 2008, CEO behavior and bankers bonuses as all about greed. We are quickly moving towards an accusatory cultural position that if one gets too much (a relative term) then one is filled with greed. It is similar to the diagnosis of narcissism that has been grossly misused and misapplied. Misused to the degree where if one is selfish or lacks empathy or takes more, one is called a narcissist. This places the accuser in the position of blaming those who have more and fails to understand what motivates them to engage in this behavior.
    What brought about the banking crisis in America was not about greed, it was about the pathological need to increase one’s status. Studies have demonstrated that high levels of testosterone do not necessarily lead to a macho man hell bent on being aggressively consumptive but a man excessively focused on status, filled with envy, and an overwhelming desire to have what the other guy has. Consider this: At a “gin and tonic” party at a mansion of a successful banker an attendee reported the following. “After I got my drink our host led us to his greenhouse and showed his magnificent collection of valuable and delicate orchids. It was his hobby and he would travel the world collecting rare and exotic plants. Upon return to the house I could not help but notice two sets of women; an old or original group of wives at one end of the large room and a group of trophy wives at the other end, nervously eyeing each other.” What drives these men to engage in one-upmanship is not greed — but one-up-man ship status. They see their colleagues with a more expensive car, they start thinking about getting a one, they see a colleague with a jet and they have to have one too, they see a colleague with a beauty and they want one. Houses, cars, wives, art, orchids, watches, office, etc.; these are status symbols and for these men they are exceedingly important. They become a measure of their self worth. The parties, the country club, the university club, the yacht club, and the workplace are all places where executives parade their stuff. Many suggest this is nothing more than narcissistic characters impressing others to obtain love. But this may not be the case. They live and work within a culture that is status driven and issues of exclusion and inclusion are associated with the attainment of status. In this culture those who have more create envy and they aggressively engage in the struggle for ever higher status. The “my d–k is bigger than yours,” is ever present. The truth of the matter is underneath they believe they will always an inadequate d–k.

    • RickB Says:

      Well I would say the need/desire for greater status could be seen as greed for high social standing. And it is not envy to point out the obscene inequities in the world, nor is it wrong to attach blame, wealth is built on others poverty and exploitation, I’m not going to feel sorry that CEO’s are trapped by status competition into their behaviour, the rest of us grow up. Rather it is a problem that is allowed to happen and such things as multi millionaires and billionaires exist while hunger kills other people each day. The system is fixed to favour accrued wealth rather than provide for all and misrepresentations of science are used to cover over this basic crime (a crime primarily of patriarchy which your comment does illustrate).

      • Bina Says:


        And BTW, Silvio Berlusconi is awesomely rich and throws around ridiculous sums to buy young, pretty women (or just the use of their genitals) outright. Otto had a pic of him not so long ago on his blog, full frontal, stark nekkid. Needless to say, it became obvious to me right there what Da Berluscoglioni’s problem was, and why he was overcompensating so badly. He certainly had something to compensate for.

        And of course, he couldn’t!

    • jim Says:

      Well, you must make a conscious choice not to buy into this most pernicious form of keeping up with the Jones’s. Like Rick, I see this as greed. And these people deny the basic quality that we have as social creatures- they ignore the human in humanity.

  6. jim Says:

    “Life is nasty, brutish and short.” Or would be, If Hobbe’s dictator did not keep the assumed base desires of the capricious individual at bay by fear of threat. But in the real world as we all know, though some choose to ignore, the fact that not only is a social environment beneficial to us on a purely individualist level but also it is in our nature to co-operate with others simply out of altruism. We progress because we help each other. We like it. Plain and simple. It is a natural response. And short term gains in the bear pit of the market will not disguise this for any length of time. The market attempts by subterfuge and spell to subsume individuals to the level of law of the jungle. But like what has already been said, no such jungle exists. It is an illusion by capital to enslave others and profit out of them.

    • RickB Says:

      Yes, I would say our challenge is to form societies and social institutions that do not fall prey to these predators. At present they get to run the show mostly, that is very wrong and could also mean our extinction.

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