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I am reading The Selfish Gene at the moment. It’s a very good book, and beautifully written, as you would expect from Dawkins. This pair of sentences, though, stood out for their disappointing relevance to anti-vaccination, anti-mask, and otherwise anti-scientific individuals’ behavior. In the next paragraph, “ESS” means “evolutionary stable strategy”. In (too simple a summary), ESS means the strategy that evolution ‘settles upon’ which is most effective at reproducing the genes that regulate that strategy.

“It is possible for humans to enter into pacts or conspiracies that are every individuals’ advantage even if these are not stable in the ESS sense. But this is only possible because every individual uses his conscious foresight, and is able to see that it is his own long-term interests to obey the rules of the pact.”

Chapter 6, The Selfish Gene, Richard Dawkins (Audible)

The idea is that humans are capable of rising above the ‘desires’ of our genes because of our independent thinking machinery. While this is true, sometimes it can backfire. The anti-vaccination people (anti-vaxxers in common parlance) are dying of COVID-19 (source) and if their genetic programming was working to keep those genes alive successfully, one can imagine that they would not be making these decisions.

I am no expert in evolutionary science, having only read The Ancestors Tale, about half of The Selfish Gene, and many, many Scientific American articles, but I am confident that I have a good lay-person level of comprehension. That said, I don’t know where the evolutionary influence on our behavior ends, and where our conscious, critical-thinking brains take over and fight against that. Contraception is clearly an example of higher thinking combatting the genes’ desires to reproduce, but is anti-vaxxer behavior like contraception, a result of higher thinking; or is it a result of a brain evolved for less complex problem-solving?

I suspect the fact that critical thinking must be taught – that it is cultural, not fundamental – suggests that anti-vaxxer behavior is not like contraception because it is not a critical-thinking, or higher thinking activity. What do you think?


“Settles upon” and “desires” above are personification verbs that make it easier to talk about, but do not imply any agency on the part of evolution in the sense that I have(?) agency about whether I eat a plum or a cake.

Published inCopyCultureScienceSociety

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