To recap, in the first installment I pointed out that the three post-war decades were remarkably clean, in terms of corporate malfeasance. Then, during the 1980s, there was a series of scandals primarily involving insider trading. The trend really intensified during the 2000s, when we saw one scandal after another, with Enron as an emblematic case. Last time that we saw anything similar was a century ago during the Gilded Age.
What explains this wave of corporate fraud? I trace it to the cultural shift, taking place during the late 1970s, that affected attitudes toward selfishness – the rise of the “greed is good” social mood. This shift coincided with the publication of The Selfish Gene in 1976.
I am far from saying that the fall of Enron is Richard Dawkins’ fault (despite The Selfish Gene being the favorite book of Jeff Skilling). The causation clearly goes in the opposite direction. The cultural shift was happening anyway, due to much more fundamental societal processes than the work of a single intellectual, no matter how brilliant. (And to make it clear, I think that The Selfish Gene is a brilliant book.) What likely happened was that Jeff Skilling simply seized upon certain ideas in The Selfish Gene because they resonated with his own inclinations (it should be noted that Dawkins himself claims that Skilling misread the main message of the book). Other ‘heroes’ of the 2000s, the Kozlowskis and the Madoffs, probably never read the book.
The fantastic success of the book (more than a million copies sold) may have been due, in part to the ‘social demand’ for it, but only in part; as I said it’s a brilliant and very well written book. And yet, it is deeply flawed.
Popularizing the insights of the evolutionary biologist George C. Williams (most notably, his 1966 book, Adaptation and Natural Selection: A Critique of Some Current Evolutionary Thought) Dawkins demolishes the explanation of morality advanced by the naïve group selectionists. The two evolutionary mechanisms that Dawkins likes, on the other hand, are kin selection of William D. Hamilton and reciprocal altruism of Robert Trivers. To this day, Dawkins is a vehement opponent of multi-level section (the sophisticated version of group selection).
But this leaves Dawkins in the lurch. Human altruism and capacity for cooperation are much broader than helping kin, or establishing mutually profitable relationships. In fact, helping family members to profit at the expense of the society at large is not a moral behavior, at least in Western Europe and North America. “Amoral familism” is why, according to Edward Banfield, Southern Italians are unable to cooperate.
Having demolished one explanation, The Selfish Gene failed to provide a better, more convincing one. In the end, Dawkins is reduced to writing,
Be warned that if you wish, as I do, to build a society in which individuals cooperate generously and unselfishly towards a common good, you can expect little help from biological nature. Let us try to teach generosity and altruism, because we are born selfish.
Similarly, to George C. Williams morality was “an accidental capability produced, in its boundless stupidity, by a biological process that is normally opposed to the expression of such a capability.” Earlier, Herbert Spencer advanced much the same view (thus contributing to the rise of Social Darwinism – which, curiously, coincided with the previous era of massive corporate malfeasance a hundred years ago).
The primatologist Frans de Waal calls this the “veneer theory,” which supposes that human morality is “a cultural overlay, a thin veneer hiding an otherwise selfish and brutish nature”.
I am pretty sure that Richard Dawkins is, and George Williams, and Herbert Spencer were highly moral human beings, and they would never perpetrate massive corporate fraud that Jeff Skilling committed. But their flawed understanding of the human nature made them pessimists about our capacity for morality, altruism, and cooperation. They ended up saying, yes, the human is a selfish beast, so we have to will him to become moral. In other words, this is a kind of voluntarism.
Jeff Skilling and Bernie Madoff chose a different route: Yes, the human is a selfish beast, that’s the way things are. And I, being the smartest guy around, am going to get very rich!
So I would argue that the main idea of The Selfish Gene readily lends itself to be misused by the Jeff Skillings of the corporate world. But my critique of the book goes deeper. Dawkins, Williams, and Spencer theories offer no practical route to making our societies more altruistic, increasing social trust and cooperation. As far as I can tell, their recipe is to just try harder to overcome our inherently selfish natures.
The alternative understanding of human nature, based on gene-culture coevolution and multilevel selection (both cultural and genetic), which is supported by the recent explosion of experimental evidence, does much better. We now know that humans are heterogeneous – some are free riders and other cooperators. Even cooperators behave differently in different situations, cooperating under some conditions,, withdrawing cooperation under others. We are starting to understand how we can ‘nudge’ more cooperative behaviors (there is a growing literature on ‘priming’). Having a better understanding of the human nature enables us to design more effective institutions. Just think of the work of the great late Elinor Ostrom on practical approaches human groups use to manage natural resources and avoid the tragedy of the commons.