This essay will try to ascertain how far the selfish gene theory can explain the more ambiguous aspects of cooperative and social behaviours when these might appears to contravene the key components of the selfish gene theory (SGT from here in) as posed by Dawkins (1976); in its earliest form this is the theory that organisms are merely acting as hosts for genetic information. Under the umbrella of this theory, the organisms’ only concern is to ensure that the genetic information it hosts survives and is replicated.
Therefore the motivation of the actor during any social and cooperative action is the attainment of direct or indirect genetic fitness benefits (West et al, 2007). Direct fitness benefits would be the improved reproductive success and enhanced chances of survival for the actor’s genes directly by the action taken, whereas indirect fitness benefits would be the increased chances of the continuation of the actor’s genetic material through the enhanced reproductive success and increased chances of survival of those who share the genes of the actor (Hamilton, 1975).
Therefore, if a person’s individual fitness, that is their capacity to directly replicate their genes, is outweighed by their inclusive fitness, that is the degree to which a person is able to not only replicate their genes directly but the number of replications of its genes bought about by supporting others who may carry it, then according to this theory this would be favoured as it improves the persons overall genetic success regardless of how many genes they do or do not share (Heylighen, 1992).
Sachs et al (2004) define human cooperative behaviour as an interaction which involves more than one person where costs and benefits may be incurred by either both or one member in the exchange. Cooperative behaviour may benefit both parties where the benefit from the actions of both exceeds the cost of performing that action which makes the cooperation one of mutual gain, this is known as mutualism (Griffin, Gardner & West, 2006; Gardner & West, 2004).
In this type of interaction the genes of both organisms would have an increased chance of survival and therefore from the perspective of the selfish gene theory the fact that both parties are receiving mutual benefits from their actions provides an obvious explanation for their participation. What really enriches this area of theory is any attempt to justify from the perspective of the SGT why some acts of social and cooperative behaviour seem to be sustained when they only appear to profit the recipient member of the exchange.
For the purpose of this essay the recipients of social and cooperative behaviours will be split in to two categories; related and non-related. The SGT appears to explain the underlying motivations for helping these people in different ways so this will ensure that any strengths or limitations of the theory are outlined where they are specifically relevant. The debate seems to be less paradoxical when regarding interactions between those who potentially share the same genes.
From the perspective of the selfish gene theory a seemingly adequate explanation is provided for this type of discrimination; kin selection (Maynard-Smith, 1964) and mechanisms through which this discrimination is maintained; the application of Hamilton’s rule, limited dispersal and the greenbeard effect (Hamilton, 1964, 1975; Dawkins, 1976; Jansen & Van Baalen, 2006).
Hamilton (1964) supported Dawkins and the genes eye view of evolution; according to Hamilton’s rule (1964) b>c/r whereby ‘b’ is the benefit to the recipient by the actors behaviour, ‘c’ is the cost ensued by the actor by the action taken and ‘r’ is the degree to which the actor and recipient are related, it stands to reason that as long as the cost ensued by the actor is offset by the overall benefit to the potentially shared genes in terms of reproductive possibility that natural selection will increase the presence of the gene in question.
It stands to reason therefore that parents will protect their children selflessly because, in overly simplified terms, their offspring carries half of their genes. Brothers and sisters carry half of the same genes and this explains why they might behave altruistically towards each other. However, parental behaviour is far more altruistic and this is explained by this theory in terms of life expectancy; the greater the life expectancy, the greater the chance of the genes being replicated.
However, it is difficult to understand why a person may behave altruistically towards grandparents and other elderly members of the family when often this doesn’t appear to benefit the actor’s genetic success directly or indirectly; the fact that this seems to decrease the fitness of the actor means that this provides a limitation regarding the kin selection concept within the selfish gene theory when trying to explain cooperative and social behaviours.
Another challenge to the kin selection theory is the questionable ability of the actor to be able to distinguish someone with whom they are related from someone with whom they are not. Dawkins (1976) explains a person’s capacity to discriminate outside of direct kin through a phenomenon known as the Green beard effect (Hamilton, 1964, 1975; Dawkins, 1976; Jansen & Van Baalen, 2006). According to Dawkins (1976) genes help to program those they embody to behave in ways that ensure their survival and replication; this genetically influenced behaviour is known as phenotypic (Johannsen, 1911).