Friday, March 9, 2012

From the illusory selfish gene to the cooperative nature of the human genome

Leonardo Boff's weekly columns are available in Spanish from Servicios Koinonia and in Portuguese on his blog. Some of his older columns are available in English at

by Leonardo Boff (English translation by Rebel Girl)

Times of systemic crisis such as those we are living in favor a review of concepts and the will to project other possible worlds that will make what Paulo Freire called the "untested feasibility" a reality.

It is known that the prevailing capitalist system in the world is consumerist, viscerally selfish and predatory of nature. It is carrying all humankind to an impasse as it has created a double injustice: ecological, because of having devastated nature, and social, because of having generated immense social inequality. To put it simply, though not so much, we might say that humanity is divided between the minority who eat their fill and the majority who are poorly fed. If at this point we wanted to universalize the type of consumption in rich countries to all humankind, we would need at least three Earths equal to the present one.

This system claims to find its scientific basis in the research of British zoologist Richard Dawkins who, thirty-six years ago, wrote his famous The Selfish Gene (1976). The new genetic biology has shown that that selfish gene is illusory, because genes do not exist in isolation; they constitute a system of interdependencies forming the human genome, which obeys three basic principles of biology: cooperation, communication and creativity. It is, therefore, the opposite of the selfish gene. This is what has been demonstrated by notable names in new biology such as Nobel laureate Barbara McClintock, J. Bauer, C. Woese and others. Bauer reported that Dawkins' selfish gene theory "isn't based on any empirical data." And worse, "it served as biopsychological justification to legitimize the [individualistic and imperial] Anglo-American economic order." (Das kooperative Gen, 2008, p.153)

It follows that if we want to achieve a just and sustainable way of life for all people, those who consume much should drastically reduce their consumption levels. This will not be achieved without strong cooperation, solidarity and clear self-restraint.

Let's dwell on the latter, self-restraint, since it is one of the most difficult things to achieve due to the dominance of consumerism, spread across all social classes. Self-restraint implies necessary renunciation to respect Mother Earth, to protect the collective interests, and to promote a culture of voluntary simplicity. It is not about not eating, but eating in a sober, supportive and responsible way with our neighbors, with the whole community of life and future generations who must also consume.

Limitation is also an ecological and cosmological principle. The universe evolves from two forces that are always self-limiting: the forces of expansion and contraction. Without this internal boundary, creativity would cease and we would be crushed by contraction. In nature, the same principle operates. Bacteria, for example, if they are not limited among themselves or if one of them loses the limits, would very soon occupy the entire planet, unbalancing the biosphere. Ecosystems ensure their sustainability by limiting beings among them, allowing all to be able to coexist.

Well, to overcome the current crisis we need above all to strengthen the cooperation of all with all, communication between all cultures, and great creativity to design a new paradigm of civilization. We have to give a final farewell to the individualism that overstated the "self" to the detriment of "us", that includes not only human beings but the entire community of life, Earth and the universe itself.

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