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Enerolisa Paredes

ENG 111
Prof. Bryant
The Selfless Gene
In "The Selfless Gene," Olivia Judson's fundamental point is to demonstrate how
altruistic behavior is something that is not adapted, but rather is an inborn hereditary
characteristic. When talking about selflessness in terms of how animals behave and
conform to their norms, it is somewhat instinctual to assume that selflessness is a gene that
is carried down from generation to generation. In the case of humans, selflessness is more
of a complex term, simply because we are complex creatures. Altruism is something that is
sometimes applauded in society, but it can also be associated with stupidity. It is human
nature to evaluate the circumstances that surrounds us. We are evolutionarily designed to
steer away from danger in sight of self-preservation. As intelligent creatures, we have the
capability of overwriting this desire if the situation presents us with the need of being
selfless. Even though Judson considers altruism to be hereditary, there are reasons to
believe that environmental and educational factors, as well as moral principles, shape it.
Judson speaks of William Donald Hamilton, a developmental researcher who
asserted that the qualities that express selflessness are observed in gatherings of creatures
that live together. He illustrated this point by explaining how bees defend their hive by
sacrificing their own lives. He also added how some animals help other offsprings instead
of having some of their own. The altruistic behavior described above can also be observed
in humans as depicted in the story The Birkenhead. In the story, a ship started to sink after
hitting a rock near South Africa in 1852. With only three lifeboats for over six hundred
passengers, seven of which were women and thirteen children, the male sailors expressed
their altruistic behavior by saving women and children first, despite knowing that their own
lives were at risk. The question would arise if this was the activation of altruistic genes in
the face of danger, or if the upbringing of the heroes had an impact in their decision to
sacrifice their own lives, just like the bees. The environment in which we grow up, as well
our family and friends, play an important role in the development of a functional individual.
Friends have a lot of influence on behaviors and attitudes of their partners. From strong
friendships, people learn what it means to take care of, and worry about someone elses
wellbeing, even if we are not directly related or romantically involved with. Nobody knows
what a friend is capable of doing for their companion. Also, altruistic parents transfer their
behavior to children by practicing and reinforcing the importance of being selfless with
those that are in need. In the case of the sailors, it could be argued that if their environment
had a strong emphasis on being altruistic during their upbringing, they would feel more
compelled to aid those in need, disregarding their own wellbeing.
As mentioned earlier, Judson presents a thought of Hamilton that lays out the
fundamental need of creatures to survive. The idea of kin selection explains why animals
gather as one and structure their own particular group. Judson utilizes the example of
conformity and how it has evolved in humans so that a person can fit in a group and adapt
to its norms and customs. One of the examples used to illustrate this point is that of the

aggressive baboons. These creatures were known for their territorial mannerism and
aggressiveness. However, due to an event in which the more aggressive of the species ate
contaminated food, the species succumbed to a less aggressive state, as only the less
aggressive baboons survived. As a consequence, the behavior that prevailed was of a
mellower attitude. In the case of education, parental care and teachings from professors
form an important part on survival and evolutionary advantage, as they selflessly provide
for a group. Through education, the norms of a civilized and safe community are learned
and passed down to newer generations. Parents invest energy caring for and teaching these
behaviors to their offspring because it increases survival of the parents genes. Professors
also reinforce this teaching by developing strong relationships with their students,
influencing their behavior.
When Judson turns her argument towards supporting the presence of a selfless gene in
people, she compares our activities to those of chimpanzees, our common relatives. She
says that chimpanzees in a group have males that watch its group and even attack
neighboring regions to guarantee safety. Chimpanzees have two important sources of
premature death at the hands of other chimpanzees: they may be murdered by members of
their own community, or they may be killed during encounters with organized bands of
hostile neighbors. People act in comparative ways. We have gatherings of individuals, for
example the National Guard, that keep our borders safe and shield us from intruders, while
other military yield their lives to secure our groups and us. This is a representation of
benevolent conduct, particularly speaking of the individuals who intentionally enroll in the
military. This comes with the moral principles that have been previously instilled in a
person. Morality refers to the cultural expectations in regards to what is good or bad; right
or wrong. Utilizing the chimpanzees as an example, taking another animals life is seen as
an altruistic behavior. They are caring for their young, preserving the quality of their genes.
When it comes to humans, is it right to take other peoples lives? If we apply the same
principle as the simians it would depend. Morality is a subjective quality; individuals
beyond any doubt have solid convictions about what's good and bad. However, despite the
fact that ethics can change from individual to individual and society to culture, if presented
with the same situation in which we need to keep our offsprings safe, our perspective
would see a shift and altruism might set in.
Given these points, Judson understanding of altruistic behavior is something that is not
fixed, rather, it is a conglomeration of teachings and lessons carried down through life.
There are other elements to take into consideration, such as the environment in which the
person develops, the learned moral principles and the nature of human beings.