December 25, 2000
PAUL SOLMAN: The Christmas season. When even perhaps in a slowing economy, Americans flock to the malls to buy toys for the kids, trinkets for the spouse, chachkas for the boss to splendidly spend as befits the richest people in the history of the planet.
MAN RINGING BELL: Have a Merry Christmas.
PAUL SOLMAN: Yet traditionally Christmas is also a time for guilt about the over commercialization of it, the have-nots and the homeless -- the fact that this holiday's namesake was the pastor of poverty. In short, 'tis the season to be ambivalent about self-interest versus selfless, greed versus love, economics versus morality -- age-old conflicts human beings seem incapable of resolving. But here in the 21st century, we may finally have a shot at understanding why deep down inside we are ambivalent -- thanks to the theories of a relatively young and controversial science, sociobiology; that is, if you're willing to believe that human behavior evolved biologically. One of the elders of sociobiology Irven Devore:
IRVEN DEVORE, Evolutionary Biologist: All species have competition -- males particularly and many mammal species. So what form does it take? Well, in this species one of the major forms it takes is simply the acquisition of wealth because that then leads to access to so many other things: Fame, fortune, jet airplanes, beautiful women, you know, whatever.
PAUL SOLMAN: Listen simple mindedly to Devore and his colleagues here at the annual international sociobiology meeting and you'd think at first that greed is merely a pejorative for a fact of life.
SPOKESMAN: I am not a destroyer of companies.
PAUL SOLMAN: In that light investment banker, the slimy villain Gordon Gecko of the movie "Wall Street" is just telling it like it is.
GORDON GECKO: (Played by Actor Michael Douglas) Greed, for lack of a better word, is good. Greed is right. Greed works. Greed clarifies, cuts through and captures the essence of the evolutionary spirit.
PAUL SOLMAN: According to this view greed is good because it's natural. And arguably, as Gordon is to Hollywood, so Richard Dawkins, author of "The Selfish Gene," has been to evolutionary biology, the prime exponent of what has been understood as the "greed is good" argument.
RICHARD DAWKINS, Evolutionary Biologist: There is a sense in which from a Darwinian point of view you would expect all individuals of all species to be greedy in a sense of trying to gather for themselves as many resources as they can for the sake of their own survival, the survival of their children.
PAUL SOLMAN: And ultimately for the sake of their genes -- whose main motivation, as Dawkins has written, is to survive forever, if possible. To sociobiologists, that's the whole purpose of self-interest.
IRVEN DEVORE: At the fundamental level, humans are self interested. If they're not self-interested they don't tend to leave any offspring. So any of the genes or things that led you to not be self-interested at least to a large degree just don't get passed along. So we're all the descendents of to some degree selfish ancestors.
PAUL SOLMAN: In short our after avaricious ancestors survived. The rest wound up as extinct as this Irish elk. Jay Phelan, a biologist and an economist who also taught behavioral biology say in a sense we humans have been bred for greed.
TERRY BURNHAM, Economist: Because evolution is a relative game. You have seven kids. I have eight kids. This goes on for enough generations. You don't any longer have 7/8th of the population or 7/15th, you have zero, right? So as we like to say don't keep up with the joneses, bury them.
PAUL SOLMAN: Thus, the instinct for self-interest that paid off in the stone age when humans stopped evolving influences our behavior today even if it doesn't fully determine it.
JAY PHELAN, Biologist: You're walking around with a brain inside your head that is optimized for a completely different world. If you can think about that world and the way the brain would have been designed to work best in that world for maximizing reproductive success, that's what you get.
PAUL SOLMAN: As it happens, self-interest is a central tenet of the science I'm more familiar with: Economics. Back in 1776, four months before the Declaration of Independence, a Scott named Adam Smith published "The Wealth of Nations" wherein he famously wrote it's not from a benevolence of the butcher, the brewer or the baker that we expect our dinner but from their regard to their own interest. This was the first statement of how free-market capitalism works. Let the invisible hand of self-interest have a free hand and everyone benefits. Jay Phelan and Terry Burnham are firm believers in the virtues of self-interest. This is Burnham's new Porsche, but with proceeds from the sale of the biotech firm he founded. But these guys are as aware as the rest of us of the excesses of unbridled self-interest: For example, the race for status goods that has been so evident in this booming goods, so called luxury fever. That's economist Robert Frank who coined this contemporary term for conspicuous consumption. Yes, everybody wants to be a millionaire. But we also believe that money isn't everything: A cliché epitomized by the appearance this time of year of Ebenezer Scrooge.
PAUL SOLMAN: It's the failure of money to buy happiness that Phelan and Burnham address in their new book, "Mean Genes."
TERRY BURNHAM: Let's take it as a given for now that you're built to be greedy and what you want to do, one of the things you want to do is amass wealth but it's one of the paradoxes of human nature that by pursuing that you may not become happy, that we were much richer than we used to be and yet there's no evidence that we're any happier than we are any 40 years ago or 100 years ago, and almost no difference between different income groups within the country. Now you ask, well, what percentage of people are clinically sick that they're depressed and highest ever in the history of the world -- right here.
PAUL SOLMAN: So what's going on? Well, say Phelan and Burnham, stone- age urges are stoking luxury fever but the natural drives that gave our ancestors a leg up in the Paleolithic past are also tripping us up in the present.
JAY PHELAN: I think from a genetic perspective, it would be disastrous if we had a brain that could achieve happiness and be there because when we're happy, what are we going to do? We're not going to do anything.
TERRY BURNHAM: And so the solution that appears to have arrived is always want more. You could think of a better, maybe you could think of a better way to build an organism but this is a great way. No matter where it is, it always tries to get more.
PAUL SOLMAN: In other words, you can never have enough. Thus you can never be happy. That insight alone would explain why people are ambivalent about self-interested consumer culture. But sociobiologists take it a step further. They point to studies of current hunter-gatherer societies like Southern Africa's Kung bushmen.
LEDA COSMIDES, Evolutionary Psychologist: What is it that makes a hunter-gatherer feel wealthy?
PAUL SOLMAN: Leda Cosmides.
LEDA COSMIDES: Some people have suggested that one of the...that since hunter gatherers don't have wealth in the same sense, that one of the cues that our minds use to feel wealthy and secure and protected and sated and like everything is okay are things like, well, how many kin do I have around me?
PAUL SOLMAN: By that measure lonely Scrooge totting up his wealth, is poorer than the apparent destitute Cratchet family.
TINTY TIM: God bless us, everyone.
PAUL SOLMAN: But, according to sociobiologists, even the warm and fuzzy feelings of love and kinship are not as selfless as they seem.
RICHARD DAWKINS: The self-interest of genes can be accomplished by programming non-selfish behavior at higher levels at levels of, say, the organism.
PAUL SOLMAN: Cooperation?
RICHARD DAWKINS: Yes.
PAUL SOLMAN: Love?
RICHARD DAWKINS: Yes, love if love leads to the survival of selfish genes, which it often does.
PAUL SOLMAN: No wonder we're ambivalent about consumer culture. It persuades us to buy in order to satisfy our perceived need for wealth but not only does it fail to satisfy, it also undermines another arguably deeper need: For fellow humans to serve our ultimate self-interest, the survival of our genes via our family. In other words, says Leda Cosmides -
LEDA COSMIDES: We may be over consuming certain commercial goods and consumer goods thinking that that's going to give us what's missing when what's missing is the presence of an extended kin group, the presence of social support, of friends that you know that you can rely on. Think about market exchanges -- when I give you money for something, that means we're not friends. If we're friends and you need something from me, I just give it to you -- all right?
PAUL SOLMAN: And the more we have these distanced market exchanges....
LEDA COSMIDES: The more we have a sense of alienation from other people because it's exactly a sign of our social distance. Every time I pay money for something it's a sign of social distance.
PAUL SOLMAN: So at the end of the day, here's what we're left with. To the extent that it's true, evolutionary biology suggests why we're greedy and self-interested because selfish genes reproduce more; why we're loving, to reproduce in the first place and to stick together to raise a family and therefore why we've stuck with ambivalence. But to some who view the world in religious terms, the way out of our ambivalence is simple: Define self-interest broadly enough to include the entire human family, as Christianity and other faiths by some accounts, have long insisted. We leave the last word to Episcopal Priest Peter Gomes.
PETER GOMES, Minister, Harvard Memorial Church: It is perfectly possible to admire the system which has enriched so many people and that has built a vibrant economy, to admire that on the one hand, and then urge it to find ways for that system to be more equitably shared by the rest of the culture for the sake of the culture, for the sake of the rich as well as for the sake of the poor. It is... the saying "greed is good" the better saying is "it is good to give." And in so doing, the giver is blessed and the person who receives is blessed. And In some sense we stand on a much firmer foundation than the temporary excitement of great wealth.
PAUL SOLMAN: And with that thought, Merry Christmas to all and to all a good night.