Original Sin: Selfish Genes?

Darwin’s Origin of Species was not the only landmark literature to be published in the late 19th century; it was framed by contrasting books considering the moral behaviour of man. One Self Help considered humans to be so flawed and innately immoral that the only way to achieve goodness was to remove all traces of humanity, whilst the other suggested that if a good Being had invented human faculties, then desire to pursue their enjoyment and involvement would only please Him greatly. In other words On Freedom suggested that it was the worker’s method, and not his tools, that crafted badness. This is probably the school of thought favoured by modern society, but have we been too quick to discard the notion of Original Sin?

Altruism. Conscience. Justice. Love. Compassion. Things that define human societies. Human qualities that stack their weight behind the word ‘humane’. Evolutionary psychology is the realm of science that deals with how human society and behaviour morphed into familiar civilisations today. There is very good evidence that at least some genes are responsible for morality. However it is also clear that, ironically, morality is self-serving. Altruistic societies evidently prosper, but what has become more clear, is that individuals constantly oscillate between lesser and higher moral states, unawares, in the promotion of self interest.

The Unselfish Gene

Natural selection has certainly handed us moral instruments. Natural selection comes down to (according to Darwin) “in a society full of varying traits, those traits conducive to survival will (obviously) become more widespread, and eventually lead to a pool of such traits.”

Consider a gene XL, inherited by a lucky ape. This gene promotes stronger maternal love and parental nurturing. The offspring mature, and survive and pass XL to their babies. Even if the survival advantage is 1%, over time XL comes to be widespread. After a while all parents are likely to possess XL, and now another behaviour trait becomes responsible for better offspring survival rates. Even so, this XL society thrives more than its non XL neighbours, and eventually takes over.

Cohabitation, family groups and multiple-member societies were all survival advantages to prehistoric ancestors. Strength in numbers; you are less likely to be eaten. You can fend off rivals. You may even fend off predators. You don’t have to expend precious calories wandering around to find a mate. If you want to go and find some food, someone else can look after the kids. The downside of this issue is that you need more food and more living space. The solution? You share food and you learn to live in close proximity to other individuals without endangering yourself. However, if circumstances change; it’s a hard winter and food is scarce, or your friends keep trying to steal your mate, then it becomes a good idea to hoard food and hate everyone. Thus dealing with your neighbours (biggest props or biggest rivals) became a matter of helping them, ignoring them, liking them, hating them and knowing who warranted which treatment, and when. Those individuals who could do this well were more apt to spread their genes. Consequently this drove the development of today’s human behaviour.


Since attraction, sexual behaviour and ‘love’ represent the absolute bottleneck for dissemination of genes, it makes sense that these aspects of human psychology are natural selection’s primary victims.

One of the most perpetuating attitudes to sexual morality is the double-standard dichotomy. From Ancient Greece to modern day, male sexual deviancy raises less eyebrows than female. Why?

In nearly all species, the male plays the role of the wooer. The female acts coy. Why?

Both pay dividends to natural selection’s careful engineering of behaviours that give both male and female genes the best chance to proliferate.

The crucial underlying issue is reproductive biology. Biology’s definition of a female is “the one with the larger sex cells”. Such cells are much larger, more expensive to maintain and nourish, and certainly in the case of mammals, extortionate to grow and develop inside the womb, let alone when the offspring are born and require raising. Females take a risk on every pregnancy; they have limited opportunity. Not only do they have a fertile window (e.g. between puberty and the menopause) but they can only produce one or two eggs a month, and are limited to a certain number of pregnancies a year. Thus each offspring is about quality if the mother’s genes are to survive. Consequently, two behaviours arise.

One: it is of limited use running around having sex all the time, far better to grab some food or have a rest (Freud observes that in men sexual desire is inexhaustible, in women; exceptional). Two: females pick their partners carefully. In almost all species the males have to compete for a female’s attentions. Stags grow ridiculous, expensive, non-aerodynamic antlers, birds of paradise flash colours that scream out ‘eat me’ to predators (female peahens may well look dull, but they find it easier to hide), some species of fish literally kill themselves in order to mate, others expend a lot of energy in an effort to glow.

These traits, from the sublime to the ridiculous, pave the way to Darwinism success; either the female is attracted, or she isn’t. We don’t have to be conscious of these traits; female snakes might not be intelligent, but they do know which males to stay away from (meanwhile male snakes will certainly court dead females). And we’ve all heard stories of ‘instant attraction’ and the rather vague ‘chemistry’.

Males of the species can afford to be more indiscriminate. Their sex cells are constantly producible, small, inexpensive and expendable. The male opts for quantity rather than quality, and doesn’t particularly risk his own fitness and thus future offspring’s fitness in doing so.

These theories of gender disparity in selecting sexual partners come down to ‘parental investment’ which neatly parallels any sound economical arguments. When the risk is low and the potential benefit is great, you buy up shares. When the risks are considerable, the benefit great but available at a future date, a person of sense sits back and waits.

Sex is just one aspect of morality that has been neatly defined in our genes, but ultimately we do not act on every impulse. Another aspect of our behavioural inheritance is conscience and compassion. On the whole we prefer to avoid inflicting harm (it may come back round), and this human legacy does much to counteract Original Sin.

The other good news? Pair-bonding is also conducive to offspring survival and genetic fitness. Thus natural selection has delivered the dangerous of attraction with the comfort of affection, and like sex, love is probably here to stay.

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