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Last updated: 27 June 2022. sky thinking for an open and diverse left

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Socialism and the 'selfish' gene: a tale of quiz shows, game theory and natural selection



Steve Arnott's The Conspiracy of Doves

Chapter II.


Part of the ideological armoury deployed to defend the status quo is the idea that socialism is impossible because ‘human nature is inherently selfish’. Is it? Or does modern Darwinism tell us something rather different? Let’s take as an unlikely starting point the following unlikely question, which by the end of this chapter I hope to have at least partially answered.

What do TV quiz shows like Deal or no Deal, Goldenballs, Who wants to be a Millionaire and the ‘reality’ show Big Brother have in common with one of the most important findings of modern biology in the 21st Century?

One of the advantages of being a socialist activist is that you rarely have time to watch TV – being out fighting for a better society is not only a good thing in and of itself, it also saves the brain from the sclerotic effect of today’s mind-numbing schedules of crass game shows, stagey docu-soaps, and whatever the latest fly-on-the-wall, lowest-common-denominator, piece of voyeurism happens to be.

However, anyone who has done a degree in philosophy, economics or biology would probably recognize one of the key contributions to twentieth century thought at work in any one of the mass entertainment programmes mentioned above – that is, the concept and practice of Game Theory.

After all, these programme makers are very clever – if not necessarily very moral. Perhaps the very stuff that makes Deal or no Deal or Millionaire exciting viewing for millions; the calculations and trade offs; the element of risk taking or knowing when to stop is something that strikes a chord somewhere in our brains; in our inherent and complex human nature.

In Noel Edmond’s Deal or no Deal, for instance, contestants are asked to open boxes representing varied cash values - from pocket money up to one containing £250, 000. As boxes are eliminated from the game, an off-screen ‘banker’ will offer contestants sums of money to settle and leave the game. Contestants have to weigh up the odds of being better off accepting the banker’s offer or continuing on to win the big prize, or of course, perhaps leave with nothing or next to nothing.

In Millionaire contestants not only have to answer questions; they have to make a series of considered decisions about whether it is in their ‘rational self interest’ to proceed to a further level of difficulty and perhaps lose money or win more, or to settle for what they have. In Big Brother contestants can form alliances, deceive their housemates and try to get competitors nominated for eviction – but they also have to weigh up whether such behaviour may count against them both with their fellow housemates and the viewing public. We shall leave aside for the moment whether it can be in anybody’s ‘rational self interest’ to seek such a shallow 15 minutes of fame.

The ‘Game Theory’ theme reaches its purest form in the afternoon show Goldenballs, however.  Skipping over the complex preliminaries which are a bit like Numberwang from Mitchell and Webb, the programme ends with two contestants and a big pot of the filthy lucre. Each contestant has a button they can push representing their choice of what do with the money.

One button means Share, the other Take Everything. The contestants are allowed to speak with each other, truthfully or deceitfully, and to ask questions to try and guess at each other’s character or intention. At the end of the process, each contestant must choose which button to push – without knowing the other contestant’s true decision. It you haven’t seen it works like this: If both contestants press Share, they receive half of the money each. If one presses Share, and other presses Take Everything, the greedy one walks away with all of the money and the co-operator wins nothing. If both press Take Everything, both lose everything.

I saw this gruesome ritual only once but immediately understood its proletarian late afternoon circus entertainment value. More often than not the contestants would end up in mutual destitution, or one cynical, lying opportunist would walk away with all the cash while the more trusting citizen of this mini-society would end up with zilch. The similarity to a much studied phenomenon in this online magazine (beginning with capital and ending in -ism) was not entirely coincidental. Game Theory has often been seized upon by pro-capitalist and neo-liberal economists and theoreticians to justify capitalist market laissez faire economics as a natural product of the operation of ‘rational self interest’.

Making sense of selfishness?

As someone whose background is in philosophy rather than economics, what struck me about all of these programmes and the basic versions of Game Theory they were employing could also be understood as variants of one of the oldest “thought experiments” in moral philosophy – The Prisoner’s Dilemma.

Prisoner’s dilemma type games are applicable whenever there is a conflict between co-operation (the common good) and self interest, and they can have many different forms. In the original, two prisoners are held in separate cells facing a 10-year sentence. If one prisoner grasses on the other, the other will face the full sentence and the defector will go free. If both stay silent there is no evidence and both are free to go. If both grass on each other, both will get 5 years.

To understand the influence this thought experiment has had on both economics and biology we have to leave our ethics – and perhaps our socialist values and preconceptions at the front door for the moment, to return to them later. What matters here is what a bourgeois economist might call the rational self-interest. Working it out logically, what is the best course of action each prisoner can take for him - or herself? The problem has to be understood mathematically.

Bearing in mind that one prisoner has no idea what the other prisoner will do, that his choice is made blind; he has a one in four chance, if he stays silent, of going free and similar odds for silence, of landing the ten year term. Likewise, he has a one in four chance, if he grasses, of going free, but a one in two chance of avoiding the ten year sentence, because if both prisoners talk the sentence is only five years. On a purely algorithmic basis then, selfishness (so we are told), will always pay better odds.

It is little wonder then, that capitalist economists for many years have used such games theories to justify the predatory nature of the capitalist system as inevitable. Altruism and co-operation may be nice ideas, but, they tell us, since, like the eponymous prisoner we can never rely on other human beings to keep up their side of the agreement, we are compelled likewise, by rational self interest, to always put ourselves first.

Such ideas have also made the crossover into biology, particularly evolutionary biology, and thence into culture and sociology. What is Darwinian natural selection but ‘the survival of the fittest’, a pitiless struggle of each organism against its environment and its contemporaries for the right to reproduce? (Incidentally, this was a term coined not by Darwin, but by Herbert Spencer, a contemporary of the great evolutionist and one of the first promoters of primitive eugenics).

Of course, unlike the prisoners in the Dilemma game, genes are not making conscious choices. Darwinian selection takes place because of variation across populations of species in given environments and over multi-generational time-scales. Natural selection is a blind algorithmic process tending towards optimum fits to specific eco-systems, food supplies and modes of biological reproduction. Those individuals of a species which have heritable characteristics which tend to enable them to survive long enough to reproduce in a given environment will pass on those inherited characteristics, while those individuals of a species lacking those characteristics will tend to die out prior to mating. Consequently, the favoured characteristic (better camouflage, a better facility with language, a keener ability to smell blood over large distances, etc.) will tend to increase in a given population group over time, until that characteristic becomes a defining characteristic of the species, or until a new species is created whose genetic adaptations are so markedly different from its parent species that it can no longer successfully mate with it.

All organisms are the way they are today because they all had ancestors who successfully passed on their genes. It is a scientific tautology that no-one reading this has ancestors who died childless.

Marxists accept this scientific view of constant creation and the emergence of new species. Indeed, as pointed out elsewhere Marx was a great admirer of Darwin and sent him a complementary copy of the first volume of Capital. But capitalist society tends to interpret the findings of science in terms of its own dominant ideology. For those with vested economic interests to propound in culture, education and politics, both economic games theories, imbued with the idea of rational self interest, and the notion of the selfish gene seemed to be a welcome addition to the ideological armoury of capitalism.

Of course, they argued, as good liberals we could always try to ameliorate the worst effects of human nature, but nevertheless science had showed, had it not, that as human beings individually we were driven fundamentally by the ‘selfish’ desire of our genes to reproduce, and as human beings socially and economically, perhaps also partially as a consequence of that very genetic hard wiring, we were compelled always to act in our own self-interest, even at the expense of others. Surely, such a scientific ‘double whammy’ rendered any concept of socialism, of collectivism, of a society based on co-operation and solidarity, a mere pipe-dream?

Fortunately, as almost always proves to be the case, these same capitalist ideologists are guilty of both hopeful opportunism and bad science. As one of Richard Dawkins’s close co-thinkers, Matt Ridley, points out in his 1997 book The Origins of Virtue, far from the real evidence indicating such a bleak picture for biology and humanity, all the best evidence from both recent evolutionary studies and the further development of games theory into more ‘lifelike’ and complex scenarios seems to show that co-operation, reciprocation and collectivism are at least as much a part of our social and biological make-up as selfishness, and may be even more critical to our development as a species than had previously been thought.

What evidence is there then for this thesis? How do modern Darwinists know that co-operation, reciprocation and collective solidarity are at least as much a part of our social and biological make-up as self-centredness and individual ego?

Hawks, Doves and Tit-for-tat

Ridley points out that when Prisoner’s Dilemma type games are played repeatedly between partners or multiple players where one player can remember whether another is trustworthy or defects against him, then an entirely different set of results begin to show up.

One of the first to demonstrate this was a biologist in the 70s called John Maynard Smith. He was the first to see the connection between games theory and what he called ‘evolutionarily stable strategies’. Although natural selection is a wholly blind, non-teleological process, given the huge numbers involved statistically in evolving populations, selection for competitive advantage in a population could usefully be imagined and modelled as rationally optimum from the ‘point of view’ of the organism in relation to its fitness in its particular environment. The big biological mystery was: If self-interest was always rational then why did animals in the wild not turn upon one another at every opportunity?

He set up a game called Hawks and Doves, which was played out as a mathematical model using computers. A Hawk always Took Everything, if we can refer back to the version of Prisoner’s Dilemma in the Goldenballs game show. A Dove always Shared. Not surprisingly, Doves did fairly well in game scenarios against other Doves, Hawks tended to drive each other to extinction, but Hawks always profited when they came up against Doves – until the Doves were wiped out and hawks only had each other to predate on.

No evolutionary stable strategy there. But Maynard Smith’s insight and genius was to devise a third category of game player - Retaliator. Retaliator was a Dove that turned into a Hawk when it met one. This proved to be an enormously successful strategy. Whenever the game was played Retaliator soon became the “species” to dominate the game space.

A number of years later a political scientist named Robert Axelrod who, like ourselves, was interested in the natural logic of co-operation, confirmed and developed these findings. He set up a Prisoner’s Dilemma tournament on computer and invited people to submit programs (strategies). Surprisingly the eight best (most successful, most evolutionarily stable) programs were all, first and foremost, co-operators. None of them initiated Hawk-like behaviour, and the most successful was a program designed by a man called Anatol Rappaport, a concert pianist with an interest in the politics of nuclear confrontation. His program, Tit-for-tat, was astoundingly simple.

It began by co-operating, but it had a memory. It would then simply do whatever the other program did last time. If the other guy Shared, fine. If he Took Everything, Tit-for-tat would retaliate next time. If, on the third occasion the other program moved back to sharing, Tit-for-tat would return to co-operating behaviour also.

Axelrod explained the success of the program thus:

“What accounts for Tit-for-tat’s robust success is its combination of being nice, retaliatory, forgiving and clear. Its niceness prevents it from getting into unnecessary trouble. Its retaliation discourages the other side from persisting whenever defection is tried. Its forgiveness helps restore mutual co-operation. And its clarity makes it intelligible to the other player, thereby eliciting long term co-operation”.

Finally, by moving from a two-prisoner, two-cell reductive scenario to a more complex and - dare I say it - dialectical scenario, with multiple players with memories and the ability to adopt and develop strategies, Games theory had begun to show results a bit more like how the mass of humanity act in everyday life (or, perhaps we should say, would probably act if human relations were not distorted by social and cultural power of capitalism).

The race was now on to find examples in biology of co-operation, both between individuals of species, and in the cellular aggregates that constitute organisms themselves.

Bloodsuckers and baitballs

In 1983 the biologist Gerald Wilkinson detailed an example of co-operation in biology that mirrored almost exactly Rappaport’s Tit-for-tat program. He had studied vampire bats in Costa Rica. The bat’s main source of food is blood sipped from small cuts in large animals at night. Occasionally bats will, of course, go without a blood meal, but after sixty hours without blood the bat is in danger of starving to death.

Wilkinson discovered the Costa Rican bats had ‘devised’ a way around this problem. Fortunately, when a meal is found the lucky bat can usually drink more than it immediately requires. This allows it to donate the surplus to another hungry bat by regurgitating the extra blood mouth-to-mouth. The bats tend to roost in the same tree hollows over a number of years and seemed to have developed the ability to recognise and memorise each others generosity to one and other. A bat that has received blood in the past will, in turn, donate to its benefactor. A greedy bat that refuses blood will be refused blood in turn. And this is not simply bats looking after their own genetic heritage by looking after their kin – most of the bats studied were not directly or indirectly related. Here was something that was perfectly explicable in terms of Game theory and Dawkin’s ‘selfish gene’ approach, but ran counter to the simplistic ideological conclusion of right wingers who have distorted these ideas and claim that ‘survival of the fittest’ necessarily means selfish behaviours predominate in the natural world or are dominant.

Ridley terms this phenomenon reciprocity, and details interesting examples amongst primates, sea-going mammals and others (the co-operation of bees and ants can mostly be explained by kin selection. Drone bees strive to pass on their genes through the genes of a near relative, the Queen.) He even cites the instances of ‘cleaning stations’ at coral reefs; specific spots where larger fish go knowing they can be cleaned of parasites by smaller fish and shrimps, and those smaller creatures know in turn that, at that spot, for that time, they will not be eaten by the larger fish. A clear example of both entirely instinctual and developed teamwork and social co-operation can be seen in the underwater footage of dolphins herding a bait ball...and the sardines, entirely unconsciously, following swarming behaviour aimed at the genetic survival of the shoal rather than the individual.

I won't go into massive detail on the manifold examples that can be quoted from the animal kingdom, and many of both our close and distant genetic cousins - it would turn a 3, 500 word chapter into a mini-series. I would urge you, rather, to read the key popular book on this The Origins of Virtue (or at the very least watch a few Attenborough's with these thoughts in mind. Not withstanding the fun pic of a mouse on a frogs back that heads up this chapter, once you look for examples of reciprocity, altruism and co-operation in the living world it turns up everywhere. A caveat: Ridley, a writer for the Telegraph and Chairman of Northen Rock when it went bankrupt, is no socialist. He's a social liberal, but a free marketeer in the mould of Adam Smith. This shows itself in Origins when Ridley tries to turn his own argument on its head in a chapter called The Tragedy of the Commons - an ill thought through and historically flawed polemic at odds with an otherwise brilliant and scholarly piece of work.

Ridley's central story is, in fact, it is co-operation, rather than self-interest seems to permeate the world of biology, even at the level of the organism or individual cell. “Genes team up to form chromosomes”, he tells us. “Chromosomes team up to form genomes; genomes team up to form cells; cells team up to form complex cells; complex cells team up to form bodies...”

And, of course, bodies team up to form schools, flocks, herds, clans, tribes and societies.

Eternal human ‘nature’ or pre-dispositions to learn?

In the previous chapter I attempted to begin to deconstruct the left’s one sided relationship with the ages old ‘nature versus nurture’ debate. I also began to stake out my argument that Marxists should be wary too of their learnt tendency to ‘bend the stick’ in the relationship between genetics – the biological given – and what we assimilate through the environment and culture. We are clearly not simply blank pages upon which great social experiments can be writ (or anything else for that matter). We are creatures with a certain genetic heritage, drives and instincts. It is important, however, to understand what that means. Ridley, in the introduction to his book, sums it up:

“Instincts, in a species like the human one, are not immutable genetic programs; they are predispositions to learn. And to believe that human beings have instincts is no more determinist than to believe they are products of their upbringings”.

Humans have the innate capability both to be incredibly selfish and heroically altruistic. The potentiality for co-operation and self interest are hardwired into us, it would seem, but they are only potentials. Co-operation, or self-interest, the Hawk or the Dove, can only be realised in our interaction with a real, living complex society.

In this sense Marx began the completion of Darwin, 150 years ahead of schedule, when he said that ‘conditions determine consciousness’ – but only if we understand ‘conditions’ to mean both our environmental and social conditions, and the historic evolutionary conditions over species’ deep time that have selected our innate predispositions.

The overwhelming good news from the modern Darwinian understanding of Game Theory or the Prisoner’s Dilemma is this: There is nothing in biology or economics which precludes a different, better and more harmonious way of organising society. There is nothing in our nature which would doom a genuine socialist project before it even began. Whatever other immediate problems may face us in the struggle to build a new society, we can rest assured that as a matter of fact we are not simply dreamers, wasting our time.

As a Marxist I have always believed one can be an optimist and a realist about the human race at the same time. It was a human brain that revealed the evolutionary processes behind the creation of species, a human brain that began the development of scientific socialism, and a human brain that gave us Beethoven’s Ninth symphony. Similarly, human brains, bounded and surrounded by capitalism and class society and with their worst instincts and prejudices let rip, engineered the Holocaust and Hiroshima. Coming full circle, and on a more mundane level, it was a human brain that gave us the emotionally manipulative Big Brother and the aforesaid Goldenballs.

But the message from science is plain: the game is on, and the Hawks needn’t win.

 The choice, both individually and collectively, is ours.


   Steve Arnott

Recommended reading to accompany this chapter

The Origins of Virtue – Matt Ridley

On Liberty – John Stuart Mill

The Anatomy of Human Destructiveness – Erich Fromm

External links:

Bella Caledonia

Bright Green

George Monbiot

Green Left


The Jimmy Reid Foundation

Richard Dawkins

Scottish Left Review

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