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All For You
I am perfect, and I am everything. Everything is about me, and, not to be conceited or anything, but the world should revolve around me, because there’s nothing better for it to center itself around. I care only about myself, and other people are not at all of consequence. Do you want to know why? Because I am the only thing that matters. And that’s totally okay. Charles Darwin came up with this wonderful theory appropriately named “natural selection”, but more commonly known as survival of the fittest. By caring only about myself, I improve my chances at living, and it’s, for lack of a better word, natural. I am self-seeking and self-centered and screw the world because, well, it’s not quite as special as me.
All personas aside, though, there are quite a few scientific explanations for the human selfishness, and more recently, Richard Dawkins’s The Selfish Gene has displayed this quite clearly. He argues a hybrid of natural selection, saying that people are disposed towards not only themselves, but anything that carries their genes. Eloquently put, he says that we are merely hosts for our DNA, that it is the ultimate master. Dawkins presses that we care for genes more than we care for our bodies because “individuals […] are fleeting, [but] genes, like diamonds, are forever (Dawkins 35). Everything we do in life is geared towards sustaining the DNA, whether it be eating, breathing, falling in love, or even throwing one’s self in front of a bullet for one’s child. That latter, in particular, is the body’s last ditch effort to save the newer, more reliable and more able form of DNA. Essentially, everything in life, from natural selection to selfishness, isn’t about survival of yourself—rather, the survival of your ever-precious DNA.
It’s a practical argument—that we exist for our genes. It makes sense, and it’s reasonable. Survival of the fittest plays well into that, and suddenly, the mother bear complexes of mothers—bear, human, or otherwise—make so much more sense! We’re all inherently selfish, and we care only about our own genes—and this manifests in the form of ‘love’. We love someone, and so we have children with them. By having kids, we care for our genes. By dying for our kids, we’re saving the genetics. It explains most of our world…but not all of it—it fails to account for the exceptions, and these ultimately disprove the argument of the inexistence of altruism, of the inexistence of utter unconcern for one’s self and the devoted concern for others (“Altruism”).
Arguments as such fail to account for the exclusions, fail to realize that nothing in life is truly absolute. Few things are unconditional, that have no exceptions, in life. No person is purely evil or purely good; there is no black and white, for in life, there are only ever shades of grey.
Think of the man who died for a person he didn’t know, the teacher who protected his students from a shooter, dying in the process. The brave heroes who run into burning buildings to save another without any concern for themselves. The anonymous deeds, simple as paying for someone’s dinner or writing an anonymous, kind note.
These are the phenomena that cannot be denied. These are the phenomena that blatantly flaunt the unreciprocated goodness in people, the sense of pure generosity that is showered on others without anything in return.
Jerry Spinelli, a young adult novelist, highlights this particular characteristic in his novel, Stargirl. Stargirl, although fictional, weaves the story of a girl who cares for everyone and lives her life based off of other people’s needs. But Stargirl, the protagonist, never stands out for her good deeds because she does them anonymously. She is the unknown benefactor, the person who writes you a card in the mail for your birthday or who is there for you in your time of need—with or without your knowledge. She does everything so selflessly, and for everyone, that she transcends the boundaries of society, doing good deeds for the outcasts, for the enemies, for the hated, for the loved, for the uncared for, for everyone—and she does it all in secret. No one ever knows it is her, and so she collects nothing in return (Spinelli). She receives no recognition, no credit, no benefit. Although she is but a fictional character, Stargirl embodies the exception to the rule, the minority to the majority. She gains nothing in return from what she does for people she doesn’t even know, and in this, she becomes the contradiction to the selfish gene.
Granted, she’s not real, but there are real people just like her, famous people. As shown in Figure 1, the “Tank Man” at Tiananmen Square with the grocery bags who stood in the way of the tanks, even climbing on top of them to stop their procession is the prime example. He stood in the direct path of a procession of military tanks, dispatched to take down the mass protestors in a slew of blood. Instead of moving out of the way and clearing the road to save his own hide, this remarkable man stepped in front of the tanks, preventing them from making further progress. His stand was not for himself—in fact, by placing himself in front of a convoy of tanks, he exposed himself to an impossibly large amount of risk and danger. No – his stand in front of the tanks was for the young people’s dreams of democracy, for the creation of a new and improved China. He became the symbol of the fight back, and his brave actions were broadcasted to the world. He never stepped out of the shadows and claimed credit, never waited for the spotlight to shine upon him for his fifteen minutes of fame.
To this day, Tank Man’s identity is unknown—he is one of these anonymous helpers of the world, a Stargirl of our world.
To be certain, people of this caliber and made of this type of goodness are not by any means common, but they do exist. The two teachers at Virginia Tech at the massacre who lost their lives in an effort to stall the shooter, Seung-Hui Cho, and save their students—the students with whom they shared no biological connection to. They died in the place of their pupils, sacrificing themselves for the greater good, and sacrificing their DNA in their students’ stead. None of these can be explained through the ways of DNA and natural selection. Sure, you’re saving your species, but doesn’t natural selection call for the ultimate selfishness—to always choose yourself above all others?
Many have tried, though, to be sure, to explain away these happenings. George R. Price, for example, dedicated a large portion of his life trying to justify altruism in a mathematical equation called “The Price Equation”. The equation sought to explain away the goodness, in a sense, in life. When the equation was completed, both biological and mathematical explanations at the ready, leaving room for no exceptions of goodness, ironically enough, later on in life, Price gave away all of his possessions to the poor.
Shortly after, he killed himself (Caldwell).
What does this say about people’s goodness? In an effort to disprove the goodness in humanity, Price ended up grasping at straws in an attempt to keep his own humanity. He tried to recall his own
compassion that he had spoiled, mathematically. Perhaps this shows that despite the effort to place an absolute on something seemingly innate, the mercy that people have exceeds all boundaries, going beyond the rules and math.
Richard Dawkins, despite having written The Selfish Gene, argues that we should “try to teach generosity and altruism, because we are born selfish” (Dawkins 3). He notes that it is a common misconception to believe that because we are born with something we cannot change it (Dawkins 3). To Dawkins, everything in life is malleable and capable of change.
To be sure, not everyone is altruistic. Not many people try to be, and even fewer succeed once they’ve tried. Altruistic people aren’t a regular occurrence, but when they do appear, they take a hold of the moment that they’ve been given and grasp it, making the most of it.
Regardless of whether their deed has been recorded for the history books and made the papers or simply faded into the background amongst mundane daily life, their altruism is altruism. There is no denying that nothing can possibly cover the exceptions to the rule. The Tank Man and the Virginia Tech teachers and Stargirl, among others, are all testaments to the exceptions that permeate the world. Although not all humanity may be good, and the majority may be selfish, there are those malleable members of society who molded themselves, sculpted, and shaped, to retain the humanity and foster the altruism that the rest of society lacks.
"Altruism." U*X*L Science. U*X*L, 2008. Web.
Caldwell, Don. "Does the Science of Altruism Destroy Its
Beauty?." Motherboard. Motherboard, 03 Jan 2011. Web. 25 Feb
Dawkins, Richard. The Selfish Gene. Oxford: Oxford University Press,
Spinelli, Jerry. Stargirl. New York City: Random House, Incorporated,
"Tiananmen Square." CBS News. Web. 25 Feb 2011.