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Richard Dawkins and Alfred Nobel: beyond nature and nurture

Nature or nurture? well, both of course…but maybe the question itself is leaving out a critical component: our free will and potential to transcend, and influence, both.

My wife Lisa and I just came back from a relaxing and stimulating 2-week vacation. One of the highlights was to participate in the opening, at Oslo’s Nobel Peace Center,  of the exhibition Envisioning Change, organized by The Natural World Museum (NWM) in partnership with the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) in honor of World Environment Day 2007.

Staring at so many inspiring photographs  and stories of Winners of the Nobel Peace Prize, and reading Alfred Nobel’s simple yet powerful will that established the Nobel Prizes, I couldn’t avoid but thinking what a beautiful example they have become of the power of an individual to transcend both our genes and our “memes” (our cultural and environmental influences-a term coined by biologist Richard Dawkins).

See Dawkins beautiful paragraphs (The Selfish Gene, last 2 paragraphs of the chapter on memes):

  • “When we die there are two things we can leave behind us: genes and memes…But if you contribute to the world’s culture, if you have a good idea, compose a tune, invent a sparking plug, write a poem, it may live on, intact, long after your genes have dissolved in the common pool.”
  • “The point I am making now is that, even if we look on the dark side and assume that individual man is fundamentally selfish, our conscious foresight-our capacity to simulate the future in imagination- could save us from the worst selfish excesses of the blind replicators. We have at least the mental equipment to foster our long-term selfish interests rather than merely our short-term ones…We have the power to defy the selfish genes of our birth and, if necessary, the selfish memes of our indoctrination. We can even discuss ways of deliberately cultivating and nurturing pure, disinterested altruism-something that has no place in nature, something that has never existed before in the whole history of the world. We are built as gene machine and cultured as meme machines, but we have the power to turn against our creators. We, alone on earth, can rebel against the tyranny of the selfish replicators.”

Here you can read the will that created the meme of the Nobel Prize-one page worth reading, with this core paragraph:

  • “The whole of my remaining realizable estate shall be dealt with in the following way: the capital, invested in safe securities by my executors, shall constitute a fund, the interest on which shall be annually distributed in the form of prizes to those who, during the preceding year, shall have conferred the greatest benefit on mankind. The said interest shall be divided into five equal parts, which shall be apportioned as follows: one part to the person who shall have made the most important discovery or invention within the field of physics; one part to the person who shall have made the most important chemical discovery or improvement; one part to the person who shall have made the most important discovery within the domain of physiology or medicine; one part to the person who shall have produced in the field of literature the most outstanding work in an ideal direction; and one part to the person who shall have done the most or the best work for fraternity between nations, for the abolition or reduction of standing armies and for the holding and promotion of peace congresses. The prizes for physics and chemistry shall be awarded by the Swedish Academy of Sciences; that for physiological or medical work by the Caroline Institute in Stockholm; that for literature by the Academy in Stockholm, and that for champions of peace by a committee of five persons to be elected by the Norwegian Storting. It is my express wish that in awarding the prizes no consideration whatever shall be given to the nationality of the candidates, but that the most worthy shall receive the prize, whether he be a Scandinavian or not.”

That was written in 1895.

A further reflection, going back to Dawkins’ quote: what if we can train and improve our

  • “conscious foresight-our capacity to simulate the future in imagination-“,
  • our “mental equipment to foster our long-term selfish interests rather than merely our short-term ones”,
  • “ways of deliberately cultivating and nurturing pure, disinterested altruism”

What if we are starting to see good tools that enable us to train and improve working memory, and the ability to self-regulate emotions, and to cultivate altruism? how will this influence our society? where do we start? how do we become even more human?

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8 Responses

  1. Michelle B says:

    Nice post.

    I do agree with your point that it is possible to focus on encouraging altruism–Noble tried in his own way, and now we are learning more and more about the individual/societal tools to do more in that direction.

  2. Alvaro says:

    Agreed, Michelle. Certainly, the world, and us, would benefit from a more altruistic attitude.

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