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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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