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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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As seen in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, BBC News, CNN, Reuters,  SharpBrains is an independent market research firm tracking how brain science can improve our health and our lives.

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