Croft Press / David Wallace Croft / Religion / Sermons

The Virtue of Selfish Genes

David Wallace Croft

A sermon presented to the
Humanist Fellowship of North Texas
Plano, Texas
2005 Oct 29 Sat

I am on a quest for a new religion. As recorded in my earlier sermon, “The Founding of the Humanist Church and the History of Religious Humanism”, I was specifically looking for a flavor of religious atheism that was democratic. I discovered the American Religious Humanism movement, almost forgotten now, and due for a revival. I have eagerly read a number of books on this subject and I look forward to spending the next few years searching for some of the out of print books from the peak decade of this movement, the 1930's.

In the 1930's, many Religious Humanists were also socialists. I recently learned that my great-grandfather, in addition to being a socialist, was also an atheist. Perhaps atheism and socialism were synonymous during this period. It certainly seems to be so from reading the 1933 Humanist Manifesto. To some extent, it still seems to be that way today, based on articles I read in modern day humanist literature.

I am not a socialist. I believe that socialism is slavery. I feel I can excuse the Religious Humanists of the 1930's somewhat, for they had not yet had the historical perspective of what the National Socialists of Germany, more commonly known as the Nazis, and the Soviet Union would do to individual rights. The Nazis and the Soviet Union are no more, yet American Humanist leadership continues to advocate this misguided position.

I also came to realize that my other disagreement with Humanism is what I call mortalism. Transhumanists believe that humans will achieve natural miracles in the future, including immortality, through the progress of our sciences. Humanists, on the other hand, preach an acceptance of death as an inevitable event and even question whether one should accept the gift of immortality if medical science makes it possible. In my opinion, the Humanists make little distinction between the promise of immortality through supernatural or natural means and reject both as equally impossible.

While not mortalists, many Transhumanists are supernaturalists and socialists. In order to come up with my perfect combination, tailored specifically to me, I was going to need to follow some advice I received many years ago and create something new. Inspired by the Humanist Manifesto and the Extropian Principles, I authored the Optihumanist Principles last year, defining a new religion based on a blend of Religious Humanism, Transhumanism, and Individualism. Making your principles explicit by writing them down in black and white is quite rewarding and I highly recommend it. It is my hope that I can update the Optihumanist Principles once each year as I refine my beliefs over the course of my lifetime.

Even more recently I have discovered the philosophy of Objectivism. I am very excited by Objectivism and I have been digging into books from the 1960's with the same enthusiasm that I dedicated to the earlier works on Religious Humanism. Objectivism appeals to me because it combines Atheism and Individualism, something that appears to be quite rare these days. When I next update my Optihumanist Principles, I suspect it will become a religion based on Religious Humanism, Transhumanism, and Objectivism.

Objectivism is a rejection of subjectivism. Objectivism states that there is a material reality which exists independent of our minds. This reality follows naturals laws which can be explored and mastered through our senses and our human reasoning ability. Self-interest is the highest ethic and capitalism is the preferred political theory.

When Ayn Rand, the author of Objectivism, speaks of self-interest as an ethic, she talks about survival in a rational universe. I am very interested in the idea of survival as an ultimate objective as I see from evolution that what continues to survive continues to exist and everything else does not. Survival is its own reward. Persistence persists. “Existence exists.”

Not long ago, I was told of a new philosophy that stated that pain was the ultimate evil and that eliminating pain for all life on Earth was the ultimate good. As a student of neuroscience, I rejected this philosophy immediately as I understand how critical pain is to our survival. If pain is the ultimate evil, then why not eliminate all life on Earth as an act of mercy?

My wife and I watched the movie “March of the Penguins” with our children. This was a mistake. Many of the penguins were frozen, starved, or eaten. Later that night, one of my children started crying while recalling images of dead chicks. I now call this movie “The Trail of Tears for Penguins”.

The penguins evolved over thousands of years to engage in intricate behaviors in order to reproduce in a climate that gradually became increasingly hostile to life. From the movie, it is apparent that their lives are full of pain. Yet you are inspired by their survival. I recommend that you see this movie. Just don't bring the children.

When Ayn Rand speaks of survival, she speaks of survival of Man qua Man, or Man as Man. I take this to mean survival as a producer rather than as a parasite or a cannibal. In digging through the dictionary for terms that she frequently uses such as Altruism, Collectivism, Communitarianism, Individualism, Selfishness, Selflessness, and Socialism, I see from context that her definitions are sometimes a bit different. It reminds me of a recent conversation that I had with a Unitarian minister where the definition of the term “materialism” was in question.

Rand speaks of collectivism as cannibalism. The altruist sacrifices himself for others. The cannibal preaches altruism in order to sacrifice others to himself.

I had wondered whether parasitism was a better term for what Rand describes when she refers to the evils of altruism. But then I realized that parasites merely feed off of the host without necessarily destroying it. Cannibalism is a better description for what happens with humans. Humans must survive as humans simply because they are smart enough to know when they are being treated as prey by other humans. When this happens, they simply quit participating and productive society comes to a stop. I am reminded of the saying in the last days of the Soviet Union, “They pretend to pay us more and we pretend to work harder.” Atlas shrugs.

Ayn Rand rejects altruism, the “Unselfish concern for the welfare of others”, as suicidal and impractical. She states that self-sacrificial altruism is a conscious irrational human concept alien to animals. When I look at the second definition of altruism in my “American Heritage College Dictionary”, however, I read that altruism as applied to the animal kingdom is “Instinctive cooperative behavior that is detrimental to the individual but contributes to the survival of the species”. I am reminded of my sermon “Why We Love Our Children (And Cats)” in which I stated that humanity is inherently good because it has evolved to be so. I cited within that sermon an example from the book “The Selfish Gene” by Richard Dawkins in which a mother bird risks her life to lead a predator away from the chicks in her nest. In my opinion, this is a clear case of genetic altruism. Ayn Rand embraces this kind of altruism as well although she prefers to call it self-interest, perhaps because the mother has a personal interest in preserving the lives of her own chicks but not necessarily the lives of other chicks in other nests.

The first chapter in her book “The Virtue of Selfishness” is entitled “Objectivist Ethics” which is what I was originally planned as the title for this sermon. I am fascinated, however, by this connection between Rand and Dawkins on the selfishness of the individual for self-preservation and survival. Dawkins makes it clear that the individual unit of survival is not an individual human being, but rather the individual genes that comprise a human being. These genes are shared with our children, our kin, our species, and, to some extent, all of life on Earth. In this respect, perhaps Religious Naturalists are closer to the truth than Religious Humanists. Out of “The Virtue of Selfishness” by Rand and “Selfish Genes” by Dawkins, I entitle this sermon “The Virtue of Selfish Genes”.

Last weekend I was interviewed for a student film entitled “Life.Faith.Doubt”. One of the questions dealt with the role of science and reason in my faith in Humanity. I answered that while science and reason were significant elements of my faith, I also recognized that evolved instincts played a dominant role. I cited as examples my emotional responses upon seeing the face of a newborn or hearing of inhuman atrocities abroad.

Conscious reflection upon the source of these emotions leads me to believe that I am part of the Human Race and not just an automaton. I acknowledge that these instincts are a form of knowledge about survival in an objective reality achieved through evolution rather than reason. The children of parents that do not possess these instincts do not survive -- for objective reality demands that parents love their children as they would love themselves.

I encourage you to embrace Ayn Rand's philosophy of Objectivism by first reading her fiction novels such as “Anthem” and “Atlas Shrugged”. I then recommend that you explore her non-fiction works such as “The Virtue of Selfishness” and “Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal”. Finally I would recommend that you study the works of her critics such as “With Charity Toward None: An Analysis of Ayn Rand's Philosophy” by William F. O'Neill. “With Charity Toward None” is particularly interesting in that the author provides a fair, concise, and thorough description of Objectivist Philosophy in Part I of his book before tearing it apart in Part II. And, as always, I strongly recommend that you read “The Selfish Gene” by Richard Dawkins if you have not already done so.

Although I will continue to explore Objectivism as a participant in the discussion and reading groups of the North Texas Objectivist Society, having completed this sermon I now redirect my focus to Transhumanism, the third branch of the hybrid personal religion I call Optihumanism. I recently purchased the book “The Singularity is Near: When Humans Transcend Biology” by the scientist, inventor, and futurist Ray Kurzweil. In flipping through the pages, I see dozens of topics that appeal to my faith in the future of Humanity to transcend the tragedy of the Human Condition. Until my next sermon, my love and respect.

Creative Commons License

© 2005 David Wallace Croft
This work is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution License 2.5.

Croft Press Web