In 1970 the anthropologist Robert Ardrey published “The Social Contract, A Personal Inquiry into the Evolutionary Sources of Order and Disorder”.
The theme of the book was that the modern concept of human equality is a myth, and impossible in any sexually reproducing species. But this was not a glorification of the strong over the weak, Ardrey showed that in all societies at any level of the animal world, structures exist to protect the vulnerable, and that this is an evolutionary advantage as it protects diversity, diversity being essential for creativity.

Just a few years later in 1976 Richard Dawkins published “The Selfish Gene”, as a rebuttal I suspect of “The Social Contract”, for on the second page he mounted an extraordinary attack on Ardrey and two other biologists of similar views. “The trouble with these books is that their authors got it totally and utterly wrong. They got it wrong because they misunderstood how evolution works.” We shall see.

The reason for the outburst was that Ardrey proposed group selection as an extra influence in evolution. This was a departure from “orthodox theory” as Dawkins put it, so in effect Ardrey was trying to extend the boundaries of human knowledge. But the very idea that there should be in science such a thing as orthodox theory is itself unscientific. “The Selfish Gene” was therefore ideological and reactionary, putting Dawkins on very shaky ground unless he could demolish group selection. So was he successful? I think not, as he carefully avoided much of Ardrey’s argument and instead launched into an explanation of natural selection at the level of the individual, taking the “orthodox” position even further to claim that evolution takes place at the level of genes.

Now there’s nothing at all wrong with this approach as long as one is careful, making no intemperate claims, but Dawkins could not resist the urge to sensationalise, never a good practice in science. He proceeded to make the controversial claim that organisms are merely survival machines built by genes purely for the survival of genes. The argument is not sustainable, and the reason it is not sustainable is contained in Dawkins’ own words. On page 24 he stated correctly “Genes have no foresight. They do not plan ahead. Genes just ARE, some more so than others, (?!) and that’s all there is to it.” But so keen was he to push the orthodox line of gene and human selfishness, a view that had its roots not in science but in British history, that he failed to see the significance of the fact that genes just are, and in so doing demonstrated that it was he who failed to understand how evolution works. For it’s clear that because genes just are, it’s the process of natural selection at work on the qualities of the gene that produces an illusion of selfishness. If the gene has certain qualities it survives, if not, it dies out. Any selfishness only exists in the mind of the theorist. The same applies to groups of genes. If the group has certain qualities favoured by natural selection, an organism may be formed. Natural selection builds the organism, not genes. Because genes just ARE.

Dawkins failure of understanding did not end there. In his attempt to discredit group selection he misrepresented the concept. On p7 he wrote “A group whose individual members are prepared to sacrifice themselves for the welfare of the group, may be less likely to go extinct than a rival group whose members put their own interests first. Therefore the world becomes populated mainly by groups consisting of self-sacrificing individuals. This is the theory of “group selection” long assumed to be true by biologists not familiar with the details of evolutionary theory…” That’s not group selection at all, it’s a staggering misrepresentation. Dawkins knows that group selection has little to do with self-sacrifice. Group selection is not a single concept, but is an extensive range of complex interwoven group structures and dynamics, based on cooperation, that contribute to biological fitness. Furthermore, no group selectionist has ever claimed, to my knowledge, that group selection is the full story of evolution.

Yet in one sense such a case could be argued. Because evolution did not begin until molecules, replicators, genes, call them what you will, came together in groups that became life forms, it follows that group selection was the primary evolutionary factor. Evolution began with the selection of groups. And when we consider also that the modern eukaryotic cell, of which we are composed, was originally formed by the grouping of bacteria, those groups then becoming arranged in colonies, it could be argued that the concept of individuality is also an illusion produced by natural selection. An individual is a group, a society, and anyone with any regard for the principles of natural selection and evolution must conclude that our consciousness is actually the consciousness of our constituent parts.

If that seems to be taking abstract reasoning a little too far, then consider this instead. If Robert Ardrey was correct in saying that sexual reproduction created the diversity (individuality) that assisted the survival of the group, this supports Charles Darwin’s contention, ignored by mainstream science, that social instincts are primary and individual instincts secondary. And although Ardrey suggested equal value to both group order and individual disorder to maintain the balance of stability and creativity necessary for group survival, in the context of group survival individualism is not a stand-alone concept opposed to that of the group, it is a sub-category of the group.