dying to live

“Curiously, peace-time appeals for individuals to make some small sacrifice in the rate at which they increase their standard of living seem to be less effective than war-time appeals for individuals to lay down their lives.”

THE SELFISH GENE, Richard Dawkins

This parenthetical comment in the first chapter of Mr. Dawkins seminal book, “The Selfish Gene,” that coined the word “meme,” a topic I’m currently researching for my next work, hit me like a sack of potatoes as I read last night. Mr. Dawkins creates the framework around which the rest of the book hangs by explaining the difference between altruism and selfishness as it pertains to genes*. In this statement, he examines how nations benefit from people laying down their lives “for the greater glory of their country as a whole. Moreover, they are encouraged to kill other individuals about whom nothing is known except that they belong to a different nation.”

It is fascinating, for we are dealing with those very ironies right now. Do we deploy more troops to Afghanistan, thereby putting soldiers, our “enemies,” and civilians at risk of death, or do we pull back, thereby allowing our “enemies” safety, growth, and time to devise a plan to attack us again? On the other hand, people who claim to believe in the golden rule, “Love thy neighbor as thyself,” refuse to even listen to the idea of healthcare reform. They stand up at meetings, shouting down speakers who aim to explain.

The anger and frustration built for both scenarios are based on ideas. Americans heard lies that Saddam Hussein had WMDs, and most believed it. Convinced their lives were in danger, they sent thousands of young people to their deaths. Now, the lives of just over 44 million Americans – a larger number than that potentially killed in any terrorist attack – are at risk because they don’t have insurance. And again, this machine of lies is at work. They are comparing President Obama to Hitler and propagating the myth of “death panels.” And, because laziness and complacency allow one or two like-minded “news” shows to seep into American’s consciousness, the protection of its own nation is at stake.

In one scenario we are willing to kill our own so a certain majority can live the way they want to live. Soldiers’ deaths are considered a reasonable sacrifice. The second scenario, to my mind, is the same. People are concerned their comfortable lifestyles will be destroyed by high taxes, the elderly and mentally disabled will be euthanized or aborted, and long, horrible lines will begin forming at doctors offices and hospitals, if the current Administration’s healthcare policies pass. Since almost 259 million Americans (85%) have healthcare, those 44 million without (only 25%) is a reasonable sacrifice for the greater majority to survive.

The thoughts in Mr. Dawkin’s book, which I just started, grapple with humanity’s protection of “it’s own.” Whether we protect our “own” based on tribes, race, ethnicity or nations, is up for debate. The possibilities are exciting. A reoccurring theme in the book, so far, is what is seemingly altruistic (dying in war for the greater good of a nation) is actually a selfish act by the genes, which are only trying to keep the species thriving. In the case of healthcare, one set of genes “believes” healthcare reform threatens their very fiber of being, and the other set of genes “believes” only by affording healthcare to the 44 million uninsured, we are strengthening America’s fiber, thereby enhancing the nation’s core.

Personally, being one of the 44 million uninsured, I hope this current “peace-time” appeal for Americans to make a small sacrifice to increase our standard of living as a nation is more effective than the misinformation distributed by “news” organizations who helped catapult America into a war based on lies.

The small sacrifice of healthcare reform, to my mind, is the more evolved choice. Time will tell which set of genes is fittest, and which falls victim to natural selection.

* Please note the personification of genes does not imply genes are conscious. It is, as Mr. Dawkins explains in his book, only a way to understand the actions genes take. Genes do not have brains. They just do what they do because they are.


  1. Christy · August 12, 2009

    The topics you are connecting are very interesting. The thing I don’t really get is the end statement about which genes are the fittest. Seems to be this weird combo idea of gene’s and people’s mind set. I don’t think there is a “Republican” gene and a “Democrat” gene. I think people, like you said, fall prey to what they see and hear on tv and the lies that are spread. How is that connected to genes?

  2. james carter · August 12, 2009

    I never said Republican or Democrat genes. I don’t believe that genes are have “thoughts” or consciousness, which was the final thought on the posting*. The personification of the gene is only a way to understand it; however, ideas or memes, are what Dawkins is talking about in the book. I’ve not gotten to his explanation of memes in the book yet, but from what I understand, memes are ideas that can spread and mutate like a virus, and we can choose to control or not control them. If, for instance, Obama and the current administration didn’t stand up to these memes being pumped into the world by the “news” organizations, they would continue to spread. Obama, specifically, did a town hall yesterday to dispel the rumors and lies that are going around about the healthcare reform. It was his way of stopping the “virus.”

    Thanks for asking…I hope this makes it clearer.

  3. Christy · August 12, 2009

    I understand that there is not a Republican or Democrat gene, but I still don’t understand the roll that gene’s play in this idea.

  4. james carter · August 13, 2009

    “The Selfish Gene” discusses the concept of genes being “selfish” as opposed to “altruistic,” and the author personifies the genes as such. The concept is that the survival of the fittest (as per Darwin’s theory of evolution) will always have animals making selfish choices for the greater good of the species. Sometimes these choices may seem altruistic (like dying for the greater good or population), but in actuality it’s a selfish act that the majority makes for it’s survival. The majority sends the minority to war, which means that the majority is selfish. Dawkins finds it ironic that in peace time man (an animal species) isn’t as willing to make sacrifices as man is during war time.

    I’ve taken it one step further and set it in our current circumstances with healthcare and the war in Afghanistan.

    It’s only a metaphor.

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