How Bad Biology is Killing the Economy
Joyce Park stashed this in Science
Scathing but excellent critique of dumb people using biological metaphors they don't quite understand to explain contemporary society.
Didn't feel scathing to me because it was deserved.
The means do not justify the end.
The CEO of Enron – now in prison – happily applied ‘selfish gene’ logic to his human capital, thus creating a self-fulfilling prophecy. Assuming that the human species is driven purely by greed and fear, Jeffrey Skilling produced employees driven by the same motives. Enron imploded under the mean-spirited weight of his policies, offering a preview of what was in store for the world economy as a whole.
An avowed admirer of Richard Dawkins’ gene-centric view of evolution, Skilling mimicked natural selection by ranking his employees on a one-to-five scale representing the best (one) to the worst (five). Anyone with a ranking of five got axed, but not without first having been humiliated on a website featuring his or her portrait. Under this so-called ‘Rank & Yank’ policy, people proved perfectly willing to slit one another’s throats, resulting in a corporate atmosphere marked by appalling dishonesty within and ruthless exploitation outside the company.
The deeper problem, however, was Skilling’s view of human nature. The book of nature is like the Bible: everyone reads into it what they like, from tolerance to intolerance and from altruism to greed. But it’s good to realise that, if biologists never stop talking about competition, this doesn’t mean that they advocate it, and if they call genes selfish, this doesn’t mean that genes actually are. Genes can’t be any more ‘selfish’ than a river can be ‘angry’ or sun rays ‘loving’. Genes are little chunks of DNA. At most, they are self-promoting, because successful genes help their carriers spread more copies of themselves.
Like many before him, Skilling had fallen hook, line and sinker for the selfish-gene metaphor, thinking that if our genes are selfish, then we must be selfish, too. He can be forgiven, however, because even if this is not what Dawkins meant, it is hard to separate the world of genes from the world of human psychology if our terminology deliberately conflates them