The term “belief” originally referred exclusively to one’s loyalty and affinity, such as when people say that they believe in a sports team, which clearly carries an emotional and competitive connotation. William Cantwell Smith points out in his Belief and History (1977) that it has only been since the Enlightenment, when knowledge became more theoretical, that the word “belief” started to be used to refer to acceptance of a theoretical proposition, such as natural selection. Now in the post-truth era, we are witnessing a reversion of “belief” to its original meaning, partially I feel as a reaction to scientists, particularly in the field of evolution, often forgetting the spirit of perhaps the most important five words in the scientific revolution:
. . . but I could be wrong.
Here is an example that will also serve to introduce a core concept in evolutionary science. British evolutionary biologist William Hamilton demonstrated in the 1960s that altruism in insects is proportional to the degree of their relatedness (kin selection). This kind of nepotistic altruism within blood relatives is caused by shared genes “selfishly” helping replicas of themselves to survive in others. In The Selfish Gene (1976), Richard Dawkins points out the far-reaching philosophical implications of the idea of selection at the level of the gene, as opposed to at the level of the individual. However, from between the lines of this brilliant book exudes a triumphalism, sadistic in its intensity.
For the entire four hundred years of the Enlightenment, we scientists have relished puncturing all your prideful, self-centered little fairy tales. No, the earth is not the center of the universe. No, you and it were not created by God. Yes, you are just another animal like all the others. And that beast that you have been reduced to, well, actually it’s really just a “vehicle” to cart around the real source of replicating life, namely, the selfish genes inside you. Your genes are not about you. They are all in there competing for their own survival.