Let us start with the immutable, the fixed rules that, according to the evolutionary biologist, Richard Dawkins, are inscribed into our ‘selfish’ genes. We have an inbuilt requirement to perpetuate the species. This is something that we cannot avoid. Procreation is part of the process. Across the span of the natural world, there are two ways of doing so, sexual, and asexual. Some species can do both.
Among the asexual species, such as worms and molluscs, the parent reproduces itself to create the infant. This inhibits adaptation and change. They are simply repeating themselves.
In the sexual species, two separate creatures, male and female, interact in such a way that their offspring combine the genetic structures of both. No child is an exact replica. The DNA of one parent interacts with that of the other. Through a process of trial and error, stronger connections survive, the weaker are discarded, and the species evolves, inching ever nearer to perfection.
Human civilisation: what can possibly go wrong?
Civilisation is built upon this principle. In business, as in life, we compete to assert our strength; or we learn to cooperate with others to secure our place on the planet. Them or us, war or peace, the same logic prevails: the success of the species.
What we call ‘culture’ is meant to assist this process. Men are encouraged to look more virile, women more attractive. Ancient religions, lacking the benefits of science, protected the sacred union of Man and Woman, their offspring, and the genetic tribe. The Ten Commandments were adamant upon this subject. To think otherwise was a kind of aberration.
Open markets, not open relationships
The culture wars of today echo the battles of the 1960s when the so-called ‘permissive society’ threatened the integrity of family life. The ancient laws against homosexuality were repealed. Strip clubs spread over London and abortion was legalised. Those who most defended family values, however, were also in favour of free trade. This might sound like a paradox, but the open market was quite different from an open relationship. Molecular biology explains why.
There comes a point where the details of politics – who controls whom or what – must give way before these imperatives. This is who we are. These are the laws that we must obey. We are instructed by our genes, not by some socialist handbook.
Margaret Thatcher understood this principle very well. She studied chemistry at Oxford with the molecular biologist, Dorothy Hodgkin, part of the team who first discovered the secrets of the double helix. She hung a portrait of Hodgkin in her office in 10 Downing Street, replacing, or so it is said, a fine reproduction of Leonardo da Vinci’s The Last Supper.
In an interview with Woman’s Own in 1987, she explained that “there is no such thing as society. There are only individual men and women, and there are families”. Dawkins, whom she met at Oxford, would have agreed. “The group”, he wrote in The Selfish Gene (1976), “is too wishy-washy an entity”. He dismissed the idea that ‘altruism’ was something like the Salvation Army or other attempts to make the world a better place. The gene only furthered its own interests.
Avoid the wishy washy
Dawkins and Thatcher used similar words. The BBC, according to Thatcher, was “wishy-washy”. So was the welfare state. As minister for education and science, she withdrew free milk in schools. It was a luxury that the state could not afford. The rabble called her a “milk-snatcher”, but to her political allies, she was bold.
Her colleague, Keith Joseph, went further. In October 1974, he blamed “welfarism” for causing “a cycle of deprivation”. The social services were being exploited by the poor. “A high and rising proportion of children are being born to mothers least fitted to bring children into the world – some are of low intelligence, most of low educational attainment – they are producing problem children – the balance of our human stock is threatened…”
Edward Heath, then prime minister and a wishy-washy centrist, sacked him for those remarks, which he later withdrew. Joseph was a Christian. He, like Thatcher, offered compassion for those less fortunate. The biological principle, however, remained the same. By subsidising weakness, we were weakening our strength.
The political context
The country was suffering from a crisis of confidence. Britain had lost its Empire. There was civil unrest, the miners’ strike, and the three-day week. The balance of payments was in a dreadful state. Some urban streets were unrecognisable. They looked like Delhi or Timbuctoo.
The solution did not lie in printing more money, but in liberating the selfish gene.
Joseph discovered to his joy what it was really like to be a Conservative. So did the British public. It meant freedom. It meant recalling the 18th century philosopher, Adam Smith. It meant the ‘invisible hand’ of the marketplace, replacing the nanny state. It meant monetarism, privatisation, and home ownership. It meant doing unto others what they might do unto you if they had half a chance.
The triumph of the selfish gene
Instead of submitting tamely to foreign powers, the defence of the Falklands proved that the British Lion still had the strength to roar. In the councils of Europe, they felt the power of Thatcher’s handbag. She would not allow her country to be overcharged by one shilling.
The nation has progressed since those heady days. Generations have passed. Charles Darwin observed how species evolve, as they adapt to changing conditions. They learn how to crack an oyster or unwind the entrails of a still-born lamb. Their bills grow razor-sharp, their talons extend, their brain cells shrink. The same might be said of party politicians.
Consider, for example, the evolution of Conservative home secretaries – from Douglas Hurd (1985–89) and Theresa May (2010–16) to Suella Braverman (2022–). They became tougher on crime, immigration, and prison sentencing, without, it must be admitted, much success. The same might be said for party chairmen – from William Whitelaw to Lee Anderson – and even prime ministers – from Major to Johnson, Truss, and Sunak.
“Greed is good!” PM Boris Johnson told his backbenchers: few disagreed.
There is, however, a snag. Some species become so well-adapted to life on the rocks that they cannot survive under any other circumstances. Some politicians are so well-trained in speaking to the converted that an untimely cough in the back row is interpreted as a sign of revolution.
Elsewhere, the world is burning and flooding. Our island is floating further out to sea, a refuge in the Atlantic for a small colony of selfish genes.