Adapting Dawkins: The Not-So-Selfish Gene


By Nilesh Bhagat, CHRP

Richard Dawkins argues that the purpose of our existence is fueled by our drive to survive. Specifically, he says that we are inherently selfish; that our very genes are programmed to ensure they are replicated and survive over time at any cost. One could see this working well in the short term; if gaining a favor from another and not returning it means increasing your chances for survival, then why not? But it’s easy to see how this strategy falls apart if repeated over time and into the long term; for the selfish, the glue that binds them to the rest – trust – begins to dissipate until it  ceases to exist.

Michael Shermer and Howard Bloom argue something different. They agree that we are all fundamentally wired to survive, but not to the extent of selfish genetic propagation. Rather, we’re here to survive through adaptation. This is significant because surviving through adaptation is vastly different from surviving at any (selfish) cost. Whereas the selfish gene theory lends itself to survival of the individually fittest, the adaptation theory suggests we aim to increase our chances of survival through networked resourcefulness. As evolution would have it, this resourcefulness means using our social environment to increase that probability for survival. Put another way, it is the maintenance and mindfulness of our social connections which enables us to survive; that’s why we’re called social animals.

This distinction draws parallels to the business world. It’s been traditionally believed that the goal of business is to maximize profit. True – but like the selfish gene philosophy, it’s short-sighted. Sure, the lifeblood of businesses is profit, but the true goal of a business is to endure.

This is where the link to the adaptation philosophy takes hold: if a business is to endure profitably over time, it must adapt to changing economic and social circumstances. It must be connected to the needs and changing tastes of those who decide to transact and create profits for the business. Approaching business with solely the selfish desire to earn profits is – by now – understood as a weak approach to economic survival.

Two examples illustrate this point:

  1. Remember Enron? Well, their leaders sought to selfishly maximize profit. Their disregard for the effects of profit-focused behavior at the expense of their shareholders – and general stakeholders – resulted in their demise.
  2. In contrast, TOMS Shoes syncs its business model to adapt to the values and beliefs of its time: sharing, collaborating and connecting with others. Through its One for One philosophy, TOMS uses social connections to create good for its stakeholders, while earning healthy profits.

So where does HR fit into this adaptive approach?

Well, it is the area of people practice – and in today’s increasingly connected age, where relationships and understanding the human spirit matter, Human Resources is the glue which binds the adaptive business web. By striving to connect its human assets to the bottom line, HR is helping its organizations adapt to those changing external forces by creating, implementing and renewing the tools for adaptation within.

Nilesh Bhagat, CHRP, is a rewards coordinator with Best Buy Canada.  Nilesh graduated from Simon Fraser University with a Bachelor’s degree in Business Administration, First Class Honours. He majored in Human Resources Management and tacked on an extended minor in Psychology. He’s a self-confessed nerd (the first step is admitting), likes to read, loves hockey and is struggling with the complexities of learning the game of golf.

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