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Book Review


Dawkins, Richard. The Selfish Gene, 30th Anniversary Edition (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006). 360 pp., $15.95.

Kinzer, Stephen. Overthrow: America's Century of Regime Change from Hawaii to Iraq (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 2006). 385 pp., $27.50.


Saving ourselves from selfishness

     A scientist looks at the tiny world of the gene; a journalist looks at the big world of global power politics. At first glance these two books would seem to have little in common, yet both are fundamentally concerned with human motivation and its consequences. The scientist reports that selfishness is the central driving force behind human action. The journalist illustrates how the selfish imperative plays out on a world stage. When considered together, these books suggest that knowledge of history may provide the long-range view that humans will need in order to cope with selfishness and survive as a species.

     The scientific view of human motivation is supplied by Richard Dawkins, a biologist and professor at England's Oxford University. Dawkins has undertaken the task of updating Darwin's theory of evolution based on recent research and new perceptions. When his book The Selfish Gene was first published in 1976, it created a stir among scientists and the interested public, eventually selling over a million copies. A revised 30th anniversary edition was released in 2006.

     It is Dawkin's thesis that evolution occurs not at the level of the species as is often believed, but at the level of genes. This gene-based view of evolution generates implications that our species may find discomforting. From the perspective of the gene, we humans are little more than temporary hosts for genes on their journey to immortality. If we thought our genes were here to serve us, apparently we had it backwards. Another unsettling implication is that the gene is interested only in seeing us successfully through our child-bearing years. Once an individual has passed beyond its period of fertility, the gene could not care less if the host body succumbs to cancer or Alzheimer's. By this stage the gene has already moved on to its new host: our children.

     The selfish gene cares only about its survival and replication. Evolutionary change occurs as the host species develops new traits over successive generations that prove ever more beneficial to the survival of the gene. It is easy to see why many of Dawkins's readers found The Selfish Gene dispiriting. What is the meaning of life if our essential function is to serve as host for a ruthless and relentless sequence of chemical compounds? What does it say about human nature if selfishness lies at the core of our being?

     Dawkins's case for the primacy of selfishness is brought into sharp relief by Stephen Kinzer in his latest book, Overthrow: America's Century of Regime Change from Hawaii to Iraq. Kinzer, a veteran foreign correspondent who served as bureau chief in various locales for the Boston Globe and the New York Times, has authored several books on Latin America and the Middle East. In Overthrow Kinzer takes the long view of America's role in the world an finds that U.S. political leaders have consistently endangered the nation's long-term well being in pursuit of short-term self-interest.

     Kinzer attempts to dispel any misconception that America's current regime-change operation in Iraq is unusual. He cites 14 instances when the United States played a decisive role in the overthrow of foreign governments during the last 110 years. "No nation in modern history," writes Kinzer, "has done this so often, in so many places so far from its own shores," What can the student of history learn from these interventions? Kinzer identifies several patterns:

•      The interventions were most often initiated by U.S. business interests that felt host-country governments were impeding their freedom of action.

•      The United States did not understand the nationalistic desires of countries to control their own resources, a frequent point of conflict with Western corporations.

•      Although conflicts most often revolved around specific commercial issues, the U.S. accused foreign governments of being anti-American and hostile to U.S. interests in general.

•      American intervention was often justified on the grounds of combating communism—more recently terrorism—or promoting democracy.

•      U.S. officials were willing to disregard basic American principles by deposing democratically elected governments and by employing covert operations to harm foreign countries, often without the knowledge of the American people.

•      American interventions were quickly forgotten in the U.S. but long remembered in the target countries where they fostered deep resentment.

•      In most cases, American intervention was disastrous for the target country, and it damaged the long-term interests of the United States.

     Two examples from Kinzer's collection will serve to illustrate these patterns. Both were coups orchestrated by the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency. Both appeared successful at first but eventually resulted in unintended negative consequences that still haunt the United States. In 1951, a democratic government in Iran voted to nationalize Iran's oil industry, which had been under British control since 1901. Britain resisted the loss of this valuable source of cheap oil. After the British failed to overthrow Iran's leader Mohammad Mossadegh in a coup attempt, Britain asked the United States for help. Although Mossadegh was a firm anti-communist, he was portrayed by the American government and news media as opening the door to communism in the Middle East. The CIA organized a coup that overthrew Mossadegh and replaced him with a monarch, Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi. For 25 years the shah served American interests by supplying the U.S. with Iranian oil and a base of operations in the Middle East.

     The shah's harsh dictatorship, however, angered many Iranians, and his efforts to modernize Iran were seen as threats to Muslim culture. Popular uprisings ended in a revolution that overthrew the shah in 1979. A Muslim religious leader, Ayatollah Khomeini, emerged as head of a radical new Iranian government that despised the U.S. for its long-time support of the shah. When the shah arrived in the U.S. for medical treatment, young Iranian revolutionaries stormed the U.S. embassy in Tehran, demanded that the shah be turned over to Iran, and held 53 Americans hostage for over a year. This blow to American prestige played a key role in undermining the presidency of Jimmy Carter.

     The revolution in Iran marked the rise of Islamic fundamentalism, a force the U.S. considers a prime breeding ground for anti-Western terrorism. Today, America has a deeply troubled relationship with Iran. President Bush has accused Iran of developing nuclear weapons technology, he has termed Iran a threat to world peace, and has called it a member of "the axis of evil."

     In the same year Mossadegh became prime minister of Iran, Jacobo Arbenz Guzman was elected president of Guatemala. Steven Kinzer observes, "Each assumed leadership of a wretchedly poor nation that was just beginning to enjoy the blessings of democracy. Each challenged the power of a giant foreign-owned company." Guatemala's government seized unused land from the American-owned United Fruit Company to give to landless peasants. The company asked U.S. officials for help.

     According to Kinzer, "Communists never held more than four seats in the sixty-one-member National Assembly." Nonetheless, the New York Times reported that Guatemala was falling under the control of "reds," and a U.S. congressman accused Guatemala's leaders of turning their country into "a Soviet beachhead." In 1954, the CIA engineered a coup that replaced Guatemala's democratically elected president with a handpicked former army officer who quashed Guatemala's land reforms. Kinzer writes,

     Kinzer writes, "The coup in Guatemala . . . like the one in Iran, was conceived in great secrecy. No one outside a handful of men knew about the plan, so no one could object, warn, or protest . . . By overthrowing [Arbenz] the United States crushed a democratic experiment that held great promise for Latin America. As in Iran a year earlier, it deposed a regime that embraced fundamental American ideals but that had committed the sin of seeking to retake control of its own natural resources."

     During 30 years of civil war that followed the American-led coup, hundreds of thousands of Guatemalans died. The United States went on to sponsor the overthrow of governments in Chile, Granada, and Panama. The U.S. acquired a reputation in Latin America for supporting wealthy elites and puppet dictators who would back U.S. interests, while opposing better living conditions for the poor. Recently anti-American leaders have come to power in several Latin American countries including oil-rich Venezuela where President Hugo Chavez declared, "The U.S. government sees itself as the owner of the world."

     Few Americans are aware of the dismal consequences that followed American-led coups in Iran and Guatemala. Americans are more familiar with the unhappy results of U.S. invasions of Vietnam and Iraq. Kinzer notes that American interventions usually turned out badly:

     "Most American-sponsored 'regime change' operations have, in the end, weakened rather than strengthened American security. They have produced generations of militants who are deeply and sometimes violently anti-American . . . They ultimately led millions around the world to support anti-American movements like those that have erupted in countries from Nicaragua to Iraq."

     Kinzer told a radio interviewer, "It's enough sometimes to make you cry. Imagine if we could have had a democratic, stable Iran in the Middle East for the last 50 years."

     Kinzer's Overthrow provides a comprehensive response to that perplexing question asked by American students and other U.S. citizens: "Why do they hate us?" Kinzer cites case after case in which American leaders acted without regard for American values to hurt foreign countries, thereby creating anti-American hostility that backfired on the United States.

     What was the motivation behind these misadventures? Kinzer says Americans persuaded themselves that they were "acting out of humanitarian motives." American leaders claimed to be promoting democracy or a more peaceful world. In reality, according to Kinzer, the motivation was more selfish:

     "Most 'regime change' operations fit within the larger category of resource wars . . . The fundamental reason why countries invade other countries, or seek forcibly to depose their governments, has not changed over the course of history. It is the same reason children fight in schoolyards. The stronger one wants what the weaker one has."

     As Kinzer noted, selfishness on the part of great nations is nothing new. The ancient Athenians claimed they had the right to dominate other city-states because they could. The British Empire believed its innate superiority justified the conquest and exploitation of lesser folk. Why should the U.S. be expected to act any differently? What is different at this juncture of history is the possibility that selfishness may have more dire consequences than ever before. In a world of global markets, nuclear arms, and human-induced climate change, selfishness has the unprecedented potential to harm billions of people and even eliminate the human species altogether.

     History—in particular the history of the United States during the last century—demonstrates that humans are perfectly willing to pursue short-term self-interest even when the long-term consequences are likely to be dreadful. The supreme expression of this principle must surely be the two suicidal world wars waged by Europeans against Europeans in the first half of the 20th Century—wars that ended European world dominance. Evidence like this would seem to offer little realistic hope that humans, as they develop ever more potent technologies, can avoid the ultimate destruction of their own species.

     But wait. Biologist Richard Dawkins holds out a slender thread of hope, should we wish to grasp it. In The Selfish Gene Dawkins discusses game theory as a way of understanding how genes operate. He describes a "non-zero-sum game" in which each of two sides (acting like selfish genes) tries to maximize its benefit, but the game does not require an all-out winner or loser. When playing only a single round of this game, the two sides may find it advantageous to compete against one another. But when the game is repeated an indefinite number of times, the two sides learn it is in their mutual interest to cooperate.

     Game theory suggests that when two selfish parties are capable of taking the longer view, each will reap the greatest possible benefit for itself through cooperation rather than through conflict. This dynamic may account for what appears to be altruistic behavior in animals such as birds that peck lice from other birds' heads. Furthermore, biologists have observed that humans possess a capacity for "conscious foresight" that makes it possible to overrule the immediate imperatives of their selfish genes. Contraception is an obvious example of humans choosing to thwart the gene's blind drive to replicate.

     Dawkins concludes that "we have at least the mental equipment to foster our long-term selfish interests rather than merely our short-term selfish interests . . . We, alone on earth, can rebel against the tyranny of the selfish replicators." From reading Dawkins it would appear the best chance for the survival of our species lies in developing the ability to see the long view. That sounds like a job for history teachers.


Mike Maxwell,
Mancos High School


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