Episode 3: The Monkey in the Machine
This episode looks into the selfish gene theory invented by William Hamilton, which holds that humans are machines controlled by genes. Curtis also covers the source of ethnic conflict that was created by Belgian colonialism’s artificial creation of a racial divide and the ensuing slaughter that occurred in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, which is a source of raw material for computers and cell phones.
William Hamilton went to Kisangani in the Democratic Republic of the Congo while the Second Congo War was raging. He went there to collect Chimpanzee faeces to test his theory that HIV was due to a medical mistake. Unfortunately he caught malaria, for which he took aspirin, which caused a haemorrhage, and he died. However, his selfish gene theory survived.
In 1960, Congo had become independent from Belgium, but governance promptly collapsed, and towns became battle grounds as soldiers fought for control of the mines. America and the Belgians organised a coup, and the elected leader, Patrice Lumumba, was kidnapped and executed, causing chaos. However, the Western mining operations were largely unaffected.
Bill Hamilton was a solitary man who saw everything through the lens of Darwin’s theory of evolution. When he wanted to know why some ants and humans give up their life for others, he went to Waterloo station and stared at humans for hours, looking for patterns. In 1963, he realised that most of the behaviours of humans were due to genes, and he began looking at humans from the genes’ point of view. Humans were machines that were only important for carrying genes, and it made sense for a gene to sacrifice a human if it meant that another copy of the gene elsewhere could prosper.
In the 1930s, Armand Denis made films that told the world about Africa. However, his documentary gave fanciful stories about Rwanda’s Tutsis being a noble ruling elite originally from Egypt, whereas the Hutus were a peasant race. In reality, they were racially the same, and the Belgian rulers had ruthlessly exploited the myth. But when it came to independence, liberal Belgians felt guilty, and decided the Hutus should overthrow the Tutsi rule. This led to a bloodbath, as the Tutsis were then seen as aliens and were slaughtered.
In 1967, American George R. Price went to London after reading Hamilton’s little-known papers and discovering that he was already familiar with the equations, and that they were the equations of computers. He was able to show that the equations explained murder, warfare, suicide, goodness and spite, since these behaviours could help the genes. John von Neumann had invented self-reproducing machines, but Price was able to show that the self-reproducing machines were already in existence — humans were the machines.
This had a bad effect on Price, and Price began to believe that these equations had been given to him by God, even though the equations disproved the existence of God.
In Congo, with a civil war ongoing, Dian Fossey, who was researching gorillas, was captured. She escaped and created a new camp high up on a mountain in Rwanda, where she continued to study gorillas. She tried to completely protect the gorillas, which were very susceptible to human diseases and were hated because they terrorised the local people.
In 1973, after converting to extreme Christianity, as a last chance to disprove the selfish gene theories’ gloomy conclusions, Price decided to start helping poor and homeless people, giving away all his possessions in acts of random kindness, influenced and inspired by Christian religion.
In the Congo, Mobutu Sese Seko changed the Congo’s name to Zaire and looted millions of dollars and let mines and industries collapse, killed his opponents and stopped a liberal democracy from forming. While this was happening, at Dian Fossey’s camp, Digit, her favourite gorilla, had been killed by locals, and later she was too.
Price’s attempt to disprove Hamilton’s theory had utterly failed, and he came to believe that he was being followed by the hound of heaven. He finally revealed, in his suicide note, that these acts of altruism brought more harm than good to the lives of homeless people.
Richard Dawkins took the equations and popularised them and explained that humans are simply machines created by the selfish genes. In a sense, reinventing the immortal soul, but as computer code in the form of the genes.
In 1994, the ruling Hutu government set out to eradicate the Tutsi minority. This was explained as incomprehensible ancient rivalry by the Western press. In reality it was due to the Belgian myth created during the colonial rule. Western agencies got involved, and the Tutsi fought back, creating chaos. Many flooded across the border into Zaire, and the Tutsi invaded the refugee camps to get revenge. Mobutu fell from power. Troops arrived from many countries, allegedly to help, but in reality to gain access to the country’s natural resources, used to produce consumer goods for the West. Altogether, 4.5 million people were killed.
By this point Hamilton was well-honoured. However, by now he supported eugenics. He heard a story that HIV had been created from an accident with a polio vaccine, which it was thought could have been contaminated with a chimp virus. This supported his idea that modern medicine could be negative, as he thought medicine opposed the logic of the genes. So he travelled to eastern Congo to look for the virus, amid the murder and chaos. He died, and later research disproved the idea that HIV had come from a medical accident.
Curtis ends the episode by saying that Hamilton’s ideas that humans are computers controlled by the genes have become accepted wisdom. But he asks whether we have accepted a fatalistic philosophy that humans are helpless computers to explain and excuse the fact that, as in the Congo, we are effectively unable to improve and change the world.