Dawkins’ Selfish Genes

I began writing this post as a book review, but I found that as I was writing, the post was becoming more than a review, and so I decided to mix a review and an exploratory study of the book. Enjoy.

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1976 edition of “The Selfish Gene”

Richard Dawkins’ first book, The Selfish Gene, was published in 1976, and served as a seminal contribution to evolutionary biology in the light of modern scientific study. The book serves as a paean to Darwinian evolution, sang from a new, important perspective: the perspective of the selfish gene.

Dawkins examines life in all its various complexity and tests the hypothesis that organisms are ordained, by their genes, instinctively selfish. He disproves group selection theories and advocates the principle of the selfish gene as a truer, impervious theory – one which sits perfectly within the Darwinian evolutionary framework, and which explicably aids the theory. Although the book was written in 1976, its contributions remain relevant and apart from minor details which have arisen over the years subsequent to the book’s publishing, the book is not only scientifically viable, but important and telling.

Whilst this is a kind of book review, it is an exploratory review, where rather than simply telling you the gist of the book, and telling you what some of the chapters are about, I shall detail and explore three chapters of the book (One, Two and Six), providing a brief, synoptic account of the various integrals.

1.

In Chapter 1, Why are People?, Dawkins introduces the book, and writes:

If superior creatures from space ever visit earth, the first question they will ask, in order to assess the level of our civilization, is: ‘Have they discovered evolution yet?’

Here Dawkins expresses his terrific adoration for the Darwinian theory of evolution by natural selection, and his veneration for the theory is evident throughout the rest of the book, and the rest of Dawkins’ literature. Dawkins continues:

Living organisms had existed on earth, without ever knowing why, for over three thousand million years before the truth finally dawned on one of them. His name was Charles Darwin.

A Simple Diagram of a Gene

The main thesis of Dawkins’ book is that life is the product of evolution by natural selection, and that organisms are constructed and “driven” by selfish genes. Dawkins argues that selfishness is a successful genetic trait. However, he is not denying altruism within communities of organisms, as altruistic behaviour is apparent to anybody with no requirement of zoological or biological training. But Dawkins is denying altruistic behaviour induced by Darwinian evolution. Denying that altruism is a genetic trait, as altruism is an unfavourable characteristic in the gargantuan, fierce competition of life. “Altruistic genes” would be pushed out of the gene pool by the selfish genes because selfish genes are more successful, and allow the organisms which they inhabit greater reproductive success. He argues that the “good of the species” approach to evolution familiar to group selection is wrong, and that altruistic behaviour is the product of selfish motivation. The product of selfish genes.

But how can unconscious genes be selfish? Dawkins argues that genes are inherently selfish, so that they programme their “survival machines”, the organisms in which they reside, to act selfishly, so as to maximize procreative opportunity, so as to allow the propagation of the organism’s genes into the subsequent generations, thus allowing the continuation of the genes’ lineages. This is the premise of the book: that genes want to sail into the subsequent generations and that they achieve this through selfishness.

But in this area of thought in the book, Dawkins also argues that ruthless selfishness is not suitable for the welfare of a community, even though it may be suitable for the genes, and that in the intelligence characteristic of humans, we may, as the first organisms in history, fight against the instinct of our selfish genes.

2.

In Chapter 2, The Replicators, Dawkins writes of the beginning of life. He writes that stability is the father of creative processes. Atoms and molecules are stable, and these manifestations of stability allow evolutionary creation. (I will add here that although I myself, as a Christian, believe in a biological creation via evolution, Dawkins is not a proponent of this view – I am simply using “creation” as meaning “construction”: construction by evolutionary processes.)

“In the beginning,” writes Dawkins, “was simplicity.” He then proceeds with his account of life’s emergence and the successive evolutionary stages which yielded a gradual progression of biological complexity. He writes that it is supposed that prevalent basic resources of this lifeless earth could have been water, carbon dioxide, methane and ammonia, and that in the laboratory, these prosaic compounds have been placed in a container, and then stimulated by an energy source, such as ultraviolet light or electric sparks, which simulate “primordial lighting”. The result of this stimulated concoction after a few weeks transforms into a kind of “weak brown soup containing a large number of molecules more complex than the ones originally put in.” But of even greater interest, amino acids have been found, and amino acids receive a code written in the A, T, C and G alphabet of DNA, which tells the type of protein to be manufactured. Dawkins writes that life could have emerged from a collection of basic chemical materials such as these stimulated by something such as ultraviolet light, from which life could have evolved, ever increasing in glorious complexity. Of course, we cannot travel back the necessary billions of years to witness the actual emergence of life, but through scientific study such as this, we can glimpse the possible dawn of life.

An Artistic Interpretation of the “Primeval Soup”

I cannot go into the desired level of detail here, as this is simply a blog post, but I will briefly outline the various evolutionary stages purported by Dawkins and by the respective scientific evidence. Dawkins writes that once this “primeval soup” is formed, a continued supply of energy would allow larger and larger molecules to form. And then a certain intrinsic molecule would emerge: the Replicator. Replicators’ defining characteristic would be their ability to produce copies of themselves. Replicators would comprise a certain sequence of “building block molecules” and other “associate” molecules would “tag along” with the replicator. These replicators would increasingly become more prevalent within this primeval soup, “feasting” on the plentiful supply of “molecular food” within the soup. However, this abundant period would not remain and the once plentiful food supply would begin to decline.

But how do these replicating molecules lead to the evolution of complex life? The answer to this question is that these replicating molecules did not simply remain as molecular garlands, floating around in the primeval soup – they needed protection, and so they developed “walls” to contain them. Steadily, over time, these walls became larger and greater in complexity, and resulted in biological vehicles. Dawkins calls these vehicles survival machines. And the survival machines are me, you and the rest of life. We are robots created by our selfish genes.

3.

This is the last part of the review/expositive exploration of Richard Dawkins’ superb book, and is an examination of Chapter 6, “Genesmanship”. The chapter explores family’s degrees of relatedness and what we would expect, behaviourally, from organisms when we consider their relatedness.

What is the selfish gene? It is not just one single physical bit of DNA. Just as in the primeval soup, it is all replicas of a particular bit of DNA, distributed throughout the world…existing in many different individuals at once. The key point of this chapter is that a gene might be able to assist replicas of itself that are sitting in other bodies. If so, this would appear as individual altruism but it would be brought about by gene selfishness.

Dawkins then performs some simple calculations to determine degrees of relatedness, and I have to say that I found this section really fascinating. He writes that to find the “generation distance” between two individuals in a family tree, say A and B, you would take individual A and travel up the family tree until you found a common ancestor of A and B. Once you have found the common ancestor, you travel back down on the family tree until you come to individual B. So, if the common ancestor was A‘s father and B‘s grandfather, you would travel up one generation from A and then you would scamper back down two generations to B. Therefore the sum to calculate the generation distance would look like this: 1 + 2 = 3. A very simple, though interesting, calculation.

Dawkins continues, writing that we can calculate the “part of their relatedness for which that ancestor is responsible.” To do this, for each level of the generation distance, you multiply ½. So, for a generation distance of 3, you multiply ½ × ½ × ½, or (½) to the power 3. You can use this calculation for any generation distance, so if the distance is x, you can use (½) to the power x.

But relatedness becomes more complex if individuals have more than one common ancestor. The relatedness between first cousin’s would require two ancestors and a generation distance of four; therefore the calculation would look like this: 2 × (½ × ½ × ½ × ½) = ⅛. Dawkins continues, writing that if A is B‘s great-grandchild, there is a generation distance of three, with one common ancestor (B): 1 × (½ × ½ × ½) = ⅛. So, then, a first cousin has the identical genetic relatedness of a great-granchild. Also, an uncle has the same relatedness as a grandfather; both have a relatedness of ¼. (Uncle’s relatedness: 2 × (½ × ½ × ½) = ¼; Grandfather’s relatedness: 1 × (½ × ½) = ¼.) But the relatedness of a third cousin is far less than these relations: 2 × (½ × ½ × ½ × ½ × ½ × ½ × ½ × ½) = 1/128.

Dawkins’ idea is that differing levels of relatedness would result in varying levels of kin-altruism. If an individual was called to sacrifice his life to save five cousins, the gene would not prosper, for the genes of the sacrificial individual want to either preserve or proliferate. However, the gene for saving five brothers/sisters/children/parents or ten cousins would prosper because the individual is preserving the genes of at least two close relations.

Lastly, Dawkins writes that a possible explanation for the caring devotion that grandparents bestow upon grandchildren, as oppose to vice versa, could be that whilst their relatedness is equal, the chances of the grandchild reproducing and therefore propagating the genes is far higher than the grandparent reproducing. Again, this kin-altruism would be the result of selfishness.

4.

The gene’s eye-view of life is new and important to evolutionary biology, because it shows us how genetic selfishness would produce competition and competition drives evolution. The organism who has the greatest chance of procreation is the most successful genetically and evolutionarily. If the global population was altruistic, there would be a far lesser necessity to evolve in order to have a greater chance of reproduction, and therefore a genetically altruistic population would generate less complexity. Who knows that the biological world would have been like if it were not for selfishness?

As humans, though, as I wrote in §1, we have a conscious mind. We can make decisions. We can choose altruism over selfishness, and in a civilization such as we live in now, one can be altruistic and procreate successfully, become successful and live a good life. Indeed, altruism is desired and necessary for civilization, and selfishness, whilst it is prevalent, is not considered an admirable trait.

We owe a lot to our selfish genes. We would probably not be here without them. And now, as the only species on the planet, we can overrule the programming of our selfish genes, and create a great society.

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I would heartily recommend The Selfish Gene, although I am very sceptical of Chapter Eleven, and I hope that this post has encouraged you to read it.

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