“the selfish gene”

i recently persuaded someone of my acquaintance to read dawkins’ “The Selfish Gene,” and as i’m guessing — or, rather, hoping — that they’ll prolly want to discuss it, i’ve started re-reading it — refresh the ol’ memory (i read it several years ago now).

i also decided that i may as well babble about it here, too, since it’s right on topic! (^_^) i’m sure most or many of you have already read it, but if you haven’t, i suggest you run out (or log on to amazon) and buy it asap! (or check it out of the library!) it’s a marvelous book, even tho it has its faults (mostly because dawkins has his faults. heh — don’t we all?).

so, chapter one (i’ve got the 1989 edition, reissued in 1999): “Why are people?” i think the three most interesting points he introduces in this chapter are the individual vs. group selection debate, inclusive fitness being the reason for many altruistic behaviors, and how much genes “control” our altruistic (or not) behaviors.

the individual vs. group selection debate? i dunno — i’m about as familiar with it as, i think, a non-specialist layperson can be, but i’m really in no position to come to a conclusion about who’s right or who’s wrong here. i know that most evolutionary biologists have concluded that natural selection operates only on individuals (or, really, on genes) and not groups, but that there is a minority group (messrs. wilson, et. al.) who object.

i’m staying agnostic on the issue for now because i’m neurotic i just don’t have the knowledge base to conclude one way or another. individual selection sure makes logical sense to me, like i say, as a layperson. and i haven’t given much thought to group selection, really. but i will note that both william hamilton and george price seemed persuaded by it — or, at least, didn’t rule it out. from hamilton’s “Narrow Roads of Gene Land, Vol. 1” (this is as quoted by david sloan wilson, btw):

“A manuscript did eventually come from him [price] but what I [hamilton] found set out was not any sort of new derivation or correction of my ‘kin selection’ but rather a strange new formalism that was applicable to every kind of natural selection…. His voice was squeaky and condescending, rather guarded on the phone…. He spoke of his formula as ‘surprising for me too — quite a miracle’ … ‘Have you seen how my formula works for group selection?’ I told him, of course, no, and may have added something like: ‘So you actually believe in that do you?’ Up to this contact with Price, and indeed for some time after, I had regarded group selection as so ill-defined, so woolly in the uses made by its proponents, and so generally powerless against selection at the individual and genic levels, that the idea might as well be omitted from the toolkit of a working evolutionist….

“I am pleased to say that, amidst all else that I ought to have done and did not do, some months before he died I was on the phone telling him enthusiastically that through a ‘group-level’ extension of his formula I now had a far better understanding of group selection acting at one level or at many than I had ever had before.”

well, if it was good enough for william hamilton….
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now — inclusive fitness and how that leads to altruistic or selfish behaviors. this from dawkins relates to individuals vs. groups again [pg. 8]:

“The individual-selectionist would admit that groups do indeed die out, and that whether or not a group goes extinct may be influenced by the behavior of the individuals in that groups. He might even admit that if only the individuals in a group had the gift of foresight they could see that in the long run their own best interests lay in restraining their selfish greed, to prevent the destruction of the whole group…. But group extinction is a slow process compared with the rapid cut and thrust of individual competition. Even while the group is going slowly and inexorably downhill, selfish individuals prosper in the short term at the expense of altruists…. [E]volution is blind to the future.”

well, this is related to what i was complaining about the other day — that people have no foresight! at least not when it comes to thinking about the fate of humanity a hundred or hundreds of years into the future. but i understand — how on earth would that ever be selected for when you’ve got individuals vs. individuals in everyday life?

*sigh*
_____

my big complaint about dawkins is that his opinion on the nature vs. nurture debate leans too far towards the nuture side for my tastes. thus his crusade against religion (good luck with that!) — and his belief that we might be able to fight our altruism/non-altruism genes. well, yeah, maybe a bit — but dawkins really thinks such a thing would be possible [pg. 3]:

“As a corollary to these remarks about teaching, it is a fallacy — incidentally a very common one — to suppose that genetically inherited traits are by definition fixed and unmodifiable. Our genes may instruct us to be selfish, but we are not necessarily compelled to obey them all our lives. It may just be more difficult to learn altruism than it would be if we were genetically programmed to be altruistic.”

meh.

rushton, et. al., found that the heritability of altruistic behavior was something like 50% (in modern britons in the 1980s). seems like altruistic behaviors, then, like many of our personality traits and behaviors, are pretty strongly heritable. no one’s gonna change that fact that much by edumacation or culture or anything like that. if anything, the more environmental circumstances for individuals were to be equalized (either make society wonderful and easy for everybody, or make it an absolute dog-fight for everybody) the more the genetics would come into play — ironic but true.

also, whether or not individuals behave altruistically shifts (on average) depending upon with whom they are interacting — that’s the whole point of inclusive fitness! interact with a family member and an individual is likely to be pretty altruistic — interact with a stranger and eh … not so much altruism.

therefore, make a society multi-cultural and you just have to expect altruism to drop. especially in bad economic times. people can afford to be pretty altruistic when times are good. when times are bad — look out. you’re just never going to get everyone to be altruistic under such circumstances. not without some futuristic genetic engineering or something! teaching people to be altruistic ain’t gonna cut it. (of course, there’s reciprocal altruism, too, but since that’s based even more directly on “what’s in it for me?” sort-of thinking, i would think that’ll be the first to go in dire economic times.)
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btw, one of the best parts of “The Selfish Gene” is the cover! at least on the edition that i have. look! LOWERCASE letters only in the title! (~_^)

update 10/04: see also “the replicators”

(note: comments do not require an email. altruism — workin’ for this guy!)

19 Comments

  1. I will have to reread my copy. However, I seem to remember that Dawkins thought the unit of selection was the individual gene itself, not the organism or group. Am I delusional as always?

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  2. “i know that most evolutionary biologists have concluded that natural selection operates only on individuals (or, really, on genes) and not groups”

    i think the environment operates on the culture and the culture then creates man-made evolution

    e.g fast reflexes and impulsive tempers might be adaptive for low population density hunter-gatherers but concentrated in a higher density farming town leads to violence. execution of the most impulsively violent males gradually reduces the frequency of those genes especially in those groups who have been urbanized the longest.

    e.g the threat of war leads the culture to create games that stress traits that are also valuable in war: strength, stamina, aggression, cooperation, teamwork etc

    giving high status to males who are successful in the games makes them attractive to females leading to indirect selection for traits useful in war.

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  3. “how on earth would that ever be selected for when you’ve got individuals vs. individuals in everyday life?”

    i think the team sports thing i mentioned above selects for cooperative altruism.

    also accident

    e.g females develop empathy as a childcare reinforcement. in the context of a mother-child relationship the free rider problem isn’t a problem. maybe the genes involved are somehow associated with the X chromosome so women get two doses of it but simply as a side effect of something evolved for childcare men get a dose too. either way the level in men and women exists along a Bell curve and if it turns out that high empathy is attractive because the mate gets a free rider bonus then you get selection for empathy by accident.

    http://dienekes.blogspot.com/2008/10/altruism-and-sexual-attractiveness.html

    .
    I think a lot of people do think ahead but in the context of how things will be for their kin rather than humanity as whole. Altruistic grand-parents plant trees for their grand-children’s children.

    Probably only a few who think more generally than that and they maybe don’t think enough about their grand-children. pushme-pullyou.

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  4. “thus his crusade against religion”

    the trouble with that is he attacks religion when the genetic part is more likely to be religiosity i.e the susceptibility to be religious about something. all people like Dawkins do is stop people being religious about one particular religion. if they’re susceptible to religiosity they’ll just get religious about something else – like fundamentalist atheism.

    much better to give people a religion that doesn’t hurt anyone.

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  5. “seems like altruistic behaviors, then, like many of our personality traits and behaviors, are pretty strongly heritable. no one’s gonna change that fact that much by edumacation or culture or anything like that”

    i think you can culturally reinforce altruism – it happens in war all the time – but you have to know the grain of human nature and then work with it not against it.

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  6. @bob – “However, I seem to remember that Dawkins thought the unit of selection was the individual gene itself, not the organism or group. Am I delusional as always?”

    yes! you’re absolutely right. not delusional this time. (^_^)

    it was me that didn’t remember clearly, actually. i mean, i know that he has a very gene-centric view of biology and evolution (me, too), but i didn’t remember exactly what he had to say about units of selection. so i checked the book [pg. 36]:

    “The largest practical unit of natural selection — the gene — will usually be found to lie somewhere on the scale between cistron and chromosome.

    “It is its potential immortality that makes a gene a good candidate as the basic unit of natural selection.”

    says he thinks this way in wikipedia, too, so it must be true! (~_^)

    still, in everyday life, surely natural selection works directly on the phenotype and indirectly on genes. no?

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  7. @g.w. – “i think the environment operates on the culture and the culture then creates man-made evolution”

    yeah, i think along the same lines as this — or maybe it’s exactly the same — i.e. that a group’s culture, funnily enough, becomes a part of its environment and, thus, adds certain selection pressures on the group. kind-of a funky, cyclical, feedback loop — or something.

    presumably the professionals have already thunk about this plenty. (~_^)

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  8. @g.w. – “i think the team sports thing i mentioned above selects for cooperative altruism.”

    no doubt, no doubt. and the accident thing, too.

    when i wrote that, tho, i was thinking more of the long-term planning for the group. long-long-term planning. like, why can’t anybody (except maybe the chinese) think about what’s going to happen 25, 50, 100, 500 years from now? that’s what i can see would be hard to select for.

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  9. @g.w. – “i think you can culturally reinforce altruism – it happens in war all the time – but you have to know the grain of human nature and then work with it not against it.”

    work with the grain of human nature and not against it. exactly!

    i get the impression that dawkins — and maybe i’m doing him a disservice ’cause i actually don’t read much of what he writes — thinks you can change human nature quite a bit. like all the business about religion. most people are innately religious! he should know that. does he really think he’s gonna alter that very much?

    he also seems awfully pretty politically correctly with his “we are all africans” business (literally, business! — heh). maybe i’m wrong, but i imagine that he’s pretty happy with multiculturalism.

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  10. @g.w. – “all people like Dawkins do is stop people being religious about one particular religion. if they’re susceptible to religiosity they’ll just get religious about something else – like fundamentalist atheism.”

    there’s some psychology involved here, as well, i think:

    1) most people want to create other people in their own image. they really do!

    people everywhere complain about why can’t so-and-so do things the way i do, or behave the way i do, or think or feel the way i do. this is something very fundamental about humans, i think. presumably it’s some sort of drive to make one’s environment (which includes other people around oneself) the most comfortable for one’s own genes — create the best environment in which my genes will thrive. that’s what we’re all doing. these drives are all, or mostly, subconscious.

    dawkins wants to make everyone a rational atheistic like himself (at least he thinks his atheism is based on rationality (~_^) ).

    2) most people who are different from the average do not realize that they are different from the average.

    i figured this out first about feminists. i think a lot of feminists — especially the early ones — are/were just not typical women. they are/were prolly lesbians or aspergerians or something else not average. (not that there’s anything wrong with that! (~_^) )

    but they never figured that out about themselves and, so, then #1 — they tried to make all other women be like them even though most other women were nothing like them.

    yours truly, being so intelligent and self-aware (heh! (~_^) ), has realized for quite some time that i ain’t like most other women. so i’m not going to try to get them all to be like me. that would probably be futile — and, likely, a disaster for society. (~_^)

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  11. @hbdchick
    “most people who are different from the average do not realize that they are different from the average. i figured this out first about feminists…are/were just not typical women. they are/were prolly lesbians or aspergerians or something else not average”

    Yes. Some of the other aspects were/are (imo)
    – sex drive: women with an above-average (hetero) sex drive are more forgiving of male behaviour and/or find it sexually attractive
    – maternal drive: same as above. a woman with an above-average maternal drive are more inclined to trade off male behaviour they don’t like for family days out at the beach. those women least inclined to children and family life get less of a trade off.

    so almost by definition the average position inside a feminist group will be different to the female average. defections are more likely towards the female average which would tend to make the average of the remaining feminists more even further from the female average leading to more defections until you’re left with the lesbian separatists.

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  12. “presumably the professionals have already thunk about this plenty”

    Yes, except the politically correct ones won’t like it. Apart from anything else selection through culture means at least part of evolution didn’t stop when they’d like it to have stopped. Indeed humans homoforming themselves through culture could be a much faster form of natural selection.

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  13. “i was thinking more of the long-term planning for the group. long-long-term planning. like, why can’t anybody (except maybe the chinese) think about what’s going to happen 25, 50, 100, 500 years from now? that’s what i can see would be hard to select for”

    I think this does happen though as an extension of the grandparent effect. In the same way a grandparent might plant a wood for the future benefit of their kin that they themselves will never see leaders like Peter the Great or Alfred the Great will do things for the benefit of their people as a whole that they will never personally see. However it requires the ruling elite to have a similarly familial or parental attitude to their nation as a whole or at the very least to see the future of their descendents tied up with the future of the nation as a whole.

    I think most of the western nations had at least something like that up till around 1914.

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  14. “i get the impression that dawkins…but i imagine that he’s pretty happy with multiculturalism.”

    i don’t have much time for him. as you say he contradicts himself and in ways that fit a particular political choice.

    selection may only be able to physically work at the level of genes but the transmission method that drives selection doesn’t have that restriction

    it’s the conclusions they don’t want to accept imo so they try and blank out all the steps that could lead to those conclusions.

    the genes for lactose tolerance can’t reproduce themselves. the genes for lactose tolerance are selected for in an environment where lactose tolerance helps the individual organism to survive. while the selection pressure exists then over time individuals in the group who aren’t lactose tolerant will be replaced by those who are.

    similarly with group selection. if cooperative behaviour increases a social animal’s chance of survival then cooperative behaviour will be selected for somehow even if it’s accidental. and if cooperative behaviour is irrational from a selfish gene point of view then genes for certain forms of irrational behaviour will be selected for e.g religiosity.

    meerkats didn’t evolve to be meerkats. there wasn’t a species of proto-meerkats that gradually turned into meerkats. what happened was a 100 species of proto-meerkats were competing with each other for the same terriotorial niche. they all threw dice (random mutations) and the 50 species who picked up random traits that improved group cooperation out-competed and replaced the other 50. the remaining 50 species threw dice (more random changes) and the winning 25 replaced the losing 25 and so on. in a fixed environment there will be an optimum so you eventually get a single winner.

    some people want to shut down the idea of group competiton and selection because, ironically, they’re engaged in hostile group competition and selection. others because they have a squeamish attitude to the replacement aspect – except of course with humans emulation is an alternative to replacement – except many of those same people have a problem with emulation because it implies some cultural artifacts are superior to others (at least in some environments) – which of course in practical terms they are. groups emulate to avoid being replaced.

    it’s politics vs science imo. people like Dawkins, Gould and Lewontin are the inquisition.

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  15. @g.w. – “defections are more likely towards the female average which would tend to make the average of the remaining feminists more even further from the female average leading to more defections until you’re left with the lesbian separatists.”

    and what a fun bunch they are! (~_^)

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  16. @g.w. – “Yes, except the politically correct ones won’t like it. Apart from anything else selection through culture means at least part of evolution didn’t stop when they’d like it to have stopped.”

    yes! hee, hee, hee. snicker, snicker. (^_^)

    Reply

  17. @g.w. – “In the same way a grandparent might plant a wood for the future benefit of their kin that they themselves will never see leaders like Peter the Great or Alfred the Great will do things for the benefit of their people as a whole that they will never personally see.”

    i just read something in the last few days about how older people are more altruistic than younger people. now i can’t remember where i saw it. (dr*t!) kinda tired this evening — i’ll try to remember tomorrow.

    @g.w. – ?However it requires the ruling elite to have a similarly familial or parental attitude to their nation as a whole or at the very least to see the future of their descendents tied up with the future of the nation as a whole.”

    well a BIG help, of course, is if your ruling elite is actually … you know … related to you. =/

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  18. @g.w. – “some people want to shut down the idea of group competiton and selection because, ironically, they’re engaged in hostile group competition and selection.”

    heh. yes. it would be funny if it weren’t so serious. well observed!

    Reply

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