“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….

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?


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.”


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.)

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!)