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    On 'Self'-ish genes
    By Stephen Lee | September 19th 2011 08:51 AM | 18 comments | Print | E-mail | Track Comments
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    Following a PhD in Mathematical Quantum Theory, my work as a self employed programmer has included writing compilers and management training software...

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    In her 1979 article Gene-Juggling, Mary Midgley criticises Richard Dawkins' book The Selfish Gene with the words:
    'Genes cannot be selfish or unselfish, any more than atoms can be jealous, elephants abstract or biscuits teleological.'
    This seeming failure to understand what a metaphor is brings to mind the complaint by the robot from Frederik Pohl's 'Midas World':
    'Ralph made that faint beeping sound that was the robot equivalent of a sigh: Human(ist*)s were so literal minded!'
    *I mean those who study the humanities here, rather than anything to do with religion

    But one can still ask whether the metaphor is appropriate. I would see the word 'selfish' as meaning more than just wanting to have the best that you can, it also implies doing so knowing that this will deprive others of what they want. Without this, if, say, there is plenty for everyone (or at least that is what you believe), then your behaviour can hardly be called selfish. It is the knowledge of what you are doing which is important.

    One example given by Dawkins in one of his books (I'm not sure whether it was in fact The Selfish Gene), is that of baby birds crying out to be fed. If the parents respond by giving more food to the loudest cries then over time the species is likely to evolve so that the cries get louder and louder. Eventually they may become loud enough to attract the attention of predators, so that the parents will be forced to respond to them immediately. In a creature which was aware of what it was doing, this would be considered extremely selfish behaviour - but there is no reason to think that the chicks know what effect their cries have. But of course we are talking metaphorically, so we have to look for some metaphorical representation of this extreme selfishness. The trouble is.though, that there isn't any. On every level, the predator attracting cries are the same as 'hungry' cries, just louder. A switch which distinguishes between 'selfish' and 'unselfish' is nowhere to be found. It is the same when talking about genes, to be (metaphorically) selfish there would need to be, at some level, a distinction between firstly getting the best that you can and secondly, doing so knowing that this will harm others. I see no such distinction.
    'The greedy gene'?
    So should the book have been called 'The greedy gene'? It doesn't sound right, and maybe there is a reason for this. The OED gives another meaning of the word 'selfish' as ‘pertaining to or connected with oneself’, with no implication of greediness. Each of us has a 'self', which represents not just our consciousness, but the continuation of this consciousness over time. We automatically assume that other people around us have such a 'self', but we are also eager to ascribe selfhood to other beings and objects, regardless of their level of consciousness. This is why the Gaia idea is so popular, and tends to go beyond the original hypothesis that negative feedback tends to keep the biosphere stable. Although the idea that the Earth has some sort of mind would seem too far out, the idea that it has a 'self' seems much more appropriate. Looking at the various entities in biology - the species, the organism, the cell, the gene - it was Dawkins' insight that the gene could, at least metaphorically, be considered as having a 'self' 


    Of course the title 'The Selfish Gene' doesn't indicate whether 'Selfish' is supposed to mean 'greedy' or 'pertaining to the self'. Maybe that's how it should be.

    Comments

    Hank
    This seeming failure to understand what a metaphor is
    He only began to consider it a metaphor after the science was found wanting.


    quantropy
    I'm sure Dawkins never claimed that genes literally thought about things and decided to do what was best for themselves.
    Hank
    Errr, when he talks about the 'ruthless' nature of genes he is either intentionally using language so flawed as to be shocking or he doesn't understand group selection.  People don't write entire books based on a metaphor and then spend a decade rationalizing the term.
    quantropy
    Well 'ruthless' means 'Feeling or showing no pity or compassion', and I think that you could argue perfectly well than genes don't feel pity or compassion.   But as for 'selfish', well there are many good arguments against Dawkins' work, but pretending that what is clearly a metaphor is meant to be taken literally isn't one of them.
    Gerhard Adam
    Unfortunately that's not at all clear from Dawkin's work and comments.  There is nothing in the actions of genes that suggests "selfishness", so the point of the metaphor isn't at all clear.  More importantly in those instances where such genetic actions might be correctly interpreted in that way they are almost always destructive to the organism (such as the segregator-distorter genes).
    Mundus vult decipi
    Gerhard Adam
    I'm sure Dawkins never claimed that genes literally thought about things and decided to do what was best for themselves.
    Then perhaps he should have avoided statements indicating that we are little more than machines whose sole purpose is to do the bidding of our genes.

    The simple truth is that the "selfish gene" doesn't even serve well as a metaphor.  It is wrong at every level.  The BEST that could be said, is that there is self-interested behavior in most biological systems, however selfishness indicates something beyond self-interest.  It is simply ridiculous.

    Even at the most fundamental level, genes do not act selfishly and this should have been acknowledged right from the beginning.  In fact, genes represent one of the most complex cooperative systems in biology.  So, it fails as a metaphor, it fails as a description, and it simply fails as an explanation of anything useful.

    In biological systems, selfishness expends far too much energy.

    In addition, if I hear one more claim about how altruism and cooperation are actually selfish behaviors in disguise, I'm going to have to head-slap someone.
    Mundus vult decipi
    Steve Davis
    How did I miss this Gerhard?
    I think Hank hid it away to stop me getting over-excited!
    But you've both done so well there's no need for me to comment on the deadly potency of the selfish gene hypothesis.
    quantropy
    I also wondered why it wasn't listed.  Does Hank have some 'quality score' that we have to meet?  OK, so my post isn't that world shattering - it started as just a way of linking Mary Midgley's review and the Ralph the Robot quote.  I understand that some some posts will be deleted as being unsuitable for the site, but this one wasn't. If it doesn't qualify to get into the appropriate list for some reason then it would be good to know what this is.
    Hank
    The site and membership moves in tiers so the more you write, then your stuff automatically goes to the front page, then you become a columnist, then a featured columnist.

    The engine is quite ruthless, downright selfish, in a survival of the fitter sense - you'll like it!  :)
    Bonny Bonobo alias Brat
    Unless you get repeatedly demoted like me for example.
    My article about researchers identifying a potential blue green algae cause & L-Serine treatment for Lou Gehrig's ALS, MND, Parkinsons & Alzheimers is at http://www.science20.com/forums/medicine
    quantropy
    So going to the 'Life Sciences' page and clicking on 'All Evolution' doesn't actually show all of the blog posts in that category?
    Hank
    Sure it does, that is a different mechanism.
    quantropy
    No it doesn't.  On the front page the  'Blogs' column does not show all new blog entries, (and neither does the RSS feed), but clicking on the word 'BLOGS' brings up a page which does appear to show all of the latest blog entries. Some of these do not have entries in the relevant subcategory page. e.g. http://www.science20.com/mechanical_philosopher/blog/large_scale_structure_alter_ego_universe-83010
    Hank
    That's in the space section but not a flaw of the mechanism.  He put it in the space section.  There is no 'hypothetical physics' category so he put it in space, perhaps because it is less likely to get killed there.

    I'm not sure of your comment.  Bloggers show up in blogs and columnists show up in columns and featured articles show up in the featured section.  As people become better known, the system promotes them.  You have your own site and its own system so obviously you do it differently.
    quantropy
    No, if you go to http://www.science20.com/physical_sciences and click on 'All Space' you get to  http://www.science20.com/space, but it doesn't appear there.
    My latest blog entry, on the Royal Society Book prize, has now appeared on the front page 'Blogs' section, the day after it was posted, but not on http://www.science20.com/science_society
    Hank
    But it does appear in http://www.science20.com/random_thoughts. Your articles won't automatically appear on the front page yet.  Since we are the largest open science community in the world, that sandbox mode is to keep out people who want to either spam us, promote quackery or promote some website they own.  Not saying you are any of those, it is the default for people who sign up, and anyone who is a columnist can invite people they know and it bypasses the sandbox.
    quantropy
    I'm fine with that, but it's a bit confusing when an article with Home > Physical Sciences > Space at the top is reached via Home > Culture> Mathematics instead.
    Hank
    We've been here 5 years and no one has complained (before) that people can self-categorize and then it can be changed by a moderator to a more accurate category.  There are 36 and still some don't easily fit into one.

    If you write PHP, by all means light a candle rather than curse our darkness.  We are happy to let other people work for free also so you can jump right in.