‘The Selfish Gene’: Classic science worth checking out

TheSelfishGeneCoverI don’t usually read old science books.  After a decade or so, I find that their content tends to have too much dated material.  But ‘The Selfish Gene‘ keeps coming up in conversations, not just because its author, Richard Dawkins, is the world’s most famous atheist, but also because of its core message, that genes are the center of evolution, and that animals, including humans, are largely programmed to act in the interest of their genes.

A substantial portion of the book is filled with game theory analyses demonstrating why apparent acts of altruism really aren’t.  They may feel like conscious acts of altruism on the animal’s part, but the acts follow programming that benefits the animal’s survival or genetic legacy.  Dawkins is careful to make sure that we understand that these aren’t conscious calculations the animals make, just the naturally selected programming that drives them.

Toward the end of the book, Dawkins discusses humanity directly, noting that as intelligent creatures, we are the first animals able to override our selfish gene’s programming  (think birth control) and that game theory demonstrates that being nice is often a survival advantage.

The book finishes up with a discussion of memes, units of cultural information that may replicate similar to genes, and of the extended phenotype, the idea that the causal effects of genes reach outside of their host animals to affect other animals and their habitats.

All in all, I enjoyed this book.  It wasn’t nearly as dated as I feared it might be, and where it was, the 30th anniversary edition had excellent end notes with updated information.  Note, religious readers should know that, although Dawkins mostly leaves religion alone in this early book, he does take the occasional swipe.

It’s Darwin Day, a celebration of science and reason | Machines Like Us

Darwin Day, according to the International Darwin Day Foundation, is “a global celebration of science and reason held on or around Feb. 12, the birthday anniversary of evolutionary biologist Charles Darwin.” The idea of the celebration arose in 1993 as part of the activities of the Stanford Humanist Community, then headed by biologist Robert Stephens. And in the intervening 21 years, it has proliferated, with hundreds of events listed in cities around the world.

via It’s Darwin Day, a celebration of science and reason | Machines Like Us.

I liked this article, not just for highlighting Darwin’s birthday, but for this snippet:

It irks me the way Nye, and others who engage with creationists, allow the likes of Ham to call evolution “Darwinism”, and those who can comprehend natural selecton and the overwhelming evidence for it “Darwinists”. An over-reliance on Darwin as our standard-bearer diminishes a broad and vibrant science, giving the impression it begins and ends with a guy who was born over 200 years ago. I believe the creationists and their dullard adherents go further, implying that one white-bearded gentleman is somehow being slyly substituted for another; Darwin supplanting God.

I’ve written about this myself, but it always bears repeating.  Darwin was not a prophet, and ‘On the Origin of Species’ is not alternate scripture.  Darwin made an incalculable contribution to our understanding of reality, but there has been a lot of progress since his day.

Creationists tend to want to equate modern evolution as an ideological movement that sprung forth fully formed from Darwin’s writings.  In reality, the idea of evolution predates Darwin, he just added a natural mechanism to explain it, and the modern view of evolution has progressed since then.

That’s how science works.  No one has to read Galileo’s works to understand astronomy, or Newton’s to understand gravity, or even Einstein’s to understand relativity.  It’s the same with Darwin.

Interestingly, it’s not just creationists who seem to take this attitude.  I’ve seen some atheists, usually militant ones, take almost the same attitude toward Darwin and his books, rereading ‘Origin of Species’ again and again as though it were some kind of sacred writ.  As a nonbeliever myself, I’m pretty sure Darwin would have been one of the first people to say that we shouldn’t put him up as some kind of secular saint.

Evolution and altruism

In this episode, a question that haunted Charles Darwin: if natural selection boils down to survival of the fittest, how do you explain why one creature might stick its neck out for another?

The standard view of evolution is that living things are shaped by cold-hearted competition. And there is no doubt that today\’s plants and animals carry the genetic legacy of ancestors who fought fiercely to survive and reproduce. But in this hour, we wonder whether there might also be a logic behind sharing, niceness, kindness … or even, self-sacrifice. Is altruism an aberration, or just an elaborate guise for sneaky self-interest? Do we really live in a selfish, dog-eat-dog world? Or has evolution carved out a hidden code that rewards genuine cooperation?

via The Good Show – Radiolab.

I haven’t listened to this yet, although I’m familiar with the standard views about how altruism arises in evolution.  (I do plan to listen to it eventually, but I listen to podcasts on my lunch walks and I have an epic backlog right now.)  I’m posting it here now because I think some of  you might find it interesting.

Evolution is usually thought to mean survival of the fittest with a fierce struggle between individuals.  But we are a social species, whose evolved survival strategy involves working together in groups, in societies.  I’ve read anthropological speculation that the development of our large brains might have been intimately tied up in our social awareness skills, out ability to function well within a culture.

The above doesn’t necessarily mean that we’re altruistic because we’re sneakily selfish in a long term strategic manner.  What it does mean is that we have evolved pro-social instincts that give us powerful motivations to be altruistic, to help our family, friends, and comrades.  (It’s not all good news since it also gives us xenophobic instincts as well.)

Of course, the translation between instinct and moral codes is complex.

h/t Machines Like Us