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Please explain this paragraph from The Selfish Gene

  1. Nov 9, 2010 #1
    Please explain this paragraph from "The Selfish Gene"

    edit: I just noticed that I misspelled 'Selfish' in the title. However I have no idea how to edit the title after posting so kindly ignore the mistake.

    I have been reading "The Selfish Gene" by Richard Dawkins and all the while he looks like a desperate man trying to get his point across Sometimes it becomes very annoying. (No offense to Mr Dawkins or his fans). Somethings are way confusing for me. I don't know but may be it is because of the education system where evolution and natural selection is always taught species central, that I am finding this gene central idea hard to grasp. Nevertheless I still am not able to understand this paragraph in his third chapter "Immortal Coils" on page 34 (at least in my copy of the book, the page number might differ depending on the edition).
    Here it goes

    What I don't understand is why does something need to be stable in order for it to undergo evolution. Isn't natural selection the survival of the most stable as Mr Dawkins himself puts it?

    Also why is he so bent upon trying to prove that genes are the unit of natural selection? I mean DNA is just the code and a body is its execution. How does it matter whether it is the organism or the gene, aren't both the same thing?

    And what does he mean by this statement? " You cannot get evolution by selecting between entities when there is only one copy of each entity! Sexual reproduction is not replication."

    Please Explain
    Thank You
    Last edited: Nov 9, 2010
  2. jcsd
  3. Nov 9, 2010 #2
    Re: Please explain this paragraph from "The Selfish Gene"

    Genes are more stable than their expressions, since they are code, not execution.

    See Dawkins' more technical book, "The Extended Phenotype" He has a whole chapter on the stability of the genome over time.
    Last edited by a moderator: Nov 10, 2010
  4. Nov 10, 2010 #3
    Re: Please explain this paragraph from "The Selfish Gene"

    Oh great! I see that the title spelling is fixed now. Thanks to whoever did that.

    What Mr Dawkins says is that organisms are mortals whereas genes are immortal because organisms die, while the genes continue to live because the jump through generations. He says that since genes effectively copy themselves, they survive indefinitely. However a new copy of a gene are not the same things though they share a very fundamental thing that they are made of the same sequence of atoms. However isn't an animal related to its offspring in the same manner i.e. the offspring is just another copy of the parent sharing a very fundamental relation that they belong to the same species? In that sense we can call even organisms immortal. Here the individual animal or the molecule of the gene does not exist indefinitely but copies of them do. Why then are genes immortal while organisms are not (here 'gene' and 'organism' do not refer to that specific individual or molecule but a collective sense)?

    Also please explain what he means by the following statement

  5. Nov 10, 2010 #4


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    Re: Please explain this paragraph from "The Selfish Gene"

    Copy of the gene is (in most cases) a perfect copy of the original, you can't say that about offspring.
  6. Nov 10, 2010 #5


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    Re: Please explain this paragraph from "The Selfish Gene"

    Because things which were not "stable enough" would mitigate the effects of selection over generations-Thus, evolution would be impossible. If genes changed as often as organisms, there could be no long-term adaptation and evolution to environments. In his wordy-way, that is all Dawkins is saying here. Ie; that evolutionary change can only be accomplished if there are stable enough hereditary units be "remembered" into future generations (ie; passed on).

    When we talk about selection, we can talk about it at different levels. The species or lineage, the population, the family group, the individual, the chromosome, the gene, etc. Selection can happen at any of those levels (though for the higher ones the relevance of selection is hotly debated), but the most important (evolutionary speaking) is selection at the level of the gene.

    No, natural selection is the driver or "ratchet" for evolutionary change--The differential survival and reproduction of variant forms (and as Dawkins points out, most importantly variant genes). NS pits genes against genes, individuals are only a temporary expression of those genes. The individual, again as Dawkins points out, is not the major contributor to future generations. It is the gene, competing against other genes. In this view, we are vehicles or tools for our genes to propagate themselves.

    A gene's "aim" is not to change, but to propagate itself in future vehicles. Luckily for us (for we would not be if it were not the case) genes cannot do this in a perfect fashion. They are forced to change through inherent error in biological replication.

    Because until he wrote the selfish gene individuals were looked at the prima donna of evolutionary change. They aren't however, for the reasons he explains in the book (well they can be to an extent, but I think most working biologists would agree that the major player for change is selection of the gene, remember this is biology rules aren't hard and fast).

    No organisms are not the same thing as the genes. Look at your quote;

    Your children are only half you, your grandchildren only a quarter you. In a few generations the most you can hope for is a large number of descendants, each of whom bears only a tiny portion of you—a few genes—even if a few do bear your surname as well.

    You are only a vehicle for your genes to make it (possibly) into future generations. DNA is a "code" as an analogy works only if you understand the limitations of the analogy. This is probably one of the things I see people (many biology students) wrestle with the most--Because DNA is not a "code" or "blueprint" for an organism.

    Remember "genes against genes". Evolution (the change in allele frequencies over time) requires there to be "populations" of identical entities for change over geological time. The change of "populations over time" only makes sense when think about shifting frequencies of identical (or near identical) units which selection can act upon, namely the gene. You can't have a population of "organism frequencies" which change over time, as organisms aren't transmissible and since at the level of "organism" they are unique, they couldn't "shift" even if they were transmissible.

    For the second part of the above quote, look at the next line;

    Just as a population is contaminated by other populations, so an individual's posterity is contaminated by that of his sexual partner.

    Your children a reproduction event, not a replication event (though you can argue that asexual organisms are "replicators", but that just adds a whole lot of messy to the subject). The point of sexually "reproducing" is to make varied vehicles that give genes the chance to interact in new permutations with other genes. Without this benefit, sex would not be a cost-worthy mode of reproduction (ie; "the two fold cost of sex"). Replication in this system occurs during the first cycle of meiosis. Everything after that is simply a postscript to the game that genes play.
    Last edited: Nov 10, 2010
  7. Nov 10, 2010 #6
    Re: Please explain this paragraph from "The Selfish Gene"

    Thanks Bobze that cleared a lot of things.
  8. Nov 12, 2010 #7
    Re: Please explain this paragraph from "The Selfish Gene"

    How can a gene be the unit of selection when it is never naked to selection? It is the organism that brings it all together. I am not an expert by any means but here is Mayr on this subject:


    Mayr again on this subject:

  9. Nov 12, 2010 #8


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    Re: Please explain this paragraph from "The Selfish Gene"

    As I pointed out above, selection happens at all levels--Biologists, like any people with very specialized knowledge like to argue about the details though. I think its silly to think that selection must happen at "one or the other", certain things (like altruism) couldn't happen from selection on the individual (as altruistic behavior reduces the fitness of the individual, but when viewed as a group passes a Simpson's paradox and works out okay).

    The reason that "most" selection is on that of the gene, is because the gene is what is expressed in the phenotype of the organism. So selection is acting on a phenotypic trait, determined by a gene.

    Interestingly enough, genes can act without providing a benefit at higher units, such as transposable elements. Sure though, sometimes selection certainly does occur at the level of the cell (cancer), the organism, the group, the population, the lineage (350,000 species of beetles anyone?!) etc
  10. Nov 13, 2010 #9
    Re: Please explain this paragraph from "The Selfish Gene"

    Exactly! That is what I meant in my first post too. There is no point in arguing whether it is the organism or the gene which is the unit of natural selection because if the organism survives and reproduces, its genes will get forwarded through generations, and if the genes survive then it will be able to produce new organisms. It is like the chicken and egg story.
  11. Nov 13, 2010 #10
    Re: Please explain this paragraph from "The Selfish Gene"

    Who even says that humans are altruistic, much less genetically wired for it? That is an assumption piled on another assumption.

    But the phenotype cannot simply be reduced and attributed to only the gene. It is the organism that brings together the gene and the environment, and therefore the phenotype. Selection is acting on the organism's worth as a whole, not of the worth of individual genes.
  12. Nov 14, 2010 #11
    Re: Please explain this paragraph from "The Selfish Gene"

    There are numerous studies on the presence of altruisitc behaviour in humans, primates and other species. The preponderance of evidence weighs heavily on such behaviour being gentically determined. No assumptions are necessary, or involved.
  13. Nov 14, 2010 #12
    Re: Please explain this paragraph from "The Selfish Gene"

    I don't think that is true at all. It is still an assumption. There also millions of exampes of humans not being altruistic. More in certain environments than others.
  14. Nov 15, 2010 #13


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    Re: Please explain this paragraph from "The Selfish Gene"

    Having the capability of altruism doesn't mean that altruistic choices are the only ones you can make....
  15. Nov 15, 2010 #14
    Re: Please explain this paragraph from "The Selfish Gene"

    Well speaking about altruism,I was thinking how we can explain things such as adoption. Because using one's own resources to raise a genetically unrelated child doesn't seem to make evolutionary sense. That made me reconsider the 'good of the species theory' since it made sense that if you cannot have your own child at least raise someone else's child so that it may lead to the growth of the species. But then that argument fails, because how do we then explain keeping pets? Pets like dogs and cats and tortoises and mice and hamsters and parrots and all sorts of other animals are obviously not a part of our species so why does a large chunk of the human population feels like keeping pets? I have tried to find some answers for this and I've got some really amazing things. Some say it is a psychological effect and has no evolutionary significance since it arises as a way of satisfying the emotional need of a companion of a person. Leftover emotions that need a way to express themselves. Some say it is because of people's love of animals (the evolutionary reason of which I'm trying to find). I have even heard that they act as ornaments in the house albeit a moving one! However it still remains in my mind as a mystery.
  16. Nov 15, 2010 #15
    Re: Please explain this paragraph from "The Selfish Gene"

    The idea of evolution explaining altruism is just another "just so story". Stories that Dawkins has been peddling to the public and banking in on for years.

    And that is all they are, stories. And Dawkins loves telling them.

    Jerry Coyne:

  17. Nov 15, 2010 #16


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    Re: Please explain this paragraph from "The Selfish Gene"

    There are different "types" of "altruism" some (which aren't how normally define the word) involve kin selection. Others, while a negative cost to the individual can still be shown to increase in a group;

    Simpson's Paradox (scroll down to the last example)

    Much support also comes game theory based modeling of social interactions;

    Biological Altruism

    And from talkorigins for good measure;

  18. Nov 15, 2010 #17
    Re: Please explain this paragraph from "The Selfish Gene"

    As I have said before on this forum, this term altruism does seem to generate a great deal of misunderstanding and a good deal of pointless going round in circles over exactly what altruism is. It is abundantly clear, Freeman Dyson (how you fail to live up to the scientific dispassion of the man whose name you have seen fit to assume) that you are wrong. Altruism does exist in human beings and there is not the least assumption, only scientific dispassion, in the recognition of that. The false assumption that you appear to be making is that every example of human beings failing to act altruistically, and it is quite accepted that there are many such examples, constitutes a disproof of its existence. They do not.

    So, as I did before, let’s go through it again: There is a behaviour, perfectly observable in a scientifically dispassionate way, free from any assumption, among hymenoptera that scientists have seen fit to call ‘altruism’. It presents a serious challenge to rigorous Darwinian evolutionary theory, because at first, it appears to be entirely contrary to it. Scientists have invested a great deal of effort in working out why it is in fact, entirely compatible with Darwinian evolutionary theory, and as such, is a useful demonstration of the fact that Darwinian evolution is not just as straight forward as some people sometimes seem to think. Having arrived at that explanation, it has proved possible to identify examples of it in many other species, including humans, although the way it manifests itself in different species can be quite different to the way it manifests itself among hymenoptera.

    An excellent example of it among human beings is in the way that step parents tend to have a harder time of it making strong emotional bonds with their step children than do natural parents with their biological offspring. Of course, there are many examples of step parents who have made great sacrifice for their step children, and a good number of examples of natural parents who have treated their natural offspring appallingly – and for that matter, examples of grown-up natural offspring who have been equally inhumane to their natural parents. None of these things prove or disprove the existence or non-existence of altruism as a genetically programmed behaviour in humans. At a demographic level, recognising that, in general, step parents and step children have a harder time bonding than do natural parents / children is a manifestation of the same basic phenomenon that drives the strange behaviour of hymenoptera. Scientists call that ‘altruism’. And it is all about genes looking after their own interests. Something Dawkins called ‘The Selfish Gene’.
  19. Nov 20, 2010 #18
    Re: Please explain this paragraph from "The Selfish Gene"

    Freeman Dyson may be dispassionate but Richard Dawkins is not. Nor does my using his name on an internet site think I am "fit to assume" him. Anymore than wearing a professional athletes jersey is a statement that I am as capable of doing what that athlete does. I am a fan. Now that that fallacy has been washed away..

    I never said altruism doesnt exist at all in human populations, I questioned whether it was prevalent enough to make the claims people like Dawkins do. The fact that you have created stories to make it compatible with darwinian evolution, does not mean it is a product of evolution. It just means you have created stories. That is my point. The bottom line is that Dawkins is going well beyond the facts and uses clumsy metaphors to obscure that fact.

    Genes are not interested in anything and don't look after any "interests". Please speak in precise terms and not sloppy, anthropomorphic metaphors.
    Last edited: Nov 21, 2010
  20. Nov 23, 2010 #19
    Re: Please explain this paragraph from "The Selfish Gene"

    With great respect Mr. (phony) Dyson I would like to state that we are not going anywhere with this argument. I would highly appreciate if you might contribute to the discussion and try to ponder over the original question of the reasons for the existence of an apparently altruistic behaviour i.e. caring for others offspring; evolutionary or otherwise.I myself have been trying to think and observe real life examples but so far I have not been able to find anything significant.
  21. Nov 23, 2010 #20
    Re: Please explain this paragraph from "The Selfish Gene"

    I saw this on yahoo site It has an interesting debate that concerns Mr. Dawkins and his thinking. (check the best answer by Andrew)
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