DiskuteraGROUP READ - The Selfish Gene by Richard Dawkins

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GROUP READ - The Selfish Gene by Richard Dawkins

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1Samantha_kathy
Redigerat: jun 30, 2014, 10:26am



This quarter the Science, Religion, and History group will be reading The Selfish Gene by Richard Dawkins.

This book details one of three main theories in evolutionary biology.

The most well-known and generally accepted theory about evolution is Darwin's evolutionary theory of natural selection based on the individual - it's been somewhat changed and adapted since he postulated it, updated with modern understanding of how the world works, but the basic principles are still the same.

A second theory is intelligent design, a theory scorned by a lot of scientists for being based on religion, yet still discussed in univeristy lectures as it does point out some of the flaws of current evolutionary theory. The basic premise of the theory is that random evolution alone could not have been responsible for the life we see on Earth today, so they postulate an intelligen design driving natural selection in a certain direction.

The last theory is Dawkins' selfish gene idea - based on Darwin's natural selection theory, but placing the gene at the center of it, instead of the individual. The more recent work on altruism has given more credit to Dawkins' theory, which is gaining popularity - although not anywhere near overthrowing Darwin's theory. It's not for nothing that Dawkins' book The Selfish Gene has been in print for over thirty years - a special anniversary edition with a new foreword came out in 2006.

This group read will take place from July through the end of September, and will have an informal discussion throughout. I'm looking forward to finally reading Dawkins' theory in his own words, instead of hearing a distilled version in a lecture.

2southernbooklady
jun 30, 2014, 10:32am

Thanks for setting up the thread. I'm looking forward to the discussion.

3The_Hibernator
jun 30, 2014, 12:02pm

YAY! I can participate in this! I've got the book in audio format and am about to go on a nice long car-trip. Excellent timing!

4qebo
jun 30, 2014, 2:22pm

A few responses already, and I haven’t started the book... :-)

(1) I’m a tad (OK, more than a tad) disturbed by the elevation of Intelligent Design to scientific theory included in university lectures. Where? (Aside from religious institutions, or perhaps in a context of philosophical discussion.)

(2) My basic understanding of the “selfish gene” concept is that it falls completely within the camp of natural selection (and various other evolutionary mechanisms); the issue is the unit of selection: gene, individual, group. Dawkins and Stephen J. Gould disagreed about this, for example, but both are/were fully accepting of (and see/saw themselves as contributing details to) evolutionary theory.

(3) The Selfish Gene was originally published in 1976. Dawkins is a prominent voice in opposition to religion, and I wondered how far back this goes, so I checked “religion” in the index, and indeed it does make brief appearances in recognizable form.

5southernbooklady
jun 30, 2014, 2:39pm

>4 qebo: My basic understanding of the “selfish gene” concept is that it falls completely within the camp of natural selection (and various other evolutionary mechanisms); the issue is the unit of selection: gene, individual, group.

It does. It is really more a refinement of Darwin's natural selection theory than a replacement.

the elevation of Intelligent Design to scientific theory

It is a theory, but not a scientific theory.

6Samantha_kathy
jun 30, 2014, 2:46pm

(1) I’m a tad (OK, more than a tad) disturbed by the elevation of Intelligent Design to scientific theory included in university lectures. Where? (Aside from religious institutions, or perhaps in a context of philosophical discussion.)

Intelligent Design isn't elevated to a scientific theory in the lectures (or just the one lecture it was mentioned in, really). It's shown as an example of theories about evolution - many of which are wrong, like Lamarck's. However, in trying to disprove evolution theory as it's generally accepted, they do make some valid points about areas/phenomena that evolution theory as it stands today does not have an explanation for yet. In that way, it's a useful commentary on the areas that need further research. One such area is for instance the enormous explosion of diversity in the Cambrian Period - for which we have evidence in for instance the Burgess Shale fossils, but no real explanation as to why so many new life forms suddenly evolved.

(2) My basic understanding of the “selfish gene” concept is that it falls completely within the camp of natural selection (and various other evolutionary mechanisms); the issue is the unit of selection: gene, individual, group. Dawkins and Stephen J. Gould disagreed about this, for example, but both are/were fully accepting of (and see/saw themselves as contributing details to) evolutionary theory.

It does fall within the camp of natural selection. But where Darwin placed the individual organism at the center of the fight for survival of the fittest, Dawkins placed the gene there. So far, the general consensus is that it's the individual that drives natural selection - so Darwin's theory. However, Dawkins theory has some really good points and does have proponents in the scientific community. My professors seemed to be of the opinion that both theories might be right, depending on the circumstances.

They are taught as two different theories, although they use the same foundation, due to the difference in focus, which has far-reaching consequences when you do evolutionary research. For instance, if you look at Neanderthals from the viewpoint of Darwin's theory, they are extinct. If you look at Neanderthals from Dawkins' viewpoint, Neanderthal genes still exist (although they might not exactly thrive) in our current human population. Big difference scientifically speaking, so two theories.

(3) The Selfish Gene was originally published in 1976. Dawkins is a prominent voice in opposition to religion, and I wondered how far back this goes, so I checked “religion” in the index, and indeed it does make brief appearances in recognizable form.

Looking at Dawkins' theory, I didn't really get the idea he was religious - or at least, he didn't let religion touch his science. Didn't know he was so opposed to religion though.

7qebo
jun 30, 2014, 3:31pm

>6 Samantha_kathy:

In the US, invoking Intelligent Design immediately raises suspicions of religious motivation. ID advocates have not discovered previously unrecognized problems with evolutionary theory; rather, a standard ID strategy is to latch on to areas of uncertainty or controversy that biologists are fully aware of, and use them as gotchas. I can completely see mentioning ID as an idea, especially because it’s an idea with a long history.

Didn't know he was so opposed to religion though.
The God Delusion. He’s most adamantly opposed to particular forms of religion, but extends this to the (IMO not all that rigorously defined) thing in general.

he didn't let religion touch his science
I think it’s the other way around. As far as I know, nobody’s arguing against his evolutionary theories as anything other than science. His science has surely influenced his views on religion, in part because evolution clashes with some religious assertions so biologists can get caught in the battle whether they wish to or not, and in part because he extrapolated the concept of gene as unit of transmission within species into meme as unit of transmission within culture.

8qebo
jun 30, 2014, 3:33pm

Grrr. Maybe I should read this book now. I have several in the queue ahead of it.

9drneutron
jun 30, 2014, 4:14pm

Added this thread to the group wiki, by the way.

10JDHomrighausen
Redigerat: jul 29, 2014, 9:20pm

Such a great conversation going already! Echoing qebo's comments above: because creationism and intelligent design advocates are so persistent in having their ideas taught in schools, mention of either of these ideas raises peoples' hackles. Advocates of ID have been very deceptive and opportunistic, and the issue is highly politicized. There's also the dishonesty of claiming that it is not a religious theory when many of its major advocates and donors are all associated with conservative forms of Christianity.

I have to admit I was initally reluctant to read this book. I read The God Delusion for a class called "Darwin and God," and I wrote a paper analyzing Dawkins' rhetoric. When it comes to religion, he is very polarizing and tends to draw big conclusions based on 1-2 examples. He has also said stupid things about feminism. In general I see him as someone who is not very aware of his own privilege, and is perhaps given to mansplaining.

Christopher Hitchens was another one of the New Atheists whose writing on religion I don't find useful. Yet I really enjoyed Mortality, his memoir about dying of cancer. So I gave Dawkins a second chance as well, in the hopes that I would enjoy his writing that did not touch on religion.

I was not disappointed. This was a good book!

11JDHomrighausen
jul 29, 2014, 9:46pm

My review -----

As a religious studies major, I am pretty illiterate in science. My girlfriend, a molecular biology major, is far more literate in my field than I am in hers. I am taking on myself to read popular science books so I can understand her.

Dawkins dives into the debate in evolutionary biology between individual and group selection, arguing for a third type known as gene selection. He characterizes genes as “selfish” in that they seek to propagate themselves and guide their organisms’ (“survival machines”) behavior in ways that maximize their own continuation. After setting out the basics of genetics and explaining his theory, he applies it to his area of expertise, ethology (animal behavior), looking at examples of altruism at the level of individuals, kin, and intra- and inter-species interaction. In his last famous chapter, he coins the term “meme” and speculates about how the idea of genetic replication and evolution might apply to cultural evolution.

I don’t know enough about evolutionary biology to assess this book, but I can say that Dawkins is really good at explaining examples without math. His discussions of optimal clutch size, evolutionarily stable strategies, parent-offspring and offspring-offspring conflicts for resources, and the battle of the sexes stick in my mind! Sometimes his descriptions can verge on poetic:

A society of ants, bees, or termites achieves a kind of individuality at a higher level. Food is shared to such an extent that one may speak of a communal stomach. Information is shared so efficiently by chemical signals and by the infamous ‘dance’ of the bees that the community behaves almost as if it were a unit with a nervous system and sense organs of its own. (185)

For people with a better understanding of biology than mine, please explain: how has Dawkins’ theory stood up over time? Is the “selfish gene” still a viable hypothesis?

As for memes, Dawkins talks about this topic in The God Delusion as well. In that book as in this, he describes beliefs about God and the afterlife as cultural parasites that linger in peoples’ minds because they explain complicated questions with simple, intuitive answers. Just as biological fitness is not related to an individual’s or species’ beauty or morality, so memetic fitness is unrelated to whether or not a meme is accurate.

Still, I can’t help but think the concept of a meme is a hollow idea. It’s a nice-sounding idea, but I kept thinking: what does it actually explain? What does it predict? I don’t think Dawkins delivers on this. I could be wrong, but my understanding is that anthropologists haven’t found the idea useful for explaining culture.

Overall, a good book, as long as one realizes it is probably dated and tries to ignore Dawkins’ weird tangents on God and the working-class.

12JDHomrighausen
jul 29, 2014, 9:48pm

13aulsmith
jul 29, 2014, 11:05pm

>11 JDHomrighausen: how has Dawkins’ theory stood up over time?

Your girl friend is probably a better person to ask, but my understanding is that while still a viable hypothesis, it has not been a productive hypothesis leading to new discoveries or understanding. It's there to remind folks that, ultimately, everything about biology must somehow be related to DNA at its base, but we're not ready to say how or what other factors are at work interacting with genetic chemistry nor have biologists found the idea of "selfishness" of much use.

Likewise, memes have not fared well. Clearly there is coded cultural information that gets passed on in human society, and Dawkins' insight that at base this information would follow the same rules as the codes in DNA is interesting. However, when memeticists tried to find the codes, predict cultural behavior based on the theory, or do a number of other scientific tasks with it, they were unsuccessful -- actually spectacularly unsuccessful: their main journal stopped publishing after only a few years because they were unable to say anything useful about their field.

So there is yet a lot of work to do in the area of evolutionary systems and the codes that carry the system's information. But we owe the fact that we can think about evolutionary systems with their own codes in large part to Dawkins.

14JDHomrighausen
jul 29, 2014, 11:37pm

> 13

Thanks for that info, aulsmith! I just find it odd that Dawkins is still talking about memes almost four decades later. One might think that he would admit it was an unproductive idea -- unless he has and I have just not read that book. I would gladly read another Dawkins book, but only one that was strictly science.

15kiparsky
Redigerat: jul 30, 2014, 12:13am

>11 JDHomrighausen: As I read it, the idea of the meme was intended originally as a sort of "intuition pump" (as Daniel Dennett would call it). The idea was to present an example of a replicator without any particular physical extension at all, as a way of getting hold of the idea of replication, and to get away from questions about the particular substrate.

I suspect that over time, the wholesale adoption of this idea by people who have never read and never intend to read Dawkins' work, and in fact have no idea that the "meme" has a specific origin at all, is something of a surprising example of what a meme actually is - and a convincing argument that it is in fact a thing. Unfortunately, it's not all that interesting a thing, but he did hit on something there....

16southernbooklady
jul 31, 2014, 7:19pm

So I have a question about the mechanics of natural selection that I don't think Dawkins clearly answers in his book. Is there such a thing as inverse selection? Can traits evolve not because they are selected for, but because there is nothing that selects against them? Or is it the same thing? Is selection just a universal pressure on replication, like gravity is on motion?

17aulsmith
aug 1, 2014, 8:43am

If a trait doesn't help a species' (or gene's) survival and also doesn't hurt it, it generally just hangs around in the population. It might become a survival (or extinction) trait later or it might just keep hanging around, neither helping the species/gene nor hurting it. (A good example is people who are genetically prone to cancers later in life. Since you develop the cancer after you reproduce, there is no "pressure" to select against it. Since (as far as we know) it doesn't help us, there is no pressure to select for it.) So, it's not so much inverse selection as just no selection positive or negative that keeps these traits in the gene pool.

I don't know why explanations of evolution don't go into this more. I found Dawkins particularly silent on this point, though clearly he knows it happens. I guess he feels that in the long view of evolution, information that neither hurts nor helps isn't very interesting and therefore doesn't need to be discussed. However, as far as I understand, the genetic information that could help or hurt in the long run is all sitting there passively now (except for random mutations), so I think it deserves a mention.

18southernbooklady
Redigerat: aug 1, 2014, 9:20am

Perhaps I'm just thinking about it wrongly, but it seems to me that the pool of genetic diversity would owe as much or more to traits that are not selected against, as it would to traits that are selected for. Or are the two the same thing? From an evolutionary perspective?

19streamsong
Redigerat: aug 1, 2014, 11:04am

>16 southernbooklady: If a gene is located physically closely on a chromosome to a gene that is being selected for, what appears to be a neutral gene (or even slightly harmful) may also be selected and increase in the population.

There's also a mechanism called genetic drift, in which traits (alleles) increase, decrease and even disappear in a population due to random chance.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Genetic_drift

20Samantha_kathy
aug 2, 2014, 4:38pm

For people with a better understanding of biology than mine, please explain: how has Dawkins’ theory stood up over time? Is the “selfish gene” still a viable hypothesis?

There's a few fields that I know of that use the 'selfish gene' hypothesis as a basis for further study or to help explain what they found.

One is the study of altruism. While it's studied in humans, there's also a lot of animals that exhibit altruistic behavior. In biology there's several types of altruism (none truly altruistic, as in self-less). Kin selection - the helping of another who's closely related, because their offspring will carry part of your genes - is the one with the strongest link to Dawkins' hypothesis.

Another is the trait-based research method. This is gaining popularity and started in the world of plant research, but is slowly catching on in the animal research branch of biology as well. Basically, it doesn't look at the individual or even the population, but at traits - in fact, it looks at functional traits, as in traits that effect the fitness (i= contribution of own genes to the next generation) of an individual. It's a conceptual framework that links gene activity to phenotypes to individual traits to population dynamics to community dynamics and eventually the impact of those communities on the environment. Because a trait can often be linked to a (set of) genes, the selfish gene principle plays a part (in the background) of this research.

Another area where the selfish gene principle inspired people to come up with new avenues of research is in the biodiversity area. Where once we looked at the conservation of species as the be-all, end-all of maintaining biodiversity, nowadays biodiversity is measured in functions of species. For instance, there's three main functions that drive the decomposition cycle of plant material. Macrodetritivores break down the big parts of the plant material, then come the microdetritivores that break down the small parts and then come the bacteria and fungi who break down the last parts into usuable nutrients for other organisms. As long as there are representatives of all three groups (functions) in an ecosystem, biodiversity is good. When a group (function) is under threat, then it becomes a problem. So we're not going to worry about earthworms going extinct in a place, when there's five different species of isopods doing the same work. In broad strokes, anyway. Though the selfish gene theory doesn't directly impact this, it did inspire people to look at things in a different way - are there 'genes' in my research I could be looking at, instead of 'individuals'.

Can traits evolve not because they are selected for, but because there is nothing that selects against them?

Yes, like streamsong said, traits evolve when they're in the population due to several mechanisms. Genetic drift is the neutral mechanism, used for traits that do not have an impact on survival. These traits can later on save or doom a population if due to changing cirsumstances in the environment the 'neutral' trait suddenly becomes important for survival. Genetic drift can also lead to very narrow genetic diversity in small populations - a big problem for conservationists working with rapidly declining populations of endangered species.

Perhaps I'm just thinking about it wrongly, but it seems to me that the pool of genetic diversity would owe as much or more to traits that are not selected against, as it would to traits that are selected for. Or are the two the same thing? From an evolutionary perspective?

The gene pool - as in the total amount of genes found in a population - is just as much a product of 'neutral' traits as it is of positive/negative for reproductive success traits (the ones that are actively selected for and against, respectively, in natural selection). From an evolutionary perspective, all types of traits are important, thus all genes are important. This is because if the environment a population inhabits changes, the broader the genetic diversity, the higher the chances there are individuals with he traits (thus genes) to survive and thrive.

But the traits are not the same - traits that undergo natural selection are far less likely to change due to random mutational errors, unless that error is actually making the trait more positive. This is what pushes evolution 'forward' in the sense that the traits might eventually become so extreme that the old species has developed into a new species. Because populations differ, this driving of traits into a direction does not happen equally and as such one population may become a different species than another population. Think of Darwin's finches with their different beaks. While at the time he found them they might still be the same species (=able to breed with each other and produce fertile offspring), if the evolution continues they might eventually differ too much and be considered different, if closely related, species.