Re: "The Selfish Gene"

From: Alexandra Bilak (
Date: Mon Oct 20 1997 - 14:47:38 BST

The main idea to be picked up in the seminar on the Selfish Gene-and
probably one of the most important ones if we are to understand the
concept of evolution properly- is that when we talk about Natural
Selection, we are not talking about the survival of a species or even
an individual (the latter representing merely a vehicle), but rather of
the survival of genes (representing replication techniques).

In order to understand this fully, we were taken back to the concept of
a "primordial soup", in which everything began. This soup contains
individual atoms floating around ;some of these will be stable, some
will be unstable, depending on environmental fluctuations. The process
described by Dawkins (obviously much more scientifically than this) is
these early proteins reacting to variations in the environment, forming
compounds, and complementing or hindering other proteins' existences.

As these proteins "grow", they gradually "build houses" to protect
themselves: these houses are the survival machines we've already
referred to, namely organisms (like the human body) acting as vehicles
carrying these genes. These survival machines thus become more and more
elaborate as the number of genes "housed" in them increases, enhancing
their chances of survival, and attack neighbours who might want to
restrict those chances.(This is where we raised the question of why
these machines don't just get bigger and bigger rather than vanish as a
product of natural selection. This is due to constraints on organisms,
namely environmental ones.) Indeed, Dawkins explains that genes "want"
to survive into the next generation; they want to replicate themselves,
thus outliving the survival machines that carry them.

(In this sense, then, genes "program" their survival machine. However,
their role is only indirect : while the machine is running, ie while
the organism is alive, genes for a particular behaviour determine that
behaviour in an indirect way, since the genetic influence hasn't got
much to do with day to day operations in the nervous system.)

I'm not sure I've quite understood the idea of selfishness as related
to genes. Is it simply that genes compete against one another in order
to promote survival and thus competence of their survival machine? From
what I gathered, the idea of selfish genes is closely related to that
of ESSs, in that an evolutionary stable strategy is embodied within any
selfish-gene trait. By the idea of stability, it is implied that if the
strategy works, this means that it has not been invaded by other
competing genes using other strategies. An ESS, then, is the product of
influences of selfish genes combined to the outside world on the
survival and reproductive abilities of their survival machines.

This archive was generated by hypermail 2b30 : Tue Feb 13 2001 - 16:23:08 GMT