Book Club: The Selfish Gene (May 2018)

This month we read The Selfish Gene by Richard Dawkins.

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About the book:

Evolution by natural selection is a topic that many people either champion or dismiss, but far fewer really understand. As one of the fundamental patterns of nature, I decided to pick one of the best books written on the subject. In The Selfish Gene, Oxford biologist Richard Dawkins argues that it is not species or groups that compete and vie for survival, nor even individual members of the species, but genes themselves.

This account of evolution paints an incredible picture not only to explain the diversity of life on earth, but why so many things are the way they are. Why do parents love their children? Why might ants prefer to have sisters rather than daughters? Why does the world contain such an interesting mix of honesty and deception, aggression and peace, compassion and ruthlessness?

Richard Dawkins’ brilliant reformulation of the theory of natural selection has the rare distinction of having provoked as much excitement and interest outside the scientific community as within it. His theories have helped change the whole nature of the study of social biology, and have forced thousands of readers to rethink their beliefs about life.

Some excerpts of my discussion podcast:

Even though this book was published over forty years ago, I think it still stands today as one of the best books, in my opinion, for introducing the idea of natural selection, and explaining what it really is…

There are some mathematical laws with wide ranging consequences whenever you consider a system that has a large enough environment that it has variety, and also that it can make copies of itself… these self-replicators differ in three ways. Some are more stable than others (they have more longevity), they differ in fecundity (some replicators replicate themselves more often) and finally, they differ in fidelity, meaning that they are able to make more accurate copies of themselves…

To understand Dawkins’ message, it’s important to understand what exactly is a gene…

A section of DNA, primarily hereditary molecule that exists within human beings, it is a chunk of hereditary information… For the purposes of Dawkin’s analysis a gene a hereditary atom. It is an individual indivisible unit of heredity that gets passed through individuals…

Now you might be thinking, if there really is a selfish gene, the world is Hobbesian (selfish, brutish and short) and there is nothing good, it is simply a strong struggle for survival…

But there’s something very interesting here… yes, it is true that the genes (the self-replicators) have a tendency towards selfishness, but it is also the case that they have a capacity for cooperation. Now what do I mean by cooperation? Cooperation is when you benefit yourself but you also benefit another replicator (cooperative selfishness) and this not only exists in nature but it exists everywhere.

One of the most interesting instances of cooperation is what Dawkins calls Evolutionary Stable Strategies (ESS’s) and I think it’s so interesting…

There are many different contexts in which replicators exist. So that means, taking the perspective of one gene, everything else (including the other parts of the environment that belong in its species) are parts of its environment that we have to consider. So a gene that is successful in its environment may end up creating copies of itself and that very process is changing the environment. So there’s a certain reflexivity to this. Basically as a gene replicates more often, it may change the environment it’s in.

One way we can imagine this is to think about cooperation…

What is often “stable” is a nice strategy (a strategy of cooperation) but also to have a propensity for justice. Not too aggressive (don’t pick too many fights) but at the same time, if someone steps on your turf, to stand your ground. This often happens in the animal world… The discussion of ESS’s is quite deep but the takeaway here is different types of behaviors co-existing and it is not the case that there will be one replicator to rule them all simply because a particular behavior might do well when it is rare in the environment and it might do not as well when it becomes too dominant.

In conclusion…

The concept might apply to a lot more than just biology. I’m somewhat persuaded by these ideas… many people are working on the idea of AI safety or how can you keep the robots from taking over once we invent super intelligent some caution robots but I think this should give some caution because any permanently altruistic robot that would be in our benefit instead of its own self-replicating benefit is somewhat unstable. So it suggests that either the robots should not be allowed to self-replicate or we need to be very careful because if we start to replicate these robots then they will to a certain extent become their own masters serving their own agendas the same way we serve ours.

Overall this book forces you to look at the way you look at the world and is well worth a read. It’s only by confronting the actual reality we exist in that we can evolve.

Click here to watch the Book Club wrap up on YouTube, here, to listen to it on Soundcloud, or here, for iTunes.

Feel free to join in on our Facebook Group Discussion I’d love to discuss this book with you there. For June, we’ll be reading The Wizard And The Prophet by Charles C Mann.

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