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category: Biology

Why Is Everyone Still So Muddled About Selfish Genes?

Post: March 24, 2012 11:34 am
Author: David Sloan Wilson         Source: ETVOL Exclusive

I was recently invited to speak in England on “the science of cooperation”, which was going to be billed as an alternative to selfish genes. I cringed at the comparison. I’m well versed in selfish gene theory and I know fully well that selfish genes do not necessarily imply selfish individuals. Selfish genes typically evolve by cooperating with other genes in the bodies of single individuals, but they can also evolve by cooperating with genes in the bodies of other individuals. Richard Dawkins and other selfish gene theorists have been saying that since 1976. Why should anyone be muddled on the topic in 2012?

But muddled they were. During my trip, it was abundantly clear that the term “selfish genes” had become part of the vocabulary but was used synonymously with “selfish” in the everyday sense of the word, along with other stock phrases such as “social Darwinism”, “survival of the fittest” and “nature red in tooth and claw”. The root idea is that unselfishness is somehow less “natural” than selfishness, an evolutionary version of the religious concept of original sin.

Either the general public is so stupid that they can’t be educated about the real meaning of selfish genes, or the educators are doing something wrong. Let’s explore the second possibility. Here are some of the best-known passages from the beginning of The Selfish Gene.

We are survival machines - robot vehicles blindly programmed to preserve the selfish molecules known as genes.

These are claims that could have been made for Lorenz's On Aggression, Ardrey's The Social Contract, and Eibl-Eibesfeldt's Love and Hate. The trouble with these books is that their authors got it totally and utterly wrong. They got it wrong because they misunderstood how evolution works. They made the erroneous assumption that the important thing in evolution is the good of the species (or the group) rather than the good of the individual (or the gene).

The argument of this book is that we, and all other animals, are machines created by our genes. Like successful Chicago gangsters, our genes have survived, in some cases for millions of years, in a highly competitive world. This entitles us to expect certain qualities in our genes. I shall argue that a predominant quality to be expected in a successful gene is ruthless selfishness. This gene selfishness will usually give rise to selfishness in individual behavior. However, as we shall see, there are special circumstances in which a gene can achieve its own selfish goals best by fostering a limited form of altruism at the level of individual animals. 'Special' and 'limited' are important words in the last sentence. Much as we might wish to believe otherwise, universal love and the welfare of the species as a whole are concepts that simply do not make evolutionary sense.

Let us try to teach generosity and altruism, because we are born selfish. Let us understand what our own selfish genes are up to, because we may then at least have a chance to upset their designs, something that no other species has ever aspired to do.


These passages leave little doubt that, according to Dawkins, the primary outcome of selfish genes is selfish individuals, that evolution can explain only “a limited form of altruism at the level of individual animals”, and that a more expansive form of altruism for the good of the group or species is “totally and utterly wrong”. The take home message is that we are “born selfish” and altruism and generosity must be taught.

So, the idea that “selfish genes” more or less means “selfish” in the everyday sense of the word isn’t something that the public got wrong. It came straight from Dawkins.
Perhaps it’s true, but if it proves to be wrong, the general public is muddled because Dawkins was muddled.

The distinction between “for the good of the group” and “for the good of the species” is important. A group might be a fish school, a bird flock, an ant colony, a pasture full of lemmings, a human hunter-gatherer group, or a human nation. An entire species typically occupies a large geographical area and consists of many, many groups. Species-level selection is theoretically possible and there is an interesting recent literature on it, but I will put it aside for the moment to focus on group-level selection. In other words, for the moment, I agree with Dawkins that we should not expect universal love and concern for the welfare of one’s entire species. The question is whether we can expect traits to evolve on the strength of being good for one’s group, despite being selectively disadvantageous within groups. Dawkins considered both to be “totally and utterly wrong”.

Dawkins is not the only evolutionist who thinks that we are born selfish and must be taught generosity and altruism. George C. Williams, whose 1966 book Adaptation and Natural Selection provided much of the material for The Selfish Gene, famously said that “Mother Nature is a wicked old witch”. Both can be regarded as modern counterparts of Thomas Huxley, who regarded nature as operating at the same level as a gladiator’s show. Just as Huxley was opposed by Darwin (who tried to explain animal altruism and human morality as products of evolution) and Peter Kropotkin (who placed an even greater emphasis on the importance of mutual aid in animal evolution), the “born selfish” position of Williams and Dawkins is opposed by contemporary evolutionists such as Frans DeWaal and Sarah Blaffer Hrdy, to name just a few, who regard altruism and generosity as just as “natural” as selfishness.

It is discouraging that at some fuzzy paradigmatic level, so little has changed between the 19th and 21st centuries, especially since a solution is so readily at hand. Let’s focus on the distinction between teaching generosity and altruism, and generosity and altruism as natural. Suppose that you have a choice between two social strategies, which would be regarded as generous and selfish, respectively, in everyday terms. Now suppose that I place you in a group of selfish people. You will probably elect to become selfish yourself, if only for self-preservation. If I somehow persuade you to be generous, you will suffer from my teaching.

Next, suppose that I place you in a group of generous people who follow the rule of expelling people who are selfish. You will wisely elect to be generous. You were not taught to be generous. You always had the option in mind and merely employed it under the right circumstance. If you weren’t smart enough to become generous and I were to teach you, then you would benefit from my tutelage.

In this thought experiment, generosity and selfishness are equally natural as behavioral strategies and either one can be successful, depending upon the circumstances. The role of teaching is subsidiary. If a person has both strategies in mind and employs them appropriately, then teaching is unnecessary. If teaching is necessary, then it must council the appropriate strategy for each circumstance, or the person will suffer as a result.

You might want to say that it’s selfish for the individual to behave generously in the right circumstance, but then you will need to distinguish between two meanings of selfishness; a local form (one of the two behavioral strategies) and an “all things considered” form (which can be either of the behavioral strategies).

I expect that most readers, including proponents of selfish gene theory, will agree with me so far. The next step is to consider the range of circumstances under which generous social strategies evolve as the “all things considered” selfish strategy. Dawkins and just about everyone else at the time thought that these circumstances were limited to interactions among genealogical relatives (kin selection) and individuals who directly exchange benefits (reciprocal altruism). The range of circumstances associated with group selection was thought to result in the evolution of selfish social strategies as the “all things considered” selfish strategy.

What has changed over the decades is a reassessment of the conditions under which generous social strategies can evolve. The sweeping statement that selection within groups favoring selfish strategies invariably trumps selection between groups favoring generous strategies has proven to be false. The basic scenario of within- and between-group selection is correct, but the balance between levels of selection often tips in the direction of between-group selection. Whenever this happens, the generous strategy becomes the globally selfish strategy. These conditions go far beyond interactions among genealogical relatives and narrow reciprocators, especially in our own species.

Against this background, I have indicated in bold what Dawkins got wrong in the passages quoted above, in my opinion, with a few comments pointing in the right direction in brackets.

We are survival machines - robot vehicles blindly programmed to preserve the selfish molecules known as genes.
These are claims that could have been made for Lorenz's On Aggression, Ardrey's The Social Contract, and Eibl-Eibesfeldt's Love and Hate. The trouble with these books is that their authors got it totally and utterly wrong. They got it wrong because they misunderstood how evolution works. They made the erroneous assumption that the important thing in evolution is the good of the species (or the group) rather than the good of the individual (or the gene). [Lorenz and Eibl-Eibesfeldt were uncritical about invoking group selection by modern standards, but there was nothing “totally and utterly wrong” about their argument that traits evolve “for the good of the group”. Both authors deserve to be carefully read and some of their observations make excellent sense from a modern evolutionary perspective—especially their observations about humans, because we are a highly group-selected species].

The argument of this book is that we, and all other animals, are machines created by our genes. Like successful Chicago gangsters, our genes have survived, in some cases for millions of years, in a highly competitive world. This entitles us to expect certain qualities in our genes. I shall argue that a predominant quality to be expected in a successful gene is ruthless selfishness. This gene selfishness will usually give rise to selfishness in individual behavior. [This empirical claim is unwarranted from a modern evolutionary perspective. The full spectrum of human social strategies, from the most selfish to the most altruistic, can potentially evolve in a Darwinian world, depending upon the circumstances, making them equally “natural”].

However, as we shall see, there are special circumstances in which a gene can achieve its own selfish goals best by fostering a limited form of altruism at the level of individual animals. 'Special' and 'limited' are important words in the last sentence. [Altruism and other “for the good of the group” social strategies can evolve under a far greater range of conditions than Dawkins and most of his colleagues imagined in the 1970’s. Of course, it remains true that altruism does not evolve under many other circumstances. The balance between levels of selection needs to be determined on a case-by-case basis]. Much as we might wish to believe otherwise, universal love and the welfare of the species as a whole are concepts that simply do not make evolutionary sense. [Whatever we might conclude about species-level selection, a subject that I will save for future articles, love and concern for the welfare of one’s group makes perfect evolutionary sense].

Let us try to teach generosity and altruism, because we are born selfish. Let us understand what our own selfish genes are up to, because we may then at least have a chance to upset their designs, something that no other species has ever aspired to do. [The emphasis on teaching is misplaced, as I have already indicated and will return to below].


Notice that I do not disagree with Dawkins on the basic concept of gene selfishness. Any gene that evolves does better than the genes that didn’t evolve, all things considered. If you want to call that selfish, be my guest. You will, however, need to carefully distinguish your “all things considered” definition from other definitions. Dawkins wasn’t wrong about selfish genes, but he (and many others) was wrong about what he thought followed from selfish genes. Moreover, enough progress has been made over the decades that there deserves to be a consensus about what I have indicated in brackets. Until there is a consensus among the experts that is communicated clearly to the general public, everyone will remain muddled about selfish genes.

One reason that I am passionate about this subject is because it is not an arcane academic debate. It is vitally important for promoting altruism, generosity, and other “for the good of the group” behaviors in the real world—something that Dawkins hopes for as much as I do. If you think that we are born selfish and must be taught to be good, you are overlooking evolutionary science as a solution to the problem. Your efforts to teach will be ineffective and might even cause harm, if the newly educated altruist encounters a world that favors selfishness. If you think that we born with a capacity for a wide range of social strategies, then you can consult evolutionary science as a solution to the problem. You can work to create environments that favor altruism as the most successful strategy in a Darwinian world. If you succeed, then teaching altruism will be effective and might even be unnecessary.

Comments

Post: March 18 2012 10:43 am By: David L.


Very thoughtful and reasoned discussion. I agree that some of the unfortunate misunderstandings regarding how to use evolutionary theory to explain human behavior has been “muddled” by some unfortunate earlier misunderstandings. 
As we now know, for example, genes as the unit of selection does not preclude the possibility of selection at the level of groups, as vehicles. Although I’m not as optimistic as you are that group selection has operated as frequently or as intensely as you argue. Nowadays, people seem to increasingly and reflexively believe that if a human does something to benefit a stranger, then it must be a consequence of group selection. This is not a logical necessity, but an empirical question.
Regarding Dawkins, I think you make a bit too much of the quotation by him in which he says we are born selfish so we should teach generosity. Dawkins himself has retracted this sentence and sentiment, and has acknowledged that is false. You are right to point out that Dawkins was misled, but it’s not as if Dawkins is going around still making this argument. Keep up the fight against these misunderstandings, but be accurate regarding what other scholars have actually said.

Post: March 20 2012 9:25 am By: Andreas D Pape


I agree that this debate is of primary importance.  The post I read on this site about the fierceness with which evolutionary biologists attack this idea of group selection reminds me of the fierceness with which economists attack compromises in models of perfect rationality; and I think those ideas have a strong parallel.  It seems like Robert Axelrod’s “The Evolution of Co-operation” (for example) has decisively addressed the question of whether what “altruism” as traditionally defined can have a private benefit and aid in the likelihood of survival/success, whether from a biological or economic context.

Post: March 21 2012 5:24 am By: newt rality


DSL, Thanks for the excellent article. I wholeheartedly agree with you that this issue is vitally important.

There is so much scientific ignorance within the ranks of the media and political classes about the naturalness of prosociality and antisociality. These ‘adaptive modes’ are equally part of human nature and environmentally-triggered either way.

A more democratically-representative political system, in all of the mover-shaker countries would would go along way towards triggering and sustaining the former response, rather than the latter.. and this may even save the species.. from it’s dangerous muddle.

Keep up the good work. Take care.

Post: March 21 2012 5:28 am By: newt rality


Sorry, I meant DSW not DSL!

Post: March 21 2012 3:05 pm By: Tim Tyler


The “best” examples of group selection in “Unto others” (avirulence and female-biased populations) seem to have been convincingly explained as cases of kin selection between close kin. The usual examples that are trotted out - slime molds, social insects, chickens, multicellularity - all seem to be better explained as cases of kin selection acting between close kin. Are there any examples of group selection in nature that are *not* better explained as cases of kin selection acting on close kin?

Post: March 22 2012 6:14 am By: newt rality


Isn’t the problem for reductionists in biology identical to the problem for reductionists in physics: non-recognition of ‘emergent properties’ (of heredity, in biology of course) and ‘barriers of relevance’?  I refer readers to Nobel Prize winner Robert B. Laughlin’s book: A Different Universe (Reinventing Physics From The Bottom Down), for the physics side of things.

I sincerely wonder what Richard Dawkins would or does think of this physics and what his argument would be against any semblance of an equivalence in biology.

If multi-level selectionists feel that there is such equivalence or identicality.. ought they not intensely collaborate with ‘emergentist’ physicists to develop and promote these possibly identical principles in the public, media and political domains? If relevant, it can only be of central importance.

Please forgive me if this idea has already been thoroughly exercised. Thanks

Post: March 24 2012 3:24 am By: JOHN JACOB LYONS


Dear DSW. You write

“What has changed over the decades is a reassessment of the conditions under which generous social strategies can evolve. The sweeping statement that selection within groups favoring selfish strategies invariably trumps selection between groups favoring generous strategies has proven to be false.”

I would welcome some detail here to justify the contention that it has ‘proven to be false’.  Many thanks.

Post: March 24 2012 3:45 am By: JOHN JACOB LYONS


Another point if I may—————

I suggest that the “muddle” you speak of occurs for two reasons (1) failure to distinguish between genes and individuals and (2) failure to distinguish between proximate and ultimate selfishness.

I also suggest that it is possible to be (simultaneously) proximately altruistic and yet ultimately selfish.

Post: March 25 2012 6:01 pm By: newt rality


“I suggest that the “muddle” you speak of occurs for two reasons (1) failure to distinguish between genes and individuals and (2) failure to distinguish between proximate and ultimate selfishness.
I also suggest that it is possible to be (simultaneously) proximately altruistic and yet ultimately selfish” J.J.Lyons

Hi JJL, since I began to appreciate the idea of emergent properties and began to think about how natural selection’s reach may include harnessing the power of supervenience, just as it harnesses other levels and areas of relationships of ‘influence’, I could no longer comfortably treat evolution in a solely atomist and bottom-up way. Would you not agree that the difficulty for the selfish-gene proponent is in finding an argument against the possibility that supervenience as a phenomenon is something that natural selection could and does harness.. and that therefore it is something that genes and individuals could be and are ultimately herded by under some conditions of existence due to natural selection also operating at a greater scale and also in the opposite (top-down direction)?

Is this broader idea of heredity and the life-cycle a unreasonable?

DSW, I would be interested in understanding what you feel about this slant on the issue and whether you think I’m travelling in the wrong direction on this one.

Thanks. N R

Post: March 26 2012 4:56 am By: JOHN JACOB LYONS


Hi NR!

Supervenience; yes. Emergent; I think not. Emergence at a supervenient level would need to bring in a completely new and unexpected phenomenon. Selection at group level would not do so. Selection for adaptation ( viability/ fecundity) remains the mechanism at all suggested levels.

As an aside, I believe that consciousness can be explained as the emergent model of reality that results from the integration of our senses and cognition. But this is off-topic.

Post: March 26 2012 6:19 am By: newt rality


Hi JJB,

Thanks for your reply.

Wouldn’t you define ‘the group’ itself as emergent, relative to what is only partly encoded in the genes? And, isn’t the group as bare necessity and supervening environmental influence being a survival and reproduction selection pressure on it’s membership? Those not as memberistic become peripherised or ruined or cast out or destroyed?

Is it unreasonable as an idea, that under some conditions, being a sincerely good member is vital? The group then feeds back as a supervenient adaptive unit, policing and tendind to individual members, thereby contributing to the evolution of the nature of membership?

I like the idea of many levels and directions of influence, given that there is the individual v the individual, the rest of the membership as a whole v the ‘dodgy’ members and the group v the group.

Is there no larger-scale, top-down selection pressure going on at all, herding seperate individuals and their genes in shaping adaptively memberistic behaviour at the expense of poorer groups and poorer members, where under certain conditions, the individual is beyond ‘the barrier of relevance’ and where the group can afford to, and must, occasionally neuter, sacrifice or reject or destroy some of it’s number?

I would appreciate any feedback.

Thanks again.

N R

Post: March 26 2012 12:26 pm By: Tim Tyler


The retraction: ‘I do with hindsight notice lapses of my own on the very same subject. These are to be found especially in Chapter 1, epitomised by the sentence ‘Let us try to teach generosity and altruism because we are born selfish’. There is nothing wrong with teaching generosity and altruism, but ‘born selfish’ is misleading. In partial explanation, it was not until 1978 that I began to think clearly about the distinction between ‘vehicles’ (usually organisms) and the ‘replicators’ that ride inside them (in practice genes: the whole matter is explained in Chapter 13, which was added in the Second Edition). Please mentally delete that rogue sentence and others like it’ - Richard Dawkins.

Post: March 27 2012 8:07 am By: newt rality


Hello Tim Tyler,

Would you agree that Dawkins, having been deeply intellectually-conditioned by 20th century individualism, would, in order reduce the cognitive dissonance of having to also make sense of sincere community, would be forced to find a false conceptual-division somewhere between ‘gene-central’ and the edge of the individual organism?

Genes aren’t replicators, cells are. Genes are ‘replicatees’. And. the idea of a vehicle ‘for’ genes makes no sense if there is no locatable beginning or end of each life-cycle.. nor even an easily locatable division between life-cycles of the Tree of Life. It’s all fuzzy and cyclical. And then there’s the indivisible relationship between Earth and The Tree of Life.

Dawkins needs to move away from the anthropomorphic metaphorical language of individual selfish purpose.

I’ve seen no evidence presented for the ‘replicator’ and ‘vehicle’ division that Dawkins claims exists. I would be grateful for some help in this regard.

Thanks,

N R

Post: March 27 2012 1:13 pm By: David L.


Tim, when evolutionary biologists say that genes are “replicators” they mean that genes are the things that are replicated. The replicator question is: what are the physical units that possess sufficient longevity, fecundity, and copying fidelity, such that natural selection can act upon them?  Cells most certainly are not replicators, in this sense. they do not increase or decrease in frequency due to their phenotypic effects. they are not the unit of selection.  I don’t know of anyone who claims they are.
If you want evidence for the replicator/vehicle distinction, you can start with research on kin selection. William Hamilton demonstrated, for example, that individuals could benefit another at cost to one’s self to the extent you are likely to share genes with that other person. The individual that accepts a net cost to impose a benefit on another individual makes no sense if you think of people as replicators; that is, as being the fundamental unit of selection. but if you realize they are vehicles, then it makes sense: inter-vehicle altruism represents the action of a gene whose phenotypic effect is such that it causes its vehicle to benefit other vehicles that are likely to contain a copy of itself.
I have no clue what the Tree of Life has to do with it, but individual organisms have pretty clear life cycles.  Do you have trouble distinguishing between your parents and grandparents? Some things are fuzzy, but this isn’t really one of them.  Replicators are the units of selection; vehicles are their phenotypic effects.

Post: March 27 2012 4:55 pm By: newt rality


Hi David L. ,

By the way, it’s Newt, not Tim. I responded to Tim grin


Yes, I agree that biologists say ‘replicator’ for that which is replicated, and it needs to change to ‘replicatee’ just to emphasise that genes themselves replicate nothing.. including themselves, and have no ultimate causal power, when it comes to the direction and character of the products of evolution. Environment determines which genes are selected.


On your point about cells not being units of selection, I again agree. I meant that they are do the replicating process as dividers and multipliers. As for the unit of selection, it is always whatever is in direct contact with the environment as a particular distinguishable whole, and on a multitude of levels, areas and scales.


There is no evidence of a vehicle ‘FOR’ anything, any more than there a purposeful designer in evolution.


Anthropomorphism with it’s metaphors of purpose, will, and design etc is the bane of understanding the ecology that includes the relationship between features of each life-cycle (indivisible though distinct features.. not parts of separately allocated dimensions of function ). Then there are the relationships between life-cycles.. and that between the Tree of Life (which is a Tree of Life-Cycles as much as a genealogy) and the Earth, now and in the past.


Yes, I can, of course distinguish between generations of my family, but that doesn’t mean that genes have influence over what magnitude and scale of unit is included and excluded by natural selection.  The shape and quantity of things is environmentally determined.. and the environment never meets the genes.. which merely abide the only way they can to stimulus.


You wrote that you have no clue what the Tree of Life has to do with it. This is why I wonder whether it is the valuing of the idea of the fundamental importance of the various scales and subtleties of the unity of relationships involved, that is just that which differentiates multi-levelists from gene-centrists and even from old-school group theorists.


Just to finish, I want to again propose that neither genes, nor any other feature of any scale, means that a life-cycle begins and ends anywhere, phase-wise. There is no evidence that natural selection can shape fundamentality at one particular scale or phase, nor determine that any location can be central in any life-cycle.. while life cycles on ‘under the fixed law of gravity’.

Thanks.
N.

Post: March 27 2012 6:01 pm By: David L.


Hi Newt, sorry for the name mix-up!

I definitely agree with you that the anthropomorphism of language in evolutionary biology can do a lot of muddling.  Indeed, there is no purpose in processes of natural selection.

That being the case, as I mentioned in my previous comment, I think it is useful to consider vehicles as phenotypic effects.  They are what genes, in interaction with the environment, create.  These phenotypic effects are also, therefore, PART of the environment.  But then to take the logic through to conclusion, the distinction between organisms and the environment begins to dissipate.  What we are left with is genes, and their phenotypic effects; whether the latter are expressed narrowly in the form of the adaptations that compose an individual organism, or broadly in the form of further “downstream” effects (e.g. a spider’s web, a beaver’s dam) what we see are the products of gene-environment interactions.  A “vehicle” in this sense is merely an abstraction that is meant to organize one set or collection of phenotypic effects: those that inhere to the individual, for example.  As Dawkins has explained, however, this boundary may be useful (just as the genotype/phenotype distinction is be analytically useful), but at the end of the day it’s an abstraction.

Abstractions, and even anthropomorphisms can be useful. But I agree with you that we must be aware of their inevitable limitations.

Post: March 27 2012 7:21 pm By: newt rality


Thanks David,

“Abstractions, and even anthropomorphisms can be useful. But I agree with you that we must be aware of their inevitable limitations.” David L.


Much scientific language is essential abstraction, but anthropomorphic metaphors of genetic ‘purpose’ in particular are unhelpful if we wish to transcend the limitation of Dawkins’ reductionism.


Genes aren’t causal in evolutionary time, and so cannot determine what a particular environment selects for and at what level.


Over evolutionary time, the particular genetic and phenetic outcome is the EFFECT of the particular environment selecting them, which may or may not be at group or individual level.


I guess we’ll have to agree to disagree, given that I see genes and phenes as passive over evolutionary time and with respect to the breadth and depth of natural selection’s unifying and dividing reach.

Thanks again,
N R.


Post: March 27 2012 8:29 pm By: David L.


just because genes do not purposefully determine selection does not mean genes aren’t “causal.”  I think you may mean something else here.  Genes have many effects.  Pleiotropy is a fantastic example.  I think you may be conflating anthropomorphism and causality.  Genes do have effects, even if these effects are not intended or purposeful (which they are not, I completely agree). 

genes become more or less frequent as a consequence of the very real effects they have on their ability to make copies of themselves.  Typically, when we speak of such effects, we are speaking of the phenotype.  Even though it is convenient to “bundle” the phenotypic effects of genes in the package of “individual organisms,” in principle the effects of genes reaches beyond the individual organism.  So, strictly speaking, the lens offered by the extended phenotype perspective is not very reductionist at all, seeing as it blurs rather than reifies the conventional boundary between the organism and its environment

Post: March 27 2012 10:21 pm By: newt rality


Hi David,

“genes become more or less frequent as a consequence of the very real effects they have on their ability to make copies of themselves.”  DL


Genes and their respective phenes become more or less frequent if the environment happens to be the one that more or less selects them rather than other ones, and not as a consequence of they, themselves (genes and phenes), having any intrinsic ability to be effecting their own chances against others. Hairy loses to hairless in the heat, and the reverse in the cold. Genes and phenes X versus genes and phenes Y is decided by circumstances alone.


Self-determination is a myth, like free-will, context-free meaning and true independence.


There are specific environmental constants (e.g. cold weather) that define the kind of succeeding and failing phenes and genes. There is no boundary blur here, hairyness got it’s chance by the cold making hairlessness have comparatively too much of a struggle.

The superiority of some genes and phenes over others is not due to themselves but purely and simply due literally to circumstance.


The only difference between us, I think, is that you go for elemental self-determination and I go for a holistic determinism.


I would be grateful for another of your productive replies.

Thanks,

NR

 

Post: March 27 2012 11:54 pm By: David L.


I actually think we are saying similar things, but you are reading purpose into my arguments. let’s break it down:

when I say that the phenotypic effects of genes affect their directional change in frequency, I am most certainly not saying that genes alone DETERMINE their change in frequency. 

To take your example, suppose a new random genetic variant generates hairyness, relative to an existing allele that instead reduces hairyness.  The phenotypic effect of this new mutation is hairyness.  Furthermore, this phenotypic effect may have consequences for the individual that possess it to reproduce.  In cold environments, mutants leave more offspring; in warm environments, mutants leave less offspring.  This is the heart of the definition of “fitness”; namely, the “fit” between phenotypic effects and their environments.

genes produce phenotypic effects, and such traits affect directional change in gene frequencies in subsequent generations.  Genes do not “determine” their fate, but the products of genes do indeed affect whether, in certain environments, certain genes are more or less likely than other genes to spread in a population.  To put it as a metaphor, the environment determines the shape of the sift, and genes randomly determine the shape of the objects that are able to pass or not pass through the sift.  Over time, the genes that happened to build shapes that fit the sift become more common.

Post: March 28 2012 1:08 am By: newt rality


Thanks again David,

Yes I agree with this fitness definition. But those ‘products of genes’ don’t themselves, intrinsically, affect whether, in certain environments, certain genes are more or less likely than other genes to spread in a population.. ..the casting vote is the very presence of that ‘certain environment ’ itself.


Give an environment, of limited rate and kind of resource production, a replicating randomness of resource consumers and it alone will determine the consumers ultimate fitting shape.


All I am trying to establish here is that the success of genes in the next generation isn’t necessarily reflecting or pointing to or synonymous with gene-selfishness, but simply ‘eco-fittedness’(or fitness).. due to a biased environment.. the sole factor that is relatively stable enough to load the dice so as to determine the sides it lands on.


The dice have no ability at all to load themselves against or for each other, to be favoured by the environment, versus others and with others. So it isn’t even down to the products of genes whether they are part of the next generation’s success.. and at what scale and degree of integration with each other.


The direction of evolution fits the environmental bias.. and all struggles for existence are the unfolding of the inevitable compliance with these environmental aggregates.. by both the life and death necessary-sides of the cyclical equation.


This is why, for me, the selfish gene concept has no scientifically descriptive or predictive value.


Thanks again,

NR

Post: March 28 2012 1:41 am By: newt rality


Thanks again David,

Yes I agree with this fitness definition. But those ‘products of genes’ don’t themselves, intrinsically, affect whether, in certain environments, certain genes are more or less likely than other genes to spread in a population.. ..the casting vote is the very presence and stability of that ‘certain environment ’ itself.


Give an environment, of limited rate and kind of resource production, a replicating randomness of resource consumers and it alone will determine the consumers ultimate fitting shape.


All I am trying to establish here is that the success of genes in the next generation isn’t necessarily reflecting or pointing to or synonymous with gene-selfishness, but simply ‘eco-fittedness’(or fitness).. due to a biased environment.. the sole factor that is relatively stable enough to load the dice so as to determine the sides it lands on.


The dice have no ability at all to load themselves against or for each other, to be favoured by the environment, versus others and with others. So it isn’t even down to the products of genes whether they are part of the next generation’s success.. and at what scale and degree of integration with each other.


The direction of evolution fits the environmental bias.. and all struggles for existence are the unfolding of the inevitable compliance with these environmental aggregates.. by both the life and death necessary-sides of the cyclical equation.


This is why, for me, the selfish gene concept has no scientifically descriptive or predictive value.


Thanks again,

NR

Post: March 28 2012 7:32 am By: newt rality


Thanks again David,

Yes I agree with this fitness definition. But those ‘products of genes’ don’t themselves, intrinsically, affect whether, in certain environments, certain genes are more or less likely than other genes to spread in a population.. ..the casting vote is the very presence of that ‘certain environment ’ itself.


Give an environment, of limited rate and kind of resource production, a replicating randomness of resource consumers and it alone will determine the consumers ultimate fitting shape.


All I am trying to establish here is that the success of genes in the next generation isn’t necessarily reflecting or pointing to or synonymous with gene-selfishness, but simply ‘eco-fittedness’(or fitness).. due to a biased environment.. the sole factor that is relatively stable enough to load the dice so as to determine the sides it lands on.


The dice have no ability at all to load themselves against or for each other, to be favoured by the environment, versus others and with others. So it isn’t even down to the products of genes whether they are part of the next generation’s success.. and at what scale and degree of integration with each other.


The direction of evolution fits the environmental bias.. and all struggles for existence are the unfolding of the inevitable compliance with these environmental aggregates.. by both the life and death necessary-sides of the cyclical equation.


This is why, for me, the selfish gene concept has no scientifically descriptive or predictive value.


Thanks again,

NR

Post: March 28 2012 4:54 pm By: newt rality


Thanks again David,

Yes I agree with this fitness definition. But those ‘products of genes’, strange as it may seem, don’t themselves, intrinsically, affect whether, in certain environments, certain genes are more or less likely than other genes to spread in a population.. ..the casting vote is the very presence of the often variably particular environment ’ itself.. and so a floating, fickle, changing, voter that can be.


Give an environment, of limited rate and kind of resource production, a replicating randomness of resource consumers and it alone will determine the consumers ultimate fitting shape.


All I am trying to establish here is that the success of genes in the next generation isn’t necessarily reflecting or pointing to or synonymous with gene-selfishness, but simply ‘eco-fittedness’(or fitness).. due to a biased environment.. the sole factor that is relatively stable enough to load the dice so as to determine the sides it lands on.


The dice have no ability at all to load themselves against or for each other, to be favoured by the environment, versus others and with others. So it isn’t even down to the products of genes whether they are part of the next generation’s success.. and at what scale and degree of integration with each other.


The direction of evolution fits the environmental bias.. and all struggles for existence are the unfolding of the inevitable compliance with these environmental aggregates.. by, necessarily, both the life and death sides of the cycling equation.


This is why, for me, the selfish gene concept has no scientifically descriptive or predictive value.


Thanks again,

NR

Post: March 29 2012 7:11 pm By: newt rality


Yes I agree with the familiar ’ fitness’ definition. But those ‘products of genes’, strange as it may seem, don’t themselves, intrinsically, affect whether, in certain environments, certain genes are more or less likely than other genes to spread in a population.. ..the casting vote is the very presence of the often variably particular environment ’ itself.. and so a floating, fickle, changing, voter that can be.

Give an environment, of limited rate and kind of resource production, a replicating randomness of resource consumers and it alone will determine the consumers ultimate fitting shape.

All I am trying to establish here is that the success of genes in the next generation isn’t necessarily reflecting or pointing to or synonymous with gene-selfishness, but simply ‘eco-fittedness’(or fitness).. due to a biased environment.. the sole factor that is relatively stable enough to load the dice so as to determine the sides it lands on.

The dice have no ability at all to load themselves against or for each other, to be favoured by the environment, versus others and with others. So it isn’t even down to the products of genes whether they are part of the next generation’s success.. and at what scale and degree of integration with each other.

The direction of evolution fits the environmental bias.. and all struggles for existence are the unfolding of the inevitable compliance with these environmental aggregates.. by, necessarily, both the life and death sides of the cycling equation.

This is why, for me, the selfish gene concept has no scientifically descriptive or predictive value.

Thanks again,
NR

Post: April 3 2012 1:13 pm By: newt rality


Yes I agree with this fitness definition. But those ‘products of genes’, strange as it may seem, don’t themselves,

intrinsically, affect whether, in certain environments, certain genes are more or less likely than other genes to

spread in a population.. ..the casting vote is the very presence of the often variably particular environment ’ itself..

and what a floating, fickle, changing, voter that can be.

Give an environment, of limited rate and kind of resource production, a replicating randomness of resource

consumers and it alone will determine the consumers ultimate fitting shape.

All I am trying to establish here is that the success of genes in the next generation isn’t necessarily reflecting or

pointing to or synonymous with gene-selfishness, but simply ‘eco-fittedness’(or fitness).. due to a biased

environment.. the sole factor that is relatively stable enough to load the dice so as to determine the sides it lands

on.

The dice have no ability at all to load themselves against or for each other, to be favoured by the environment,

versus others and with others. So it isn’t even down to the products of genes whether they are part of the next

generation’s success.. and at what scale and degree of integration with each other.

The direction of evolution fits the environmental bias.. and all struggles for existence are the unfolding of the

inevitable compliance with these environmental aggregates.. by, necessarily, both the life and death sides of the

cycling equation.

This is why, for me, the selfish gene concept has no scientifically descriptive or predictive value.

Thanks again,
NR

Post: April 5 2012 8:41 pm By: newt rality


Yes I agree with this fitness definition. But those ‘products of genes’, strange as it may seem, don’t themselves, intrinsically, affect whether, in certain environments, certain genes are more or less likely than other genes to spread in a population.. ..the casting vote is the very presence of the often variably particular environment ’ itself.. and what a floating, fickle, changing, voter that can be.


Give an environment, of limited rate and kind of resource production, a replicating randomness of resource consumers and it alone will determine the consumers ultimate fitting shape.


All I am trying to establish here is that the success of genes in the next generation isn’t necessarily reflecting or pointing to or synonymous with gene-selfishness, but simply ‘eco-fittedness’(or fitness).. due to a biased environment.. the sole factor that is relatively stable enough to load the dice so as to determine the sides it lands on.


The dice have no ability at all to load themselves against or for each other, to be favoured by the environment, versus others and with others. So it isn’t even down to the products of genes whether they are part of the next generation’s success.. and at what scale and degree of integration with each other.


The direction of evolution fits the environmental bias.. and all struggles for existence are the unfolding of the inevitable compliance with these environmental aggregates.. by, necessarily, both the life and death sides of the cycling equation.


This is why, for me, the selfish gene concept has no scientifically descriptive or predictive value.


Thanks again,
NR

Post: April 5 2012 9:51 pm By: newt rality


Yes I agree with this fitness definition. But those ‘products of genes’, strange as it may seem, don’t themselves, intrinsically, affect whether, in certain environments, certain genes are more or less likely than other genes to spread in a population.. ..the casting vote is the very presence of the often variably particular environment ’ itself.. and what a floating, fickle, changing, voter that can be.

Give an environment, of limited rate and kind of resource production, a replicating randomness of resource consumers and it alone will determine the consumers ultimate fitting shape.

All I am trying to establish here is that the success of genes in the next generation isn’t necessarily reflecting or pointing to or synonymous with gene-selfishness, but simply ‘eco-fittedness’(or fitness).. due to a biased environment.. the sole factor that is relatively stable enough to load the dice so as to determine the sides it lands on.

The dice have no ability at all to load themselves against or for each other, to be favoured by the environment, versus others and with others. So it isn’t even down to the products of genes whether they are part of the next generation’s success.. and at what scale and degree of integration with each other.

The direction of evolution fits the environmental bias.. and all struggles for existence are the unfolding of the inevitable compliance with these environmental aggregates.. by, necessarily, both the life and death sides of the cycling equation.

This is why, for me, the selfish gene concept has no scientifically descriptive or predictive value.

Thanks again,
NR

Post: May 4 2012 2:49 pm By: Eric Falkenstein


The author emphasizes the altruistic effects of group selection.  What about the genocidal effects?  I have a feeling a big reason why this group selection line of thinking was discouraged was that it seemed to legitimate ethnocentrism, racism, etc. as natural.  Selfishness most people can tolerate, Nazis not so much.  I note that the phrase ‘groupism’ is popular among Jon Haidt and EO Wilson in their new books, seemingly trying to re-brand ‘ethnocentrism.’

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Post: October 19 2012 1:08 am By: Ry Niles


Dr. Wilson,
You make the mistake of assuming altruism and selfishness are separate genetically based traits. They are not. If anything, they are optional choices in a spectrum of strategic responses regulated by a combination of genetic drivers.
Everyone has access to them by individually different measure, just as we differ individually in personalities. You can assign students roles to play in games, but the fact that the results will be then predictable tells us something about the effectiveness of the strategies, but nothing much about how the actual differences in individual personalties molds these strategies in “real consequence” circumstances. And nothing much about the entire range of strategies that make up the reciprocity tool kit.

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Post: July 9 2013 11:55 am By: Mark Switzer


While I think that genes are incredibly selfish, I think that when we apply this to morality we get the math wrong.  It seems to me that the very most successful genes must be the most selfish, these most successful genes will be the ones for producing hair, skin, hemoglobin, bone tissue, cell structures.  These most selfish genes, the genes that humans share 96% of with chimpanzees, and lesser amounts with other mammals, animals and the rest of life, are probably much more selfish than whatever produces green eyes in one person and brown eyes in another.  The fact that the most selfish genes are probably the most widespread, supports a morality and ethos that would increase the scope and extent of life as opposed to decreasing it.  I think that mathematically it would definitely account not just for the behavior where a parent puts their life at risk to save a child, but where lifeguards or firemen risk their lives to save strangers, and where environmentalists are interested in the welfare of species, animal activists are interested in the treatment of agricultural animals, and the general and strong components of compassion, empathy and goodwill that exist and are nurtured within society.