I recently finished reading The Selfish Gene by Richard Dawkins. I selected this book based on its recommendation by Charlie Munger – Vice Chairman of Berkshire Hathaway.
Richard starts out with a clarification on the premise and purpose of this book:
This book is not intended as a general advocacy of Darwinism. Instead, it will explore the consequences of the evolution theory for a particular issue. My purpose is to examine the biology of selfishness and altruism. Apart from its academic interest, the human importance of this subject is obvious. It touches every aspect of our social lives, our loving and hating, fighting and cooperating, giving and stealing, our greed and our generosity.
He then goes on to define what he means by selfishness and altruism:
Before going any further, we need a definition. An entity, such as a baboon, is said to be altruistic if it behaves in such a way as to increase another such entity’s welfare at the expense of its own. Selfish behaviour has exactly the opposite effect. ‘Welfare’ is defined as ‘chances of survival’, even if the effect on actual life and death prospects is so small as to seem negligible. One of the surprising consequences of the modem version of the Darwinian theory is that apparently trivial tiny influences on survival probability can have a ma/or impact on evolution. This is because of the enormous time available for such influences to make themselves felt. It is important to realize that the above definitions of altruism and selfishness are behavioural not subjective. I am not concerned here with the psychology of motives. I am not going to argue about whether people who behave altruistically are ‘really’ doing it for secret or subconscious selfish motives. Maybe they are and maybe they aren’t, and maybe we can never know, but in any case that is not what this book is about. My definition is concerned only with whether the effect of an act is to lower or raise the survival prospects of the presumed altruist and the survival prospects of the presumed beneficiary.
The central premise of the book in more details:
Before that I must argue for my belief that the best way to look at evolution is in terms of selection occurring at the lowest level of all. In this belief I am heavily influenced by G. C. Williams’s great book Adaptation and Natural Selection. The central idea I shall make use of was foreshadowed by A. Weismann in pre-gene days at the turn of the century—his doctrine of the ‘continuity of the germ-plasm’. I shall argue that the fundamental unit of selection, and therefore of self-interest, is not the species, nor the group, nor even, strictly, the individual. It is the gene, the unit of heredity. To some biologists this may sound at first like an extreme view. I hope when they see in what sense I mean it they will agree that it is, in substance, orthodox, if it is expressed in an unfamiliar way. The argument takes time to develop, and we must begin at the beginning, with the very origin of life itself.
On the basic building blocks of living creatures:
To return to the primeval soup, it must have become populated by stable varieties of molecule; stable in that either the individual molecules lasted a long time, or they replicated rapidly, or they replicated accurately. Evolutionary trends toward these three kinds of stability took place in the following sense: if you had sampled the soup at two different times, the later sample would have contained a higher proportion of varieties with high longevity/fecundity/copying-fidelity. This is essentially what a biologist means by evolution when he is speaking of living creatures, and the mechanism is the same—natural selection…The next important link in the argument, one that Darwin himself laid stress on (although he was talking about animals and plants, not molecules) is competition. The primeval soup was not capable of supporting an infinite number of replicator molecules. For one thing the earth’s size is finite, but other limiting factors must also have been important. In our picture of the replicator acting as a template or mould, we supposed it to be bathed in a soup rich in the small building block molecules necessary to make copies. But when the replicators became numerous, building blocks must have been used up at such a rate that they became a scarce and precious resource.
On DNA, and chromosomes:
Our DNA lives inside our bodies. It is not concentrated in a particular part of the body, but is distributed among the cells. There are about a thousand million million cells making up an average human body, and, with some exceptions which we can ignore, every one of those cells contains a complete copy of that body’s DNA. This DNA can be regarded as a set of instructions for how to make a body, written in the A, T, C, G, alphabet of the nucleotides. It is as though, in every room of a gigantic building, there was a book-case containing the architect’s plans for the entire building. The ‘book-case’ in a cell is called the nucleus. The architect’s plans run to 46 volumes in man—the number is different in other species. The ‘volumes’ are called chromosomes. They are visible under a microscope as long threads, and the genes are strung out along them in order. It is not easy, indeed it may not even be meaningful, to decide where one gene ends and the next one begins. Fortunately, as this chapter will show, this does not matter for our purposes.
On the definition of a gene as used within the book:
Gene is defined as any portion of chromosomal material that potentially lasts for enough generations to serve as a unit of natural selection. In the words of the previous chapter, a gene is a replicator with high copying-fidelity. Copying-fidelity is another way of saying longevity-in-the-form-of-copies and I shall abbreviate this simply to longevity. The definition will take some justifying.
On the selfishness of a gene:
There might be several such universal properties, but there is one that is particularly relevant to this book: at the gene level, altruism must be bad and selfishness good. This follows inexorably from our definitions of altruism and selfishness. Genes are competing directly with their alleles for survival, since their alleles in the gene pool are rivals for their slot on the chromosomes of future generations. Any gene that behaves in such a way as to increase its own survival chances in the gene pool at the expense of its alleles will, by definition, tautologously, tend to survive. The gene is the basic unit of selfishness.
On the genes’ main prirorities:
The genes are master programmers, and they are programming for their lives. They are judged according to the success of their programs in copying with all the hazards that life throws at their survival machines, and the judge is the ruthless judge of the court of survival. We shall come later to ways in which gene survival can be fostered by what appears to be altruistic behaviour. But the obvious first priorities of a survival machine, and of the brain that takes the decisions for it, are individual survival and reproduction. All the genes in the ‘colony’ would agree about these priorities.
On Evolutionarily stable strategies (ESS):
An evolutionarily stable strategy or ESS is defined as a strategy which, if most members of a population adopt it, cannot be bettered by an alternative strategy. It is a subtle and important idea. Another way of putting it is to say that the best strategy for an individual depends on what the majority of the population are doing. Since the rest of the population consists of individuals, each one trying to maximize his own success, the only strategy that persists will be one which, once evolved, cannot be bettered by any deviant individual. Following a major environmental change there may be a brief period of evolutionary instability, perhaps even oscillation in the population. But once an ESS is achieved it will stay: selection will penalize deviation from it…Whenever there is strong asymmetry in a contest, ESSs are likely to be conditional strategies dependent on the asymmetry. Strategies analogous to ‘if smaller, run away; if larger, attack’ are very likely to evolve in contests between members of different species because there are so many available asymmetries. Lions and antelopes have reached a kind of stability by evolutionary divergence, which has accentuated the original asymmetry of the contest in an ever-increasing fashion. They have become highly proficient in the arts of, respectively, chasing, and running away. A mutant antelope that adopted a ‘stand and fight’ Strategy against lions would be less successful than rival antelopes disappearing over the horizon.
On gene pools:
The gene pool is the long-term environment of the gene. ‘Good’ genes are blindly selected as those that survive m the gene pool. This is not a theory; it is not even an observed fact: it is a tautology. The interesting question is what makes a gene good. As a first approximation I said that what makes a gene good is the ability to build efficient survival machines—bodies. We must now amend that statement. The gene pool will become an evolutionary stable set of genes, defined as a gene pool that cannot be invaded by any new gene. Most new genes that arise, either by mutation or re-assortment or immigration, are quickly penalized by natural selection: the evolutionary stable set is restored. Occasionally a new gene does succeed in invading the set: it succeeds in spreading through the gene pool. There is a transitional period of instability, terminating in a new evolutionary stable set—a little bit of evolution has occurred. By analogy with the aggression strategies, a population might have more than one alternative stable point, and it might occasionally flip from one to another. Progressive evolution may be not so much a steady Upward climb as a series of discrete steps from stable plateau to stable plateau. It may look as though the population as a whole is behaving like a single self-regulating unit. But this illusion is produced by selection going on at the level of the single gene. Genes are selected on ‘merit’. But merit is judged on the basis of performance against the background of the evolutionary stable set which is the current gene pool.
On family planning:
But any altruistic system is inherently unstable, because it is open to abuse by selfish individuals, ready to exploit it. Individual humans who have more children than they are capable of rearing are probably too ignorant in most cases to be accused of conscious malevolent exploitation. Powerful institutions and leaders who deliberately encourage them to do so seem to me less free from suspicion…Our conclusion from this chapter is that individual parents practise family planning, but in the sense that they optimize their birth-rates rather than restrict them for public good. They try to maximize the number of surviving children that they have, and this means having neither too many babies nor too few. Genes that make an individual have too many babies tend not to persist in the gene pool, because children containing such genes tend not to survive to adulthood.
On the battle of the generations:
I am simply saying that natural selection will tend to favour children who do act in this way, and that therefore when we look at wild populations we may expect to see cheating and selfishness within families. The phrase ‘the child should cheat’ means that genes that tend to make children cheat have an advantage in the gene pool. If there is a human moral to be drawn, it is that we must teach our children altruism, for we cannot expect it to be part of their biological nature.
On the battle of the sexes:
To sum up this chapter so far, the various different kinds of breeding system that we find among animals—monogamy, promiscuity, harems, and so on—can be understood in terms of conflicting interests between males and females. Individuals of either sex ‘want’ to maximize their total reproductive output during their lives. Because of a fundamental difference between the size and numbers of sperms and eggs, males are in general likely to be biased towards promiscuity and lack of paternal care. Females have two main available counter-ploys, which I have called the he-man and the domestic-bliss strategies. The ecological circumstances of a species will determine whether the females are biased towards one or the other of these counter-ploys, and will also determine how the males respond. In practice all intermediates between he-man and domestic-bliss are found and, as we have seen, there are cases in which the father does even more child-care than the mother.
On reciprocation, specifically for humans:
A long memory and a capacity for individual recognition are well developed in man. We might therefore expect reciprocal altruism to have played an important part in human evolution. Trivers goes so far as to suggest that many of our psychological characteristics- envy, guilt, gratitude, sympathy etc.—have been shaped by natural selection for improved ability to cheat, to detect cheats, and to avoid being thought to be a cheat. Of particular interest are ‘subtle cheats’ who appear to be reciprocating, but who consistently pay back slightly less than they receive. It is even possible that man’s swollen brain, and his predisposition to reason mathematically, evolved as a mechanism of ever more devious cheating, and ever more penetrating detection of cheating in others. Money is a formal token of delayed reciprocal altruism. There is no end to the fascinating speculation that the idea of reciprocal altruism engenders when we apply it to our own species. Tempting as it is, I am no better at such speculation than the next man, and I leave the reader to entertain himself.
On memes, another aspect that is passed on from generation to generation:
But do we have to go to distant worlds to find other kinds of replicator and other, consequent, kinds of evolution.? I think that a new kind of replicator has recently emerged on this very planet. It is staring us in the face, is still ill its infancy, still drifting clumsily about in its primeval soup, but already it is achieving evolutionary change at a rate that leaves the old gene panting far behind. The new soup is the soup of human culture. We need a name for the new replicator, a noun that conveys the idea of a unit of cultural transmission, or a unit of imitation. ‘Mimeme‘ comes from a suitable Greek root, but I want a monosyllable that sounds a bit like ‘gene’. I hope my classicist friends will forgive me if I abbreviate mimeme to meme. If it is any consolation, it could alternately be thought of as being related to ‘memory’, or to the French word meme. It should be pronounced to rhyme with ‘cream’. Examples of memes are tunes, ideas, catch-phrases, clothes fashions, ways of making pots or of building arches. Just as genes propagate themselves in the gene pool by leaping from body to body via sperms or eggs, so memes propagate themselves m the meme pool by leaping from brain to brain via a process which, in the broad sense, can be called imitation…Another member of the religious meme complex is called faith. It means blind trust, in the absence of evidence, even in the teeth of evidence. The story of Doubting Thomas is told, not so that we shall admire Thomas, but so that we can admire the other apostles in comparison. Thomas demanded evidence. Nothing is more lethal for certain kinds of memes than a tendency to look for evidence. The other apostles, whose faith was so strong that they did not need evidence, are held up to us as worthy of imitation. The meme for blind faith secures its own perpetuation by the simple unconscious expedient of discouraging rational inquiry.
On the evolution of meme:
I conjecture that co-adapted meme-complexes evolve in the same kind of way as co-adapted gene-complexes. Selection favours memes that exploit their cultural environment to their own advantage. This cultural environment consists of other memes which are also being selected. The meme pool therefore comes to have the attributes of an evolutionarily stable set, which new memes find it hard to invade. I have been a bit negative about memes, but they have their cheerful side as well. When we die there are two things we can leave behind us: genes and memes. We were built as gene machines, created to pass on our genes. But that aspect of us will be forgotten in three generations. Your child, even your grandchild, may bear a resemblance to you, perhaps in facial features, in a talent for music, in the colour of her hair. But as each generation passes, the contribution of your genes is halved. It does not take long to reach negligible proportions. Our genes may be immortal but the collection of genes that is any one of us is bound to crumble away. Elizabeth II is a direct descendant of William the Conqueror. Yet it is quite probable that she bears not a single one of the old king’s genes. We should not seek immortality in reproduction. But if you contribute to the world’s culture, if you have a good idea, compose a tune, invent a sparking plug, write a poem, it may live on, intact, long after your genes have dissolved in the common pool. Socrates may or may not have a gene or two alive in the world today, as G. C. Williams has remarked, but who cares. The meme-complexes of Socrates, Leonardo, Copernicus and Marconi are still going strong.
Despite all what is said about genetic pre-disposition, as humans we have the capacity for altruism:
It is possible that yet another unique quality of man is a capacity for genuine, disinterested, true altruism. I hope so, but I am not going to argue the case one way or the other, nor to speculate over its possible memic evolution. The point I am making now is that, even if we look on the dark side and assume that individual man is fundamentally selfish, our conscious foresight—our capacity to simulate the future in imagination—could save us from the worst selfish excesses of the blind replicators. We have at least the mental equipment to foster our long-term selfish interests rather than merely our short-term selfish interests. We can see the long-term benefits of participating in a ‘conspiracy of doves’, and we can sit down together to discuss ways of making the conspiracy work. We have the power to defy the selfish genes of our birth and, if necessary, the selfish memes of our indoctrination. We can even discuss ways of deliberately cultivating and nurturing pure, disinterested altruism— something that has no place in nature, something that has never existed before in the whole history of the world. We are built as gene machines and cultured as meme machines, but we have the power to turn against our creators. We, alone on earth, can rebel against the tyranny of the selfish replicators.
On the Tit for Tat strategy:
So, although Tit for Tat may be only dubiously an ESS, it has a sort of higher-order stability. What can this mean.? Surely, stable is stable. Well, here we are taking a longer view. Always Defect resists invasion for a long time. But if we wait long enough, perhaps thousands of years. Tit for Tat will eventually muster the numbers required to tip it over the knife-edge, and the population will flip. But the reverse will not happen. Always Defect, as we have seen, cannot benefit from clustering, and so does not enjoy this higher-order Stability. Tit for Tat, as we have seen, is ‘nice’, meaning never the first to defect, and ‘forgiving’, meaning that it has a short memory for past misdeeds. I now introduce another of Axelrod’s evocative technical terms. Tit for Tat is also ‘not envious’.
On the Central Theorem of the Extended Phenotype:
This leads to what I have called the Central Theorem of the Extended Phenotype: An animal’s behaviour tends to maximize the survival of the genes for that behaviour, whether or not those genes happen to be in the body of the particular animal performing it. I was writing in the context of animal behaviour, but the theorem could apply, of course, to colour, size. shape—to anything.
On a concluding note, and in summary:
Let me end with a brief manifesto, a summary of the entire selfish gene/extended phenotype view of life. It is a view, I maintain, that applies to living things everywhere in the universe. The fundamental unit, the prime mover of all life, is the replicator. A replicator is anything in the universe of which copies are made. Replicators come into existence, in the first place, by chance, by the random jostling of smaller particles. Once a replicator has come into existence it is capable of generating an indefinitely large set of copies of itself No copying process is perfect, however, and the population of replicators comes to include varieties that differ from one another. Some of these varieties turn out to have lost the power of self-replication, and their kind ceases to exist when they themselves cease to exist. Others can still replicate, but less effectively. Yet other varieties happen to find themselves m possession of new tricks: they turn out to be even better self-replicators than their predecessors and contemporaries. It is their descendants that come to dominate the population. As time goes by, the world becomes filled with the most powerful and ingenious replicators.
Gradually, more and more elaborate ways of being a good replicator are discovered, replicators survive, not only by virtue of their own intrinsic properties, but by virtue of their consequences on the world. These consequences can be quite indirect. All that is necessary is that eventually the consequences, however tortuous and indirect, feedback and affect the success of the replicator at getting itself copied.
The success that a replicator has m the world will depend on what kind of a world it is—the pre-existing conditions. Among the most important of these conditions will be other replicators and their consequences. Like the English and German rowers, replicators that are mutually beneficial will come to predominate in each other’s presence. At some point in the evolution of life on our earth, this Ranging up of mutually compatible replicators began to be formalized in the creation of discrete vehicles—cells and, later, many-celled bodies. Vehicles that evolved a bottlenecked life cycle prospered, and became more discrete and vehicle-like.
This packaging of living material into discrete vehicles became such a salient and dominant feature that, when biologists arrived on the scene and started asking questions about life, their questions were mostly about vehicles—individual organisms. The individual organism came first in the biologist’s consciousness, while the replicators—now known as genes—were seen as part of the machinery used by individual organisms. It requires a deliberate mental effort to turn biology the right way up again, and remind ourselves that the replicators come first in unimportance as well as in history.
One way to remind ourselves is to reflect that, even today, not all the phenotypic effects of a gene are bound up in the individual body in which it sits. Certainly in principle, and also in fact, the gene reaches out through the individual body wall and manipulates objects in the world outside, some of them inanimate, some of them other living beings, some of them a long way away. With only a little imagination we can see the gene as sitting at the centre of a radiating web of extended phenotypic power. And an object m the world is the centre of a converging web of influences from many genes sitting in many organisms. The long reach of the gene knows no obvious boundaries. The whole world is crisscrossed with causal arrows joining genes to phenotypic effects, far and near.
It is an additional fact, too important in practice to be called incidental but not necessary enough in theory to be called inevitable, that these causal arrows have become bundled up. Replicators are no longer peppered freely through the sea; they are packaged in huge colonies—individual bodies. And phenotypic consequences, instead of being evenly distributed throughout the world, have in many cases congealed into those same bodies. But the individual body, so familiar to us on our planet, did not have to exist. The only kind of entity that has to exist in order for life to arise, anywhere in the universe, is the immortal replicator.
A highly recommended must read in the areas of science, genetics, evolution, and game theory.