Tuesday, November 29, 2011

What Is the Ultimate Driver of Evolution? - The Selfish Gene by Richard Dawkins

What Is the Ultimate Driver of Evolution? - The Selfish Gene by Richard Dawkins

My favorite subject of philosophy is epistemology. No wonder philosophers like Husserl, Heidegger, and Derrida occupies strong spots in the realm of my favorite philosophers. Skepticism must be the starting point of all this search for the true perception of the world. Believing thus, I have been always quite skeptical about so-called “certain facts.”

In the truest sense, what is certain is limited to tautologies. One plus one equals two because we defined them that way. Mathematical axioms are given as true because they are what they are defined. Everything else in this world is quite vulnerable to the attacks of skepticism. For one thing, most people would believe (including a friend of min who is an engineer and doctor) that the Earth is orbiting around the Sun. “Yes, it sounds quite plausible” was what I told him when we had a debate on this theme. Today’s physics does not admit the concept of centerpoint - everything is relative. Back to the Copernican thesis, what is (relatively) certain is that everything is explained better when we regard the Earth to move around the Sun, than vice versa. The so-called Okam’s Razor is a good criterion in terms of efficiency, but I am not sure of its legitimacy if I must give my best guess about the order of the universe.

The question of truth itself will be a solid topic for several blog postings. So, I will finally wind up and get down to today’s topic: the wonderful book by Richard Dawkins, The Selfish Gene. What I wanted to say in the two paragraphs above was, in short, being a skeptical, I was not sure about Darwinism either, like other theories. When I was in junior high, I was lucky to have a wonderful biology teacher. She was not just a smart teacher, but also a very conscientious person who wanted to make her students think about important things in life. After teaching us the evolution theory from the textbook, she took time to introduce us to the alternative, the creationism. At that time, I was not yet initiated into the realm of skepticism, and was like a sponge absorbing knowledge about the world. Consequently, at first I thought she started a joke. But she was so effective in raising questions about Darwinism, that she succeeded in planting a seed of suspicion in my mind, myself not aware of it.

To think about it, we all learn the theory of evolution in school, but rarely do we seek to read more about the omnipresent theory. Most people take it as granted. As for me, it was really lucky that I found Dawkins’s famous book in the local library. It was entertaining, educational, and quite often insightful. I can say I understand Darwinism better. And I hope the opposite side - anti-Darwinists - also wield the same weapon, science, to strengthen their theses.

This is already too long. Let’s dive into what the book says.

The single most important take-away from this book is this: the motivation and driving force behind evolution is the selfish interest of the genes who strive to thrive by making as many copies of themselves as possible. Living organisms, be they animals, plants, or the single-cell organisms in the Primordial Soup, are simply “survival machines” programmed and run by those selfish genes. However, it is not that the genes are micro-managing your body in details. They (collectively) programmed the way you behave, so that they can thrive and make more copies of themselves by letting you live longer and be prolific. Thus, it is true that your free will is bound by those genes’ selfish interests in the profound sense, but it is by no means that you are controlled by those genes like a zombie controlled by some virus. (Of course we do not know the interactive mechanism between a zombie-making virus and the zombie controlled.) Furthermore, genes are doing the engineering in a collective manner. Some genes are beneficial to each other when they cooperate, so that they both can prosper better. In some other cases, they generate a negative synergy and reduce their chances of prolonged survival. A good example of the latter case will be a gene that makes strong biting jaws and a gene that makes long and complex intestine that digests fibers well. The gene that makes herbivore intestine will be better matched with a gene that makes the legs leap farther, in which case they both can prosper by making their collective “survival machine” digest plants better and run away better from predators.

In other words, the driving force of evolution is not some kind of subconscious awareness in the individual organisms that strives to make its species prosper. Dawkins says that this is the most popular belief among evolutionary biologists. This was exactly what I learned in school. Contrary to this common belief, it is the selfish interest of the genes in living organisms that is driving the evolutionary process across the vast history of time.

Putting the first and most important cornerstone in the right manner makes everything thereafter much easier to explain. To answer the question “what is the selfish subject that strives to prosper by evolving?” with “the gene” makes other explanations much easier and plausible. This is an Okam’s Razor.

For example, the phenomenon of decrepitude can be (more) easily explained. Certain genes that increase the probability of death at younger age of the survival machine (especially before the survival machine can bear children) will not prosper 1) because they fail to make their own copies because of the death of the survival machine, and 2) because they will find it difficult to find other genes to cooperate with them. On the other hand, certain genes that increase the probability of death at older age of the survival machine will not have such problems. In other words, they do not care about the well being of their survival machine because they already spread their own copies to the world through reproduction at the heyday of the survival machine. Thus, genes that cause lethal conditions in the survival machine after a certain threshold - when its reproductive function becomes highly inefficient or defunct - are not removed from the pool of “fittest” genes, nor do they cause too serious harm in their pursuit of self-reproduction that they find it too difficult to find other genes to cooperate. This is decrepitude.

As another example, the bifurcation of the two genders is deliberated in a very intuitive and interesting way. At first, one survival machine, by chance, came out with a slightly bigger gamete than others. Because this organism (and the genes within) put extra efforts in the first stage of reproduction, it is beneficial to focus more on increasing the prospect of survival of this gamete, than to focus on producing more gametes to diversify in its investment portfolio of gametes. By contrast, other organisms with (relatively) smaller gametes will be better off if it can attach its gamete with the above-mentioned bigger gamete to form an embryo, because this diploid will have better chance of survival without any extra efforts on its side. Thus, for this organism with smaller gametes, the optimal strategy is to produce more gametes to enhance the probability of combining with the bigger gamete. To produce more gametes with the same (given) resources, it will choose to produce more, but smaller gametes. Thus, the two types of organisms will be drawn more and more towards its own optimal strategy - fewer bigger gametes for one, and more smaller gametes for the other. Now, we might be able to call them female and male, respectively, after they have gone separate paths far enough.

The final chapters of this wonderful book also show a true epitome of what a good book - or any type of truth-seeking efforts - can achieve. In chapter 12, he says “nice guys finish first.” Many people might think the author starts selling a philosophy (or even worse, a religion) at the end of a series of nice logical mind games. That will be a gross misunderstanding. First of all, the definition of Dawkins’s “nice” might not be accepted as nice by certain people. Second of all, he shows how nice guys finish first mathematically, using simulations based on game theory. Axelrod’s simulation of a Prisoner’s Dilemma game situation will be an excellent example to show the two points. His simulation showed that the nice tactic of Tit-for-tat (TFT) wins the day. TFT cannot be considered to be all too nice because it revenges against a harm done. TFT is nice in that it does not initiate a betrayal, and the revenge is employed only once to even out the previous betrayal done against it. (The fact that the simulation was a mathematical process need not be explained, I guess.) The conclusion, however, bears a rather Utopian connotation. TFT was found to bring everybody better result. Being nice brought happiness to everybody, even though it originated from an intent to earn big in the long term i.e. from a selfish intention. After depicting all the blood-smeared contests for survival among friends and family members, Dawkins presents readers with such a beautiful, even fable-like, but scientifically true insight.

One more thing I must not omit when I attempt to put my homage to this wonderful book is the concept of “meme.” The concept of meme shows that the concept of self-interested self-copier need not be limited to genes only. Memes, only short-lived yet compared to genes, evolved at spectacular speed, with the help of language and communication revolution. The concept of meme is, in one sense, as revolutionary as the first appearance of Darwinism itself. The first living organism evolved from the “primordial soup,” a huge step in the whole process of the “Big History.” Meme, I think, is another such huge step, in that the selfish self-copier has transcended the limit of biological form of gene. Does a meme have a “self” that wishes to prolong its own (collective) life? This question comes from misunderstanding of Dawkins. The selfish gene is defined as selfish. We cannot say a gene will become happier when it successfully proliferate through generations. The selfish gene was created as selfish, to strive to proliferate its own copies in the world. Memes can be understood in the same way. Shakespeare, I believe, must have wished that his works will be read and enjoyed by more people. But this wish of the author is not the creator of the meme’s (in this case, for example, a famous line from Hamlet) selfish wish for proliferation. Meme, I believe, has a selfish trait that wished to proliferate its own copies in the world. And this trait is basically there, innately, inside the meme, as genes have these selfish wishes. With memes, or some other forms of self-copiers beyond carbon and metabolism, the future might witness new kinds of living organisms - survival machines - completely different from the life we know today.