The Selfish Gene – Part 2

<< Previous in this Series: Part 1 (Chapters 1 through 3)

Continuing to blog an unfairly brief summary of each chapter in Richard Dawkins’ famous book, The Selfish Gene

Chapter 4 – The Gene Machine

To promote their survival, genes have engineered bodies. They control their bodies much like a computer programmer controls a chess game through his software: he builds in some behaviors that he hopes will lead to victory, but he cannot affect every move.

A chess program appears to behave purposefully, but it is not as conscious as it seems. Bodies are only purposeful in the same sense. Still, such behavior is indistinguishable from what some would call “real” purpose, so what’s the difference? (I have blogged about this before, in the series on artificial consciousness.)

Chapter 5 – Aggression: stability and the selfish machine

It is naive to think that “survival of the fittest” means survival of the most aggressive and ruthless. Game theory demonstrates that constant aggression can expend too much energy relative to the reward. Unvarying pacifism will also be punished. The strategies that we observe in nature, such as “cooperation unless provoked,” are smarter.

As genes mutate, the ones that stumble upon ways to program their hosts for smart behavior will flourish. Those that program either hyper-aggressive behavior that invites retaliation, or wimpy behavior that is taken advantage of, will be at an evolutionary disadvantage.

Chapter 6 – Genesmanship

When we say that the unit of evolution is the gene, we do not mean one particular copy of the gene, but all copies. If I have three children, and each one’s genes are half mine, it pays for me to sacrifice my life for their sake. I save one and a half copies of my genes while sacrificing only one copy. Even if I have only one child, it might still pay, for that child has a longer reproductive future than I do. It might even pay to save several more-distant relatives, who each carry a smaller fraction of my genes.

Of course, we usually have neither the time nor the training to perform such calculations. Compounding the difficulty, we don’t always know who has our genes and who doesn’t.

However, we have apparently evolved rules-of-thumb, for this calculated altruism is exactly what we observe. Even though we think we believe that “all men are brothers” the reality is that we are more altruistic toward our real brothers than toward people of different nations or races.

>> Next in this series: Part 3 (Chapters 7 through 9)

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