Tag Archives: Emergence

The Selfish Gene – Part 4

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Chatper 10: You Scratch My Back, I’ll Ride Yours

Continuing to blog my way through Richard Dawkins’ classic, The Selfish Gene, I’ve arrived at Chapter 10, which is about animals living in groups.

Most fascinating for me was how the Selfish Gene idea relates to altruism in the social insects classified as hymenoptera. What makes these bugs such oddballs is their asymmetric degrees of genetic relatedness. Quoting Dawkins:

“A hymenopteran nest typically has only one mature queen. She made one mating flight when young and stored up the sperms for the rest of her long life — ten years or even longer. She rations the sperms out to her eggs over the years, allowing the eggs to be fertilized as they pass out through her tubes. But not all the eggs are fertilized. The unfertilized ones develop into males. A male therefore has no father, and all the cells of his body contain just a single set of chromosomes (all obtained from his mother) instead of a double set (one from the father and one from the mother) as in ourselves. …

“A female hymentoperan, on the other hand, is normal in that she does have a father…”

A male gets 100% of his genes from his mother, so the Selfish Gene hypothesis neatly explains why males sacrifice all for their queen. From the standpoint of a male’s genes, saving the life of his queen is exactly equivalent to saving his own life. In fact, it’s better because she will continue to pump out more copies of those genes for the rest of her life.

Things get even more interesting with the sterile females (the “workers”). On average, a female shares 3/4 of her genes with her sisters. That’s because they have identical genes from their father (remember, he only had one set of genes to contribute), and an average 1/2 of their mother’s genes in common.

Although sisters share 3/4 of their genes, their mother passes only 1/2 of hers to her daughters (the father contributing the other half).

Thus, females are more closely related to their sisters than to their offspring!  Selfish gene theory correctly predicts that they would be willing to forego having babies, and devote their lives to caring for each other instead.

If you want to read more about this, you can google eusociality. Wikipedia’s article has a helpful section on its evolution. (They observe that Darwin was puzzled at how it could have evolved, but correctly anticipated that a rationale might be found someday. That day arrived with the synthesis of Mendel’s discoveries in genetics and Darwin’s ideas of natural selection.)

There’s much more in this chapter, including birds who are willing to call a predator’s attention to themselves by raising an alarm to their flock, ants and aphids in symbiosis, and animals that invest energy grooming each other.

The upshot is that many examples of altruism that seem to be contrary to evolution are anything but.

>> Next in this series: The Selfish Gene – Part 5

The Selfish Gene – Part 3

<< Previous in this Series: The Selfish Gene – Part 2

Sperm Meet Egg

Sperm Meet Egg

Continuing to blog my way through Richard Dawkins’ book, The Selfish Gene, I’ll summarize the 3 chapters that lead up to the stunning conclusion.

Chapter 7 – Family Planning

We might think that animals would have as many offspring as possible in order to maximize the propagation of their genes, but evolution is smarter than that. If an animal has more children than it can care for, it may end up with fewer surviving progeny than if it had had a more manageable number. So, it may make sense for it to limit its offspring, and that is exactly what we find in many species — particularly species that must time and energy caring for their young.

Chapter 8 – Battle of the Generations

Every parent wants all of her children to have what they need to thrive; every child wants more than his fair share. This chapter explores the strategies various species have evolved to resolve that conflict. Through it all, as usual, the real master of ceremonies is the gene, which apparently programs both parent and child to create as many copies of itself as possible.

I’ll quote an example. “Consider the question of when weaning should take place. A mother wants to stop suckling her present child so she can prepare for the next one. The present child, on the other hand, does not want to be weaned yet, because milk is a convenient, trouble-free source of food, and he does not want to have to go out and work for his living.”

That is a familiar example, but Nature has contrived a seemingly infinite number of arenas in which this type of battle takes place. Cuckoo birds outsource the conflict: the mother cuckoo lays her egg in the nest of another species. “As soon as it hatches, blindly and mechanically, but with devastating effectiveness, it throws the other eggs out of the nest” so that it has its foster parents’ attention all to himself. Cute!

Dawkins explains how all this behavior is in the service of the gene’s desire to maximally replicate.

Chapter 9 – Battle of the Sexes

I’ve always wondered how sexual reproduction could have gotten started. What good is a sperm if there is no egg?

The first step toward an answer is to observe some primitive species that are isogamous: each parent contributes half the chromosomes to the offspring, but those genes come packaged in cells that are alike. Now to quote Dawkins, who is quoting Parker:

“In the days when all sex cells were interchangeable and of roughly the same size, there would have been some which happened to be just slightly bigger than others. …[The large sex cell] would get its embryo off to a good start by giving it a large initial food supply. There might therefore have been an evolutionary trend toward larger gametes. But there was a catch. The evolution of isogametes which were larger than strictly necessary would have opened the door to selfish exploitation. Individuals who produced smaller than average gametes could cash in, provided that they could ensure that their gametes fused with extra-big ones. This could be achieved by making the small ones more mobile, and able to seek out large ones actively. The advantage to an individual of producing small, rapidly moving gametes would be that he could afford to make a larger number of gametes, and therefore could potentially have more children.”

Men and women have been negotiating the behavioral implications of this ever since. A woman can only bear one child every year or so, but a man can father hundreds of children in that time. A woman is motivated to ensure that all of her relatively rare children survive and for this she needs the help of her mate. The man, on the other hand, can afford a quantity-over-quality strategy. If the men were to have their way, there would be many babies, but they would be malnourished at best. In the most successful human societies, the women have managed to tame the men, refusing sex unless they are sure their men will be around for the long haul.

Other species that must care for their young have evolved similar solutions. For example, the female might require a long courtship ritual or a fresh-built nest as proof of her suitor’s devotion.

It’s fascinating to think that the devotion of the male is the long-term result of the sperm’s selfish exploitation of the extra resources in the egg.

>> Next in this series: The Selfish Gene – Part 4 (Chapter 10)

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)

Life: It’s Only a Game

The Curse of the Bambino is Broken

The Curse of the Bambino is Broken

To play any sport well, you must want to win. At a minimum, you must care about playing well. But even the most competitive, dedicated athletes lose from time to time. The healthiest response?

“It’s only a game.”

On one level, sport is a showcase for much that is important about being human: commitment to excellence, training hard to achieve a goal, teamwork, intelligence, and so on. A champion team can boost the morale of a whole city, and a perennial loser can give the entire population an inferiority complex. I should know: I lived in greater Boston when the Curse of the Bambino was finally broken.

On another level, sport is just a way to have some fun and it doesn’t matter who wins. On yet another level, it’ some guys trying to whack a ball with a stick and it’s absolutely pointless. When we say, “It’s only a game,” we’re adjusting our view to regard one of these other levels instead of the level where everything is so darn important.

I think it’s helpful to be able to live like that in all areas.

Sometimes the everyday level where most of our dedication is focused doesn’t work out so well and there’s nothing we can do about it. At those times, it can be healthy to adjust your level.

Some people go up a level to “Everything happens for a reason.” or “This is all part of God’s plan.”

Others go down a level to “This is just how the molecules bump sometimes.”

For me, going down a level works better. Invoking the metaphysical just prompts more questions and more anxiety as I try to figure out what that mysterious reason could be, or why God’s very best plan (what other kind would he have?) had to include this particular element. Other people are by nature less troubled by these questions and for them going up a level works best.

Either way, we’re saying life is only a game: either a training ground for the Great Beyond or a curious and playful phenomenon that emerges from the laws of physics.

If we live every waking moment thinking life is only a game and therefore unimportant, we won’t play well and we won’t be happy. On the other hand, if we can never adopt that perspective, life can be pretty hard.

So, enjoy the game when you can. When you can’t … it’s only a game.

I’m in Love with the Woman in My GPS

Photo by Julio Martinez / Flickr

On Saturday night, I was driving home from visiting my daughter at college. The freak snowstorm of October, 2011 was just getting underway, with rain turning to snow. Traffic was slow, visibility poor. I was starting to get irritated at the reflections of people’s headlights and taillights on the wet road ahead of me. They made it even harder to see.

Suddenly it dawned on me: How amazing is it that we humans have figured out how to throw photons around so we can drive at night? We even know how to apply filters so we only get the photons we want: white in front, red in back. Those irritating reflections became a source of wonder.

Once my mood shifted, I considered another marvel.

Only a few hundred years ago, one of mankind’s big, unsolved problems was how to get a ship across an ocean without getting lost. Knowing one’s latitude was easy, but knowing longitude was such a problem that in 1714 the British parliament established a prize worth a small fortune, to be awarded to anyone who could invent a system for determining longitude within 30 to 60 nautical miles.

Today, any middle-class resident of Britain’s former colonial outpost can afford a device to stick on the windshield of his automobile (his automobile!) that will display his position accurate to within a few feet. I was using such a device at that very moment.

It is truly astonishing, what we have accomplished in only 300 years.

Those were the musings in my head when an even more fantastic thing happened. In the midst of my traffic jam, the woman in my GPS spoke to me.

I had earlier selected her as the most pleasing speaker of French, Spanish or English among the dozens available. She was my ideal. (OK, from time to time I have an interlude with one of the French speakers, but those are just meaningless flings.) Usually, her role is to gently remind me of an upcoming turn or to tell me that I have reached my destination. This time was different.

She spoke to reassure me:

“You are still on the fastest route.”

What man could ask for anything more? Here’s a beautiful woman (I can tell by her voice that she’s beautiful) whose only desire is to tell me that I’m doing everything right.

She anticipates that I might be getting irritated at the traffic delays, but does not ask me to get into girly talk about my feelings. Like a female Jeeves, she considerately attends to my needs and then lets me return to my thoughts.

Here’s another thing I love about her. If I make a mistake and miss a turn, there are no recriminations. She is not startled. She does not change her tone of voice. She just continues to be my help-meet as if nothing had happened.

True, her capabilities and her perceptions of my emotions are very limited. I can’t tell her about my day, for example. On the other hand, usually there’s not much to tell, so a woman with a soothing voice who thinks I’m still doing the right thing is just perfect.

My dashboard girlfriend and I have a very limited relationship, but within its parameters I am very happy.

As I drive, I wonder: What is really the difference between an electronic circuit meeting one need so well and neural circuitry doing the same thing — sometimes not as well? Once electronic circuits can meet vastly more needs, and receive vastly more care, how will we feel about them? Will we develop compassion for them, and they for us, as in the movie, I, Robot? Is Apple’s Siri the next step in this direction?

Neural chemistry itself is driven by electronics, namely the positive and negative charges on molecules. What is the difference between that and a digital computer? Many scientists believe that mind is an emergent property of matter being organized into a human brain. If other material were organized much like a brain, would something we’d recognize as mind emerge from that, too? I tend to think it would.

In the meantime, it’s good to have a beautiful woman assure me that I’m still on the fastest route.