Sunday, July 06, 2008

Selfish genes

News flash: "selfish" genes actually exist. They aren't simply a metaphor.

New Discovery Proves 'Selfish Gene' Exists (6/20/08)
A new discovery by a scientist from The University of Western Ontario provides conclusive evidence which supports decades-old evolutionary doctrines long accepted as fact.

Since renowned British biologist Richard Dawkins ("The God Delusion") introduced the concept of the 'selfish gene' in 1976, scientists the world over have hailed the theory as a natural extension to the work of Charles Darwin.

Although I think that the idea of the "selfish gene" was a nice way to conceptualize the situation, the above remarks seem to be a little hyperbolic. It's not clear that this theoretical insight was that Earth-shattering. And the adjective wasn't meant to be taken literally:
In studying genomes, the word 'selfish' does not refer to the human-describing adjective of self-centered behavior but rather to the blind tendency of genes wanting to continue their existence into the next generation. Ironically, this 'selfish' tendency can appear anything but selfish when the gene does move ahead for selfless and even self-sacrificing reasons.

Nobody seriously thinks that genes have psychological "wants" or "needs". It's just that the effect of a gene may resemble what might be conscious advantage-seeking behavior in a human.

Or then again, specific human behavior may have adaptive evolutionary value even if it's not consciously undertaken for personal advantage or evolutionary success. Indeed, many human motivators that might seem to be "wants" or "needs" may have beneficial evolutionary consequences that are different from the apparent immediate objective of the specific motivator. (Sex itself is the best example of this. Even though a few species succeed without sex.)

And on the other hand, behavior that outwardly appears altruistic can be undertaken for genuinely "selfish" reasons, such as the personal satisfaction that can be enjoyed, or perhaps even public and social acclaim. If such social reward reliably does ensue, the behavior may well have adaptive value for an individual and a social group. The literature is replete with discussions of such issues.

However all that may be, the research in focus here gives actual evidence of the existence of a gene in honey bees behaving selfishly. The gene (which still remains to be explicitly identfied) disadvantages ordinary worker bees by making them sterile, but at the same time contributes to the success of the colony by promoting reproductive success of the queen bee. The gene can be called "selfish" because it condemns most bees to a lifetime of drudgery, in order to promote its own survival through the success of the colony and its most elite member(s).
Because the 'selfish' gene controlling worker sterility has never been isolated by scientists, the understanding of how reproductive altruism can evolve has been entirely theoretical -- until now.

Working with Peter Oxley of the University of Sydney in Australia, Western biology professor Graham Thompson has, for the first time-ever, isolated a region on the honey bee genome that houses this 'selfish' gene in female workers bees.

This means that the 'selfish' gene does exist, not just in theory but in reality. "We don't know exactly which gene it is, but we're getting close."

Who ever suspected that Republican political philosophy existed among honey bees?

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Blogger The E O said...

My only criticism with this revelation is the language biologists, such as Richard Dawkins, use in explaining it. I totally agree that the genes that survive must have acted in their own interests, as if they had been selfish.

I see it clearly but, as I discuss it with friends, I find that I have to use words defined in another era, by people with a world-view (usually a religious one) that does not engage with the evidence. I keep thinking that we need some new, carefully defined words, because the old ones get in the way of understanding.

7/08/2008 03:16:00 AM  
Blogger Charles Daney said...

I keep thinking that we need some new, carefully defined words, because the old ones get in the way of understanding.

I agree. The problem in communicating with people who haven't thought or learned much about scientific subjects is that all the words you might want to use have already established "common" meanings. You are forced to use metaphors, and a lot of people don't cope so well with metaphorical explanations. They have a difficult time separating metaphorical from literal meaning.

(This problem isn't only in science. You know how many people have huge difficulties interpreting religious texts like "the bible" in any way other than literally.)

This is exactly the problem with the word "selfish". I don't know a good solution that works in general.

7/08/2008 11:37:00 AM  

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