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In the popular science book, The Selfish Gene, Richard Dawkins explains his theory of evolution, and its occurrence for the good of the gene rather than the good of the species or individual. Dawkins believes the gene to be practically immortal, carrying on generation upon generation. By calling them ?selfish? Dawkins describes a genes? strategy of competition for survival, its tendency to behave in a manor suited to ensure its propagation. ?Genes are competing directly with their alleles for survival, since alleles are rivals for their slot on the chromosome of future generations.?(P.36)
Dawkins? work is written exceptionally well, and easily comprehendible with his use of metaphors. Significant theories are broken down to a level that makes grasping the concept of the book easy as it is opening it. For example, he uses the metaphor of an architect?s plan, mixing the language of the metaphor with the language of the real thing. ?Volume? is used for chromosome, and ?Page? for gene. Put into context it describes the role of DNA.
The first theory Dawkins explains is evolution, the process of gaining complexity from simplicity. Under the influence of ultraviolet light from the sun, Dawkins suggests that organic substances became locally concentrated and combined into larger molecules. At some point, a molecule with the ability to duplicate itself was formed. Dawkins calls this molecule a Replicator. It was the replicators that became widespread in the ?primeval soup? acting as template, not for an identical copy, but rather a ?negative? which in turn would make copies of the original. However, no copying process is without error, and so mistakes arose in the ?soup?, giving birth to various forms of replicators. The ones that became most abundant displayed accuracy, longevity, and speed. The more complex the replicator became the more it needed protection, so simple protein walls were formed, called survival machines. Dawkins claims that presently, humans are the gene?s survival machines.
Second, Dawkins explains the difference between selfish and altruistic genes. However, one gene does not control an entire behavioral pattern. An organism that behaves in a selfish manor benefits at the expense of others. For this Dawkins uses the example of blackheaded gulls which nest in large colonies, nests being only a few feet apart. ?One gull might wait until a neighbor goes to fish, then pounce on one of the neighbors chicks and swallow it whole. It obtains a nutritious meal without having to leave its own nest unprotected.?(P.5)
An entity that behaves in an altruistic manor increases another?s welfare at its own expense. Yet, it is often discovered upon inspection that an altruistic act was really selfish in disguise, but not consciously. One example of altruism Dawkins? gives is of ground nesting birds. If a predator comes to close to the nest the parent bird limps away drawing the predator further from the young chicks. (P.6)
Underlying selfishness or not, altruism it crucial to gene survival. ??a species? whose individual members are prepared to sacrifice themselves for the welfare of the group may be less likely to go extinct than a rival group whose individual members place their own selfish interests first.? (P. 7)
Dawkins continues to elaborate on survival machines in the fourth chapter: The Gene Machine. He believes the body not to be a colony of cells, but rather, a colony of genes. And states that selection has favored genes that cooperate with others. (P.47) They have made our bodies into a coordinated unit, achieving rapid movement by evolving muscle, and reasoning capabilities by evolving brains. The main way brains contribute to the success of survival machines is by controlling and coordinating contractions of muscles by use of motor nerves. Natural selection has preferred animals that became equipped with sense organs such as eyes, ears and taste buds.
Genes cannot, however, manipulate us directly. The reason for this is the process by which they work ? protein synthesis, a powerful, but slow occurrence. ?Genes can only do their best in advance by? programming us in advance with rules and advice.? ??genes have to ?instruct? their survival machines? with general strategies and tricks of the living trade.? (P. 55)
A pre-programmed strategy that effects behavior and cannot be altered is an Evolutionary Stable Strategy, or EES. Three examples of EES are bully, retaliator, and poker face. Bully, as well as retaliator, are conditional strategies. In conditional strategies, the behaviors are influenced by actions of rivals. Retaliators threaten, but do not attack unless attacked. Bullies, however, attack and then run when the opponent fights back. The retaliator EES is considered ?evolutionary stable.? (P.74)
In poker face, a basic threat is used. An organism stares down an enemy to win a valuable resource. A physical fight is not involved.
Certain behaviors that lead to a stable EES are asymmetry and mutual symbiosis. Organisms that involve asymmetry often have contests including three main elements: Size, amount to gain, and whether the ?contestant? is an intruder or a resident in the habitat. ?An individual will win when the opponent is an intruder. When the opponent is a resident, the individual runs a grave risk of injury.? (P.79)
Symbiosis is an EES that involves asymmetry, where each partner has something different to offer the other. Many organisms however, have an EES know as mimicry. Dawkins uses the example of butterflies. ?Some butterflies taste nasty? birds learn to avoid them by their ?warning? marks? other species of butterflies do not taste nasty, but mimic the ones that do to avoid being eaten.? (P. 31)
The discussion over male and female reproductive behavior is a main element of The Selfish Gene. Dawkins believes that male promiscuity and womanizing as well as female monogamy and exploitation can be traced to the cells that produced them. The difference in size alone is a major factor. The female egg because of its larger size provides an increased contribution to its offspring, thereby investing more into her kin.
The sperm cell, however, is much smaller and faster travelling. This enables it to invest less and fertilize numerous eggs in less time. Dawkins explains how these actions would be beneficial for the male and the female would have nothing to gain. Humans however, rely mainly on physical attributes to attract a susceptible mate.
When it come to genes Dawkins believes that nice guys finish first, that is to say the winning strategies for genes are nice-ness and forgivingness. He believes it to be game like, with payoffs awarded for different strategies. Tit for Tat, who is cooperate, and Na?ve Prober, who is defect are two examples. Although they are not EES?s, they can be effective strategies of gene survival. ?They could herald the benignant idea that, even with selfish genes at the helm, nice guys can finish first.? (P.233)
Although our genes, by nature, instruct us to be selfish, we have the ability to revolt against them. Altruism and benevolence make an ideal society, and it is a human?s responsibility to teach this behavior to its kin.
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