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Archive for the ‘The Selfish Gene’ Category

The Replicators – I

The journey of evolution is a long one. Our starting point is an existing universe with atoms that make up all of the matter in it and the forces that exist between these atoms. Of course, that does not answer how the universe came into being, or how the atoms came into being, or even how the forces between the atoms came into being. Those are questions whose answers lead to more of the same kind of questions. However, we need to start our explanation of evolution somewhere and this is a pretty simple starting point that does not require a lot of answers.

So, we have a universe with atoms, and there are certain forces between these atoms. If there were no forces, that would be the end of the story. Nothing would happen. But because there are forces, there will be interactions. We can consider these interactions as random. Note that we have not assumed the forces to be random, but merely the interactions. For example, if you put together two hydrogen atoms at a certain distance from each other, they will always react in the same manner every-time. Now when these atoms interact with each other, some of them may repel each other, whereas some may attract each other. The ones that attract each other may form a combination or what is called a molecule. The molecules so formed stay as such precisely because the forces of push and pull between the atoms balance out. Given this universe with atoms and forces between these atoms, it is not hard to imagine that certain patterns of atoms are stable and others are not. The ones that are stable, are by definition, molecules.

Now the same attractions and repulsions may happen between molecules and atoms as well as molecules and other molecules. This gives rise to a little bit more complexity in the universe. We now have different kinds of molecules in the universe. Now we can go backwards and apply the same kind of reasoning to the constituents of atoms such as electrons, protons, and neutrons. So we get different kinds of atoms as well.

We now have a fairly complex universe of different kinds of atoms and molecules. However, this complexity is nowhere close to the complexity found in living organisms. You can take all the atoms in the universe and all the forces between them and juggle them around for eternity and you will probably not come up with even an amoeba. So far we have relied on randomness in nature to form certain molecules which are just combinations of a few atoms. Nothing more complex. This is a reasonable assumption as we can observe this happening in nature ourselves. Water molecules are simply stable formations of two hydrogen atoms and one oxygen atom. However, if we want to create more complexity from this stage onwards, we need more rules. Pure random forces of nature will not create anything more complex, or to put it more correctly, greater the complexity of a molecule, lesser is the chance of it occurring in nature based purely on the random interactions happening among the inhabitants of our universe so far.

In my next post, I’ll explore how more complexity can arise from this stage onwards.

Memorable Quote

In the beginning was simplicity.

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It’s been over 2 years since I first read “The Selfish Gene” by Richard Dawkins, and in the meantime I have forgotten quite a bit of it. The basic idea of evolution is simple, but once you start studying it, lots and lots of details emerge, and these are quite complicated. No other book has influenced my worldview as much as this book has and I know that if I simply only read it again, I will probably forget a lot of it in another couple of years. So I thought, this time, I would note down whatever I learn as briefly and succinctly as possible and create a “The Selfish Gene for Dummies” if you will. I am not a biologist, scientist, or an English language expert, so any comments or suggestions pointing out my mistakes are very welcome indeed.

This will be a short post as I start reading the first chapter titled

“Why Are People?”

The theory of evolution is a fact. There is no denial among real scientists that evolution is true. In common parlance, however, a theory has a different meaning. It means something which can be easily doubted. In science, however, a theory means something that is supported by facts and evidence, and is a valid explanation for whatever question the theory attempts to answer. In the scientific world, the theory of evolution has the same standing as the theory of gravity, it is the best explanation of the how and why of life. In fact, maybe even a greater standing, since the theory of gravity breaks down at speeds approaching the speed of light.

Evolution is survival of the fittest genes, not the fittest animal, nor the fittest group of animals i.e species.

The genes are ‘selfish’, not the organism that the gene is part of. This is why having selfish genes does not necessarily mean we are selfish too. The gene’s selfish ‘agenda’ is to survive as a gene through replication. Now genes do not really have thought or purpose, so what the ‘agenda’ above really means is that genes which replicate will survive and those that don’t replicate will not. The ‘selfish’ refers to the fact that the replication of the genes is at the gene level i.e a gene of type A, when it replicates, will only make copies of gene A, and not of gene B. That is why it is selfish, and not altruistic.

Altruism exhibited at the individual level is still selfish at the gene level. This, to me, is a very good explanation of why we “treat others as we wish to be treated ourselves”. Not because some stupid book says so, but because if we treat each other well, and not kill each other, our chances of survival increase, and hence the chances of survival of the genes that are part of us, also increase.

Speciesism is distinguishing between organisms based on their species, just as racism is distinguishing among people based on race. If we were to derive our morals based purely on biology (There is no suggestion we should), then there is no basis for thinking that a human fetus is more privileged or precious than a chimpanzee.

Memorable Quotes

Let us try to teach generosity and altruism, because we are born selfish. Let us understand what our own selfish genes are up to, because we may then at least have the chance to upset their designs, something that no other species has ever aspired to.

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