Wednesday, November 16, 2016

Commemoration of The Selfish Gene's 40th Anniversary

Last night, I headed down to the scintillating Symphony Space for the Secret Science Club North commemoration of the 40th anniversary of the publication of Richard Dawkin's The Selfish Gene and the 30th anniversary of the publication of The Blind Watchmaker.

Dr Dawkins structured his talk as a friendly interview with the divine Dorian Devins, who he has known for twenty years. Dr Dawkins began by noting that natural selection involves the survival of something. He came to the conclusion that it involves the survival of genes, and a gene has the potential to be immortal. The world is full of genes which are successful, the bodies of individual organisms are vehicles for the genes inside them. Genes which are good for survival survive.

In no way is The Selfish Gene advocacy for selfishness... while genes are 'selfish', animals often act in altruistic fashion. Given a chance to change the title of the book, Dr Dawkins proposed the potential alternates The Immortal Gene or even The Cooperative Gene. He noted that such a change of title would not involve changing one word of the book itself.

When asked about his role as a populizer of science, Dr Dawkins noted the unfortunate existence of the Carl Sagan Effect- populizers of science are often shunned by the Academy for writing books for laypersons. He noted that, in his case, writing was good for working out his thought processes. While forty years have passed since the publication of The Selfish Gene, he would not change the book, but more is now known about genomes, and about how genes work. He noted that he had had his genome sequenced and that Dr Yan Wong, his assistant author of The Ancestor's Tale analyzed the genome to look for common ancestors of his two parents. In the analysis, Dr Wong noted a peak of genetic similarity at a time 60,000 years before the present, indicating an evolutionary bottleneck. It was possible to make inferences about paleodemographics by analyzing the genome of one individual. Dr Wong then sequenced the genome of an individual from Nigeria and was able to determine that no genetic bottleneck existed in West Africa at the time of the genetic bottleneck in Western Europe.

Many organisms have had their genomes sequenced- figuring out the Pedigree of Life involves looking at genomes and the proteins coded by the genes. In order to draw the family tree of life, one would have to use a piece of paper the size of the planetary orbit. Dr Dawkins then noted that a fractal map of the tree of life is now available (WARNING: AMAZING TIME SINK) ran a quick video of a search of this map.

Dorian Devins then asked Dr Dawkins, "Is each book the 'child' of the book before it?" Dr Dawkins noted that his second book The Extended Phenotype: The Long Reach of the Gene should be considered a direct sequel to The Selfish Gene, written for a more academic audience. The Blind Watchmaker was an exploration of the illusion of design resulting from an unguided, neutral process.

The Ancestor's Tale was explicitly modeled on Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales, and portrays a pilgrimage back in time (depicting a forward journey would only perpetuate the fiction that evolution is directed towards humanity, with humans as an end point- all living organisms are equal end points, with no pinnacle). The reason why he started with humans is because, as he joked, most of his readers are humans.

The Greatest Show on Earth: The Evidence for Evolution lays out the evidence for evolution as established scientific fact, a rebuttal to creationists of all stripes.

When asked about the use of anthropomorphism in writing about science, Dr Dawkins noted that it can be a useful illustration of scientific principles- as an example, he noted that asking, "What would I do if I were a gene trying to replicate into further generations?" would result in a correct answer. Other useful questions are "how will I manipulate this animal?" and "how will I manipulate the world?"

Dorian then asked Dr Dawkins whether the publication of The God Delusion hurt or hindered his scientific career. Dr Dawkins indicated that he does not separate his atheism from his scientific work- belief is a hypothesis, an erroneous one. Scientists can help people to develop critical thinking. He noted that critical thinking was in short supply in much of the Anglophone world, citing the election of Vulgarmort and the Brexit vote, and joked about emigrating to New Zealand.

He noted that we need less emotion and more reason, then quipped, "Screw your feelings." He exhorted the audience to trust reason, then stated that climate change is the worst problem faced by the world's population. He noted that President Obama has made every effort to support the Paris Climate Agreement and stated that our decisions must be rooted in evidence-based thinking.

When asked about the popular use of his coinage 'meme', Dr Dawkins first quipped, "Did the internet destroy democracy?" He then noted the original definition he applied to his neologism in 1976: a cultural selection unit which undergoes a Darwinian process analogous to that which a gene undergoes. A meme is an 'agent of mind' that can be selected for. He originally posited a question regarding the self-replication of alien life, which would undergo Darwinian processes but which probably wouldn't have DNA as the coding molecule. He carried the analogy further by positing the meme as a unit of selection for cultural inheritance. Memes can be fashion trends, such as wearing baseball caps backward (he joked that this 'reduces the wearer's IQ by ten points, which I won't dispute). Memes evolve, they are selected for and perpetuated- Dr Dawkins likened the spread of religion to the spread of viruses, viruses of the mind. These memes are co-adapted, forming meme-complexes. He noted that the internet is a fertile ecosystem for memes. He recounted a memetic epidemic which he started at his school- he introduced origami to his school and it spread like a flu epidemic before dying away like a flu epidemic. He learned origami from his father, who had learned it during a former origami 'epidemic' at the same school.

When asked if he could name any problems with the thesis of The Selfish Gene, he begged the audience to forgive him if he couldn't immediately think of one. He noted that genes are replicators- they make high-fidelity copies of themselves. Through Darwinian selection, some things replicate more than others and spread. Originally, scientists were used to the idea that animals do what is good for them- individual survival promotes gene survival. In actuality, the important unit is the gene, not the organism- if something is good for the gene, but bad for the organism, the gene survives. As an example, he offered a 'driving Y-chromosome'. Ordinarily, in vertebrates, there is a 50/50 sex ratio. If a mutation arises which codes only for Y-chromosomes, an individual will only have sons, a situation which will ultimately lead to extinction.

Multicellular organisms are coherent because all of their genes stand to gain from common work. In animals, there is a single common bottleneck for genes, through the genitals. Viruses are genes which broke out of this exit and reproduce through alternate means, no genitals needed.

Genes are the units of selection, not individuals- Dr Dawkins cited the example of army ants, which he described as a 'ball of frenzy' protecting the genes of the queen. The column of army ants is an extended vehicle to protect these genes. He recounted a childhood encounter in Africa with driver ants which terrified him, then noted that an adult encounter with South American army ants which failed to inspire terror, and noted that adult understanding allays childhood fears.

Dr Dawkins stated that when he wrote The Selfish Gene, evolutionary theory hadn't quite got hold of the gene idea- it was generally thought that natural selection worked on groups. This was his primary reason for writing the book, which he intended for three 'imaginary readers', a professional academic, a student, and a layperson. When asked why he wrote, Dr Dawkins indicated that he had an altruistic impulse to explain things, to correct problems, to put things right.

When asked about behavioral complexity in humans, he indicated that humans consider complexity to be the highest achievement, while a swift would consider flight to be the highest achievement, as a mole would consider digging. Humans have taken over the world using behavioral complexity deriving from brains which evolved through Darwinian selection, but have largely overtaken natural selection through overdeveloping complexity (he cited the use of contraceptives as a means of voluntarily thwarting selfish genes).

The chat was followed by a Q&A session and some bastard was tapped to pass the microphone around the balcony during the Q&A, so he didn't ask a question. The best question of the night involved extinction, which pretty much involves the wholesale end of genetic lines. After giving a brief overview of the Permian-Triassic mass extinction event, Dr Dawkins noted that the best known mass extinction, the K-T extinction event, cleared the way for mammals to evolve into a myriad of forms, having previously been relegated to the 'small, noctural animal' niches. He noted that he mourns the current mass extinction event, the human-caused sixth mass extinction, and decried the loss of the dodo and the mammoth... though he did mention attempts to clone mammoths, while cautioning that elephants are endangered.

Another questioner asked how a designed universe would be different from the universe we inhabit. Dr Dawkins noted that a giant intelligence at the center of the universe would be salient, but that any searches for a designer have failed.

The next question, one which I was going to ask myself, concerned epigenetics, the switching on or off of genes by external factors. Dr Dawkins noted that epigenetics played an important role in embryology, determining whether a cell differentiated into a liver cell or a kidney cell, but that it will probably be a 'nine days wonder' in evolutionary biology, which will eventually go away- there is no evidence of the Lamarckian passing of acquired characteristics.

A really awesome kid of about nine, who was wearing a safety pin to signal solidarity with minorities, asked about the genetics of ants- why do they sacrifice their individual lives? Dr Dawkins noted that an ant colony could be thought of as a 'distributed animal'. Their imperative is to pass their genes on through the reproductive success of their queen. He then noted that eusocial insects such as ants and termites are supremely successful and dominate tropical ecosystems to a great extent.

When asked about Social Darwinism, Dr Dawkins noted that it allowed late 19th and 20th century power brokers to cite Darwinism as a justification for ruthlessness. Darwinian selection cannot be equated with 'good'. He noted that Hitler did not mention Darwin as an influence, but his actions brought Social Darwinism to a horrific conclusion. Dr Dawkins did note, though, that such a beloved figure as H.G. Well also authored some horrifically racist material. Of course, Social Darwinism involves artificial selection.

The last question I heard concerned the driver of human intelligence- what role did bipedalism play? Dr Dawkins noted that Lucy walked upright, but had a brain similar in size to that of a chimpanzee. He didn't know the significance of the freeing of hands from locomotory functions, but did suggest that the ability of hands to manipulate objects possibly played a precursory role to developing intelligence.

I then had to return the microphone I was given after the balcony questions were exhausted, and joined a line of individuals waiting to have their books signed by the Good Doctor. When I took the stage, I thanked Dr Dawkins for his work in promoting science and joked that I wanted Dorian to sign my book as well (she demurred), then accepted my now-signed copy of The Selfish Gene.

Once again, the Secret Science Club provided an amazing night of learning. Kudos to Dr Dawkins, Dorian and Margaret, and the staff of the scintillating Symphony Space. Also in the audience were such previous lecturers as Dr Mercer Brugler and Dr Mark Siddall, the Leech Guy. Overall, the atmosphere was pretty festive, sort of like a giant Dawkins love-in... exactly what you'd expect from a friendly chat with a Titan.


ifthethunderdontgetya™³²®© said...

Nice report, B^4.

I see one of your Senators in now leading the Dems in that chamber.

Unknown said...

I've never read anything by Dawkins, although I'm interested in his particular areas of expertise.

I've read Daniel Dennett, who is a in that same general realm. I've also read a few books on the recent flurry of breakthroughs regarding mitochondrial DNA and what we've been able to tell about common ancestors and even interbreeding with Neandertals and Denisovans.

It's hard to read a science book that is 40 years old, especially in an area where things are moving quickly.

I want to take a crack at Dawkins, though. I think it's cool that you got a chance to see him!

paleotectonics said...


I am so human. I think. And Imma sue the piss outta someone.