Tag Archives: Biology

Survival of the Selfish Gene

After reading The God Delusion, I decided to study some of Richard Dawkins’ earlier works. For this post, I read The Selfish Gene (and among the books on my queue are The Blind Watchmaker and The Greatest Show on Earth).

the-selfish-gene

Published in 1976, The Selfish Gene explores the phenomena at play regarding the behavior of replicators, namely genes and memes. I was expecting to see lots of biological arguments, and while there are many, I was shocked at what I found was the main tool used in the book: game theory.

Of course, once you think about it, it makes perfect sense that game theory is extremely important when talking about genes and how they spread from one generation to the next. And by game theory, I do not mean board games or video games, but economic game theory, applied to biology in what is now known as evolutionary game theory. In fact, this book would be an excellent read for people interested in mathematics or economics, in addition to the obvious group of those interested in biology. Dawkins uses concepts like Nash equilibria, though the term is not explicitly stated (consider the date of the book), and the Prisoner’s Dilemma, just for a couple examples, to explain many biological behaviors found in various animals, including humans. This kind of game-theoretic analysis followed largely from the work of John Maynard Smith.

In addition to having studied a bit of game theory, I have also studied dynamical systems, though from the perspective of pure math and not biology. Even so, the concepts in the book were very familiar. I do not think The Selfish Gene is controversial from an academic standpoint. The now 40-year old ideas are still relevant today, and the ideas are really not that difficult to understand, given a sufficient mathematical and scientific background.

Instead, the controversy around the book seems to come solely from the title itself, and perhaps the attached stigma to writing anything about evolution, which seems to be more of an issue today than it was in 1976. Dawkins notes this years later in the preface to the second edition:

This is paradoxical, but not in the obvious way. It is not one of those books that was reviled as revolutionary when published, then steadily won converts until it ended up so orthodox that we now wonder what the fuss was about. Quite the contrary. From the outset the reviews were gratifyingly favourable and it was not seen, initially, as a controversial book. Its reputation for contentiousness took years to grow until, by now, it is widely regarded as a work of radical extremism.

I do find this amusing. It seems to have not to do specifically with the theory of evolution itself, but with the unfortunate anti-intellectual sector of the US. (Of course, Dawkins is from the UK, but I am talking about American opinion of these kinds of books.)

In current society it seems like a fad to wear one’s ignorance on one’s sleeve, as if boastfully declaring, “My ignorance is just as good as your knowledge.” Of course I am not advocating that we should go the opposite direction and be ashamed for not learning, but we should be able to come together and agree that ignorance is not a virtue, especially not in the most scientifically advanced country in the world. I am not really sure how the United States is supposed to recover from this, other than that we become more reasonable over time. And that will take education, not ignorance.

The title of the book is somewhat misleading, only if one does not understand what the word “selfish” is describing. The “selfish gene” is not so much talking about a gene that causes selfishness in individuals (this is an ambiguous notion in itself), but rather, it describes the word “gene” directly, that genes themselves propagate themselves in a manner that appears selfish. The individual is merely a “survival machine” for the gene. There is a critical difference here between the two notions.

The selfish gene is merely a gene that, for practical reasons, has a higher chance of being passed on. It does not really contradict any current notion of evolution, and in fact, at the time of publication, it became the new and improved theory of evolution that is now the textbook standard. In any case, the message is that evolution works not by the survival of the fittest individuals, but by the survival of the fittest, or most selfish, genes.

When we look at the selfish gene, there are situations (as demonstrated in the book) where the intrinsically selfish thought appears on the outside as altruistic. Mutual back-scratching benefits both individuals, and moreover, benefits the gene for it, thus making the gene more likely to spread. So while the behavior of back-scratching seems altruistic, it may be nothing more than concealed selfishness. This idea can be extrapolated to many phenomena. Often people put on acts and fake displays of kindness only for the selfish benefit of “seeming” nice. Or they are so “humble” that they announce their humbleness everywhere they please and make you feel bad for not being as humble as they are. The list goes on. However, I will not comment too much on this as this goes under cultural behavior and not strictly genetic behavior, although they are related.

The controversy around this book also seems to stem from perceived personal offense. Included in The Selfish Gene is an interesting quote from Simpson regarding historical developments in explaining how the current species on Earth came to be:

Is there a meaning to life? What are we for? What is man? After posing the last of these questions, the eminent zoologist G. G. Simpson put it thus: ‘The point I want to make now is that all attempts to answer that question before 1859 are worthless and that we will be better off if we ignore them completely.’

While this statement is perfectly true in trying to understanding biology, I can see how religious people might take offense. To declare that all mythological ideas in this area before Darwin’s The Origin of Species are worthless is a bold claim, even when it is correct.

Regarding the actual content of the book, I have already mentioned that Dawkins makes extensive use of game theory. There are many numbers in some of the more technical chapters, making the book possibly difficult to read in real-time unless the reader is versed in mental mathematics. Though, with some deliberate thought on these chapters, any reader should be able to get through them.

The Selfish Gene is a remarkable book, giving clear explanations of basic biology and evolutionary game theory for the layman. It is a shame that such educational material is viewed as controversial. I wish I could succinctly summarize the fascinating interplay of evolutionary game theory in a single post, but it would be better to leave it to you to pick up this book and think about it for yourself. If you do not like evolution, however, you have been warned.

Sleep: A Heuristic Examination

Sleepy Person
He has fallen asleep!

Before I begin, I would like to make clear that the subject of this post is sleep, something that should be familiar to all of us (hopefully). I am not trying to make a scientific breakthrough on sleep or even outline recent discoveries on the subject. In fact, I am being somewhat unscientific in that I do not have tables of numbers and data to show any trends, and I am a (somewhat sleep-deprived) student, not a psychologist, biologist, or neurologist. What I have here is a heuristic approach, and I am merely sharing my abstract, qualitative thoughts on the puzzling phenomenon of sleep. Let us begin.

We need sleep. This point is pretty self-explanatory. In my entire life, I have done only one all-nighter, but even then, I fell into an extended nap some time in the second afternoon. It was simply too hard to stay awake. That feeling when your eyelids want to close, when your head wants to rest on something, and when your body wants to hibernate—this dreadful feeling that most of us have at some point in our lives felt—is, for the large part, irresistible.

By that, I mean there are few things that can sustain our conscience and keep us awake when our bodies beg for rest. However, as few as these methods may be, they are almost all related to biological constructs. For instance, coffee can keep us awake for some period of time because of a direct interaction between caffeine and our bodies. Physical danger, too, would counter sleepiness as an evolutionary principle. After all, it would be advantageous for the survival of a species to be able to resist the restrictions set by sleepiness in critical, life-or-death scenarios; for instance, if a crocodile were to attack me, I would certainly not want to fall asleep. While sleep may in general help my survival, it certainly does not in this case. To make an analogy to writing, just as successful writers know and utilize exceptions to the standard laws of grammar, successful species inhibit a generally good phenomenon for a more important objective: survival. In other words, the ability to resist sleep can be a direct result of natural struggle, the survival of the fittest.

This is intriguing because, if we take one step back, we may ask ourselves, Was not sleep itself an adaptation in the survival of the fittest? Yes, it was, and that is why it is difficult for us to change the general actions of sleep. It has been, in some sense, programmed into our bodies through many millions of years of evolution. We should find it most challenging, therefore, in a single lifetime to counter the effects of adaptations set in place for millions of years.

Why would an animal need sleep? If visibility was the most effective method of sensory-perception, then a predator, for instance, would have a much smaller chance of finding food at night than in the daytime. If the average energy intake from food during night was less than the expended energy, then it would be advantageous to have zero energy change during the night, i.e. through sleep. At that point, the prey too would have no reason to be expending valuable energy during the night and would hence increase its sleep. Another interesting note is that some animals, like reptiles, are cold blooded, and thus cannot function as efficiently at lower temperatures. Since there is more heat during the day, it would benefit the species to operate during the day instead of at night. Therefore, the factors of light and heat during daytime were key factors in the development of the evolutionary phenomenon of sleep.

Jumping back to the evolved inhibition of sleep, we find that it is by no means contradictory to the evolution of sleep itself. Simply, animals that learned to sleep were in general more successful than those who did not, and those in the former group that learned how to control it were also in general more successful than those who did not. This chain of thought does not seem to contribute much insight to the issue of sleep, but it does demonstrate the power of natural selection.

But there is a point in the evolutionary analysis of sleep. One popular phenomenon that keeps people up, and hence inhibits sleep, is actually much more used and widespread than you may think. In fact, if you are viewing this post on the Internet right now, then you are definitely in this phenomenon’s grasp. Yes, this phenomenon I am referring to is the computer. Remember I said I have pulled off one all-nighter in my life? That was in front of a computer screen. While playing a video game. Now, wait a minute, games and media have been around for centuries, just not on a computer. However, there is something different about a screen. I remember last year that one night, just before a European history test, I fell asleep with the textbook open in front of me. Honestly!

In contrast, it is nearly impossible to fall sleep while in front of a computer screen with Internet access or a good visual game loaded. Regarding a book, the book itself does not change or interact with the reader. Recall that the evolutionary principle for inhibiting sleep was to avoid danger. Your brain will hardly interpret any danger when digesting information from a book or a text source, even if the book is about something dangerous, as it was probably published many years ago. Next came the radio. Of course, now you could hear things in real-time, but the problem was, you would hear about danger, but you would never see it coming at you or feel any actual threat. With the television, things changed. Now you could not only hear the danger, but also see it happening in front of you. Yet, even then you still felt detached from the danger, because it could not cause real damage to you, nor could you do anything to repel it.

The computer changed everything. In the case of many video games, you are now not only seeing and hearing the danger coming at you, but you also have the capability to defend your “character” against it. In fact, having control of a virtual character, or avatar, changes the situation quite drastically. New technology and graphics allow games to seem much more realistic than ever before. Your senses and thought then link with the avatar on the screen. Whatever danger that comes toward it is also a danger heading towards you. The ability to defend or save a life, in this case your own, fits in perfectly with sleep’s evolutionary principle. Our ability to sit in front of a screen and play video games far past midnight is a mere reflection of our evolution. When we feel physically threatened or in danger, we have a heightened awareness that counters the adaptation of sleep.

Now, what about the Internet? I feel compelled to stumble upon new websites and read things, even though I just said earlier that I fell asleep while reading a textbook. What makes the Internet a better, or at least more energizing, place for reading? I am not exactly sure. Certainly the faster rate of publication and the ability to post comments makes the web more interactive. And because interactiveness, as shown in the case of video games, is more alerting to our senses, this would seem to be the reason why even reading on the Internet is so much more entertaining.

Are coffee, crocodiles, and computers the only things that can cause us to resist sleep? Certainly not. In school, or at least at my high school, many students are deprived of sleep due to the cramming of a pile of homework accumulated through rigorous programs and courses as well as through procrastination. Here, the factor is almost neo-evolutionary, if that is a term. It is a sort of artificial evolution. We students are certainly not competing for raw survival. We are competing for grades, which in turn supposedly mark our general success. (I could give a spiel on the grade system, but I will not do so here due to irrelevance.)

Because this neo-evolutionary phenomenon can also keep us awake, should it be considered a biological effect? I think so. I do not profess to be an expert on the biology of sleep, but I will note that if an artificial struggle can disrupt our sleep patterns, then it must, in some way, affect our biology. I would conjecture that this sleep deprivation caused by completing homework affects our body similarly to sleep inhibition caused by natural threats. Our brains probably interpret both as threats, one threatening our grades and the other threatening our physical body.

I am feeling sleepy right now. Can writing inhibit sleep? It does seem to, and it is peculiar in that it does not fit any of the biological causes aforementioned. Perhaps this is a good thing. Maybe it shows that we humans can go beyond the evolutionary calls of survival and competition. We all have some interest, I would hope, a passion, for which we can sacrifice some sleep. By doing something to keep ourselves awake, whether writing poems, learning mathematics, practicing a musical instrument, or even chatting with friends on social networking sites, we show that we are not an aloof, self-interested species. We help others even when we do not have “spare” time, when nature would be normally telling us to sleep. The inhibition of sleep may truly reveal the optimism of humanity.