Blog Rating

Selected Books by Edmund Blair Bolles

  • Galileo's Commandment: 2500 Years of Great Science Writing
  • The Ice Finders: How a Poet, a Professor, and a Politician Discovered the Ice Age
  • Einstein Defiant: Genius vs Genius in the Quantum Revolution

« Humanity's Pump | Main | I'll Be Back Jan. 14, 2008 »



Selfishness doesn't mean stupidity. Being selfish does not mean that the gene is ridiculously narrow minded and looks for immediate survival advantage blind to future consequences. The human brain was wired better than that. It means that considering each possiblity the gene that tries to maximise its utility survives. Altruism, group selections and biases are a natural consequence of this and in no way detracts from the theory.
The 'r' theory was in any case fairly specious as it based its arguments upon probability and law of large numbers to conclude about what would happen under individual circumstances, which is a fairly glaring mistake.
It seems to me that nowadays parts of such evolution would be across larger groups (religion, whole races or countries) rather than the small village hut groups in which for a while humanity lived.
A lot of misunderstanding could probably be avoided if the word selfish was replaced by rational.
BLOGGER: Wow. And just how does the gene go about being rational? The word "selfish" was used specifically to deny group selection.

Gordon Worley

Reading this post, I can't help but feel you're conflating the selfishness of genes with the selfish behavior of organisms. Of course, no gene can be "selfish", but genes that persist are ones that are reproduced. If a gene does not succeed in making it into new organisms, it eventually disappears. That aside, this is commonly thought of as "selfishness" and I'm happy enough to accept this metaphor.

Now, the fact that genes are "selfish" does not in any way imply that the organisms containing them must be selfish. In order to get a selfish organism, it must be that selfish behavior led to greater reproductive success for the current organism's ancestors. As we now know, this was partially from the organisms' development, but also from their genes. However, the exact same genetic process has produced cooperative social species.

Some say you need things like group selection to explain cooperative behavior, that a cooperative group had to outcompete a selfish one. While this is a certain possibility, the chances of it occurring in nature are slim. It basically requires that a species split into two or more isolated groups for several generations, if not longer, and then be quickly unisolated so that the groups can compete, with one winning out over the other. This is rare, though, because even seemingly isolated animals are known to interact. You basically have to go to the lab to see group selection as it is typically described, and there you have a hard time getting it to work.

In terms of genes, what group selection is saying is that two groups of genes which can combine into a reproducible form are separated for a time after which some changes occur and the genes have changed. It must also be that the two groups of genes can no longer be combined to reproduce, because otherwise the groups mix, even if one is more successful than the other, and thus one group won't win out over the other. But even if you can get a split group of genes into this situation, it's still not structurally different from what "selfish" genes do: make copies of themselves. The genes that are best at making copies survive, regardless of why it is that they are better at making copies.

There is no special magic in group selection. It's the same evolutionary process, just played out in a different environment from the idealized selfish environment, where organisms compete in isolation and some are better at reproducing, so they continue to exist. To conflate selfish behavior with the "selfish" gene is one of the great sins of evolutionary reasoning.
BLOGGER: The argument given above, about the rarity of group selection in practice, is exactly the one the Wilson & Wilson paper is denying, and denying on empirical grounds.


I write about language too. And I feel that your opening was somewhat disingenuous, or maybe just deliberately provocative.

This classic work has had enormous impact on professional and popular thought. Could it be wrong? The “selfish gene” theory of evolution is incomplete ... "

Incomplete does not mean wrong.

The cooperative gene, the eternal gene, the altruistic gene, all terms used by RD himself, these terms provide an excellent model for explaining much of society. As with Darwin's model, I think we should recognise the value it provides, it needs to be built upon, not discarded.
BLOGGER: Incomplete theories become wrong when applied universally. Thus, Newton's mechanics becomes wrong as observable speeds approach the speed of light. Likewise, the selfish gene theory becomes wrong when group selection is in force. That is to say, the theory's explanatory power fails to make sense of the data.

Verify your Comment

Previewing your Comment

This is only a preview. Your comment has not yet been posted.

Your comment could not be posted. Error type:
Your comment has been posted. Post another comment

The letters and numbers you entered did not match the image. Please try again.

As a final step before posting your comment, enter the letters and numbers you see in the image below. This prevents automated programs from posting comments.

Having trouble reading this image? View an alternate.


Post a comment

Your Information

(Name and email address are required. Email address will not be displayed with the comment.)

Bookmark and Share

Your email address:

Powered by FeedBlitz

Visitor Data

Blog powered by Typepad