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Ch. 4 - The gene machine 
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Post Ch. 4 - The gene machine
The Selfish Gene by Richard Dawkins
Ch. 4 - The gene machine



Sun Aug 02, 2009 1:50 am
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Post Chapter Highlights
The Gene Machine is the vessel used by the gene to secure its replication, ie us. Muscles are the genes' gadgets for moving. The most complex known gene machine is the human brain with ten thousand million neurons. Dawkins says
Quote:
the main way in which brains actually contribute to the success of survival machines is by controlling and coordinating the contraction of muscles.
I'm not sure this wording is quite right, as it reads a bit like asking someone for directions and being told to contract your muscles. In any event, genes are purposive and intentional, causing specific effects.

Dawkins notes that genetic determinism is more complicated for conscious humans. observing that
Quote:
purposiveness has evolved the property we call consciousness.
Comparing decisions to the way a steam regulator modulates the pressure of a boiler, he downplays human freedom, suggesting our genes control our behaviour like a computer programmer setting the parameters for a user.

To illustrate this genetic pre-programming, he mentions an intriguing science fiction book co-written by astronomer Fred Hoyle, who coined the term 'the big bang'. In this story, A for Andromeda, Andromedans send out radio instructions on how to build a computer. The broadcast is read on earth, and
Quote:
“the computer was well on the way to dictatorship over the world before the hero eventually finished it off with an axe.”
The point is that “all its instructions had to be written in advance because of the inviolable 200 year barrier” caused by the distance from Andromeda to Sol, and that genes similarly need to program in advance - set and forget.

Life is a lottery. Gamblers bet based on stake, odds and prize. Dawkins explains here that this mathematical calculation is performed by genes, over thousands of generations, statistically averaged out so the best genetic gamblers win. In humans, simulating the bet of life evolved into imagination.

The most interesting comment in the chapter picks up this theme of human imaginative freedom:
Quote:
Consciousness...can be thought of as the culmination of an evolutionary trend towards the emancipation of survival machines as executive decision-takers from their ultimate masters, the genes. (p63)
This statement is problematic, as it suggests human consciousness and imagination have made evolution obsolete.

Question: Do you think Dawkins should have included a weasel-word here, the “seeming” emancipation from our genetic masters, given that in the long run human life is determined by the natural framework of evolution?

To help explain how bodies are survival machines for genes, Dawkins uses the example of foul brood in bees. Hygienic strains kill infected young, while susceptible strains get foul brood. Experiments found one gene for tossing infected babies on the rubbish heap, and another for uncapping wax cells of diseased grubs. The first gene only works in the presence of the second. For susceptible bees, human intervention to uncap infected baby bees leads to remorseless murder of the defective as the tossing gene moves into action. Without this human intervention these cute babies would infect and kill the hive. Dawkins' point here is that the two genes for tossing and uncapping operate separately but in cooperation, and that separate genes do determine specific behaviours.

Successful behaviour machines exploit their niche to expand their genetic presence. Communication is a principle method, including lies and deception. Dawkins presents “the ruthless judge of the court of survival” as the framework to assess apparent altruism in this moral jungle, where
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Children will deceive their parents, husbands will cheat on wives, and brother will lie to brother. (p70)



Sat Sep 05, 2009 5:31 am
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I think more of human behavior can be attributed to genes than most people realize. At the same time, there are emergent properties of the human brain that evolution alone can't account for. He touches on this in the chapter about memes. In other words, our genes can give us the power to act on reasons, but there is no control over where those reasons will lead us. Examples are contraceptives and suicide. The question is then how valuable the power to act on reasons actually is. I believe it is our primary evolutionary advantage, but it comes with mixed blessings.



Sat Sep 05, 2009 6:18 pm
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Interbane wrote:
I think more of human behavior can be attributed to genes than most people realize. At the same time, there are emergent properties of the human brain that evolution alone can't account for. He touches on this in the chapter about memes. In other words, our genes can give us the power to act on reasons, but there is no control over where those reasons will lead us. Examples are contraceptives and suicide. The question is then how valuable the power to act on reasons actually is. I believe it is our primary evolutionary advantage, but it comes with mixed blessings.
When you say that evolution cannot account for the brain, you are obviously not implying that the brain is somehow miraculous, but rather that the rational capacity of thought cuts the moorings from instinct. The ‘mixed blessing’ of this separation of spirit from nature is our capacity for good and evil – good through recognition of universal truths and evil through corrupted alienation from our natural essence.



Sat Sep 05, 2009 7:41 pm
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Post Re: Chapter Highlights
Robert Tulip wrote:
...
Dawkins notes that genetic determinism is more complicated for conscious humans. observing that
Quote:
purposiveness has evolved the property we call consciousness.
Comparing decisions to the way a steam regulator modulates the pressure of a boiler, he downplays human freedom, suggesting our genes control our behaviour like a computer programmer setting the parameters for a user.



The most interesting comment in the chapter picks up this theme of human imaginative freedom:
Quote:
Consciousness...can be thought of as the culmination of an evolutionary trend towards the emancipation of survival machines as executive decision-takers from their ultimate masters, the genes. (p63)
This statement is problematic, as it suggests human consciousness and imagination have made evolution obsolete.

Question: Do you think Dawkins should have included a weasel-word here, the “seeming” emancipation from our genetic masters, given that in the long run human life is determined by the natural framework of evolution?


Perhaps Dawkins did not intend to imply that the "emancipation" is complete, but rather that it is an ongoing struggle, thus not (yet?) rendering evolution obsolete. However his choice of words, "culmination of an evolutionary trend", would seem to imply so, although I find this idea somewhat confusing because I don't think Dawkins would argue that consciousness is somehow attempting to overthrow evolution as executive decision maker of the survival machine.



Sun Sep 06, 2009 8:11 pm
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RT: "When you say that evolution cannot account for the brain, you are obviously not implying that the brain is somehow miraculous, but rather that the rational capacity of thought cuts the moorings from instinct."

Evolution created the brain. What I said was that there are emergent properties of the brain which evolution can't account for.

RT: "The ‘mixed blessing’ of this separation of spirit from nature is our capacity for good and evil – good through recognition of universal truths and evil through corrupted alienation from our natural essence."

I don't think the capacity for good and evil is relevant. An emergent property of the mind which evolution can't account for is our classification of our actions. The actions themselves are objectively neutral, morality is only a useful notion to us sentient beings. A tree does not see a logger as evil. Such notions are a lens through which we understand our world, and there is nothing universal about them.



Sun Sep 06, 2009 9:03 pm
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Bry: "I don't think Dawkins would argue that consciousness is somehow attempting to overthrow evolution as executive decision maker of the survival machine."

I don't think consciousness currently can overthrow evolution as you put it, but it can work in tandem to influence selection and level the playing field(helping otherwise useless people to procreate). If we start manipulating genes, then the coup will be for real. However, such an advanced process requires the infrastructure of society, and if that ever failed, evolution would again be the primary directive mechanism.

BTW, welcome to Booktalk!



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Robert Tulip wrote:
The most interesting comment in the chapter picks up this theme of human imaginative freedom:
Quote:
Consciousness...can be thought of as the culmination of an evolutionary trend towards the emancipation of survival machines as executive decision-takers from their ultimate masters, the genes. (p63)
This statement is problematic, as it suggests human consciousness and imagination have made evolution obsolete.

Question: Do you think Dawkins should have included a weasel-word here, the “seeming” emancipation from our genetic masters, given that in the long run human life is determined by the natural framework of evolution?


I'm not so sure that evolution is providing a meaningful framework for human development any more. Consider that we control our environment to a large degree. Our technology in food production and transportation means we can live just about anywhere and make our own food and be comfortable and still have lots of free time on our hands. We're also wildly successful in terms of procreation which, after all, is our genes' prime directive. In a very short time span (at least geologically) we've firmly established ourselves as the dominant species on this planet. If procreation is the goal of evolution, our work is done.

Evolution helps animals to adapt to changing conditions so it's noteworthy that by far most of the change we have to deal with today is largely of our own making; Look at how rapidly things are changing and think about how our ancestors lived just 100 or 200 years ago. Evolution by its nature is ponderously slow, so with such fast change, isn't evolution largely irrelevant?

Here's the crux of it. Though we are technologically advanced, we are still primitive creatures, as Dawkins says, still governed by our genes. (I always like to say we are just monkeys with guns.) Many if not most of our motivations are based on primitive impulses to eat and procreate. This would explain how incredibly selfish we are, why we eat more than we need, why we pollute our planet, why we are insatiable in so many ways.

Dawkins' is trying to build up the idea that: "that animal behavior, altruistic or selfish, is under the control of genes in only an indirect but still very powerful sense. By dictating the way survival machines and their nervous systems are built, genes exert ultimate power over behavior. But the moment-to-moment decisions about what to do next are taken by the nervous system. Genes are the primary policy-makers; brains are the executives." pg. 60

I don't know if the evolutionary trend is towards the emancipation from our genes, but it seems likely that we do need to take charge and rise above our primitive hard-wiring in order to survive. That's why I think understanding evolution is so important and why we need to see ourselves as animals—survival machines—and very much part of the same ecosystem as other creatures. Without that insight, without a very conscious intellectual effort to do more than what our genes tell us—eat and procreate—we are going to destroy our planet. It turns out our genes aren't very good at seeing the big picture.


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Mon Sep 07, 2009 8:02 pm
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Interbane wrote:
Evolution created the brain. What I said was that there are emergent properties of the brain which evolution can't account for.

Emergence is a thought that should be held and discussed at greater length. Emergent properties are important also in the sense that natural selection doesn't account for what emerges from the forge of creation. There is a slight mystical quality here for me. Kauffman says that the creativity of life is partly beyond explanation of natural law, though it violates no natural laws.
Quote:
I don't think the capacity for good and evil is relevant. An emergent property of the mind which evolution can't account for is our classification of our actions. The actions themselves are objectively neutral, morality is only a useful notion to us sentient beings. A tree does not see a logger as evil. Such notions are a lens through which we understand our world, and there is nothing universal about them.

I think that's a very good thumbnail of the difference between transcendence-prone thinking and the scientific outlook.


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Tue Sep 08, 2009 11:01 am
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DWill: "Emergence is a thought that should be held and discussed at greater length."

Absolutely. We might need to disambiguate first however. The emergence I was referring to is how order arises from something so complex or so chaotic that we can't currently understand it. For example, we have evolved an imaginative complex in our brain(whatever the proper name may be), so we can say evolution is responsible for that region of the brain. However, there are some things we can imagine which are independant of evolutionary influence.

You mention emergence as it applies to the direction positive mutations take. I don't think it is beyond the explanation of natural law. The math required, however, is currently and possibly forever beyond us. To factor the creative force of evolution, you'd have to take into account every possible genetic combination. In other word, every possible mutation that could arise from DNA based life. Factor in selection pressures(if that's even possible) of the environment, and you're left with all possible and probable mutations. No doubt life on Earth only represents the smallest fraction of what could have evolved.



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Robert Tulip wrote:
The most interesting comment in the chapter picks up this theme of human imaginative freedom:
Quote:
Consciousness...can be thought of as the culmination of an evolutionary trend towards the emancipation of survival machines as executive decision-takers from their ultimate masters, the genes. (p63)
This statement is problematic, as it suggests human consciousness and imagination have made evolution obsolete.

Evolution by natural selection is a fascinating topic, but I've wondered whether people sometimes invest it with semi-religious qualities, holding onto it as some means of hope for our future. Like Geo, I've assumed that at this point, evolution--if we mean evolution by natural selection--is pretty much out of the picture for our species. What we will have, I guess, is populations changing in undefiined ways and plain old history instead of evolution. Concsiousness has allowed us to take over where evolution ended. Dawkins doesn't seem to be saying, though, that consciousness will emancipate us from our genes, only that it takes us in that direction.


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Tue Sep 08, 2009 6:59 pm
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Dwill: "Concsiousness has allowed us to take over where evolution ended."

It's interesting that the critical thinking book we're currently discussing is all about the shortcomings of our consciousness, the biases that we've evolved.



Tue Sep 08, 2009 7:25 pm
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