pets endangered by possible book avalanche
344 times in 294 posts
Read a book on evolution. It's in there.
Stahrwe, Ok, but which one. You all are reviewing The Selfish Gene, but I found the below review. I checked out some books by Gould but objective reviewers were critcal of him and not due to religion.
Review of The Selfish Gene by Seeker
At the beginning of the book, Richard Dawkins says that "this book is mainly intended to be interesting" and he certainly succeeded at that!
He took the idea of kin selection (the theory that asserts that natural selection in evolution works at the level of the individual plus kin which share the individual's genes) and made it thoroughly interesting by asserting that it's actually the gene that matters in evolution. According to the selfish gene theory, we humans and all other organisms are simply vehicles" or "survival machines" built by the genes in order to pursue their own self-interest - i.e. competing with other genes to make copies of themselves through reproduction. So we are reduced to "lumbering robots" and "selfish machine[s]" whose only true purpose is the survival of our genes. Isn't that interesting? Well, much more interesting than the question of what level natural selection works on, usually is, and, accordingly this book was much more popular than a book about the subject usually is.
I have written a very long review of this book which many will not be interested in reading in its entirety. So, here is a summary of some of the criticisms in this review. For anyone who is interested in specifics of any topic, I have tried to put the full review in sections with titles to make it a little easier to find the topic of interest. There is also a section of "positives" - labeled that way.
Summary of Criticisms:
1. The whole book is based on an empty premise that he himself says no sane person would believe - the selfishness of the gene.
2. The author himself claims he wasn't clear about the difference between a gene and an organism, such as a person, at the time he wrote the book?
3. The book uses deceptive math, which is explained in a way that the author himself calls "a bit of a cheat" that makes many people believe that we share 50% of our genes with our children and siblings, and 25% of our genes with our grandchildren and cousins while, in reality, we share over 99% of our genes with every human, even when unrelated.
4. What the author calls "one of the most spectacular triumphs of the selfish gene theory" - the explanation of the worker bees who don't reproduce - has been disproved and he acknowledges this in the endnotes.
5. The explanation of surplus DNA has also been disproved. It turns out that the DNA that was thought to be unused actually serves a regulatory function - it is not a parasite.
6. The entire "Battle of the Sexes" chapter is based on a theory which the author himself, in the endnotes, says does not make sense.
7. The author himself, again in the endnotes, says that the handicap principle, if true, which he now believes it is, may necessitate "a radical change in our view of many of the issues discussed in this book."
8. The author responds to a reviewer who gave the book 5 stars but says that it has caused him bouts of depression since the theory leaves no room for a deeper meaning to life, by saying that no sane person would tie his "life's hopes to the ultimate fate of the cosmos."
9. It has been pointed out that kin selection theory is just group theory among relatives and has the same flaws; it is open to cheating and is, therefore, not part of an evolutionary stable system.
10. Dawkins asks us to face up to the question: What on earth do you think you are, if not a robot...? I answer this question below.
11. New findings have shown that DNA is fluid and responds to the environment - including our own feelings - in order to better help us adapt and survive. Genes are here to serve the individual, the individual is not here to serve genes!
That's the gist of the criticisms. Most of you will want to stop now, and who can blame you? (-: Now, for the rest of the very long review.
I've read this book twice - the first time I read the first edition, the second time I read the 30th anniversary edition and was amused to see that, in the latter edition in endnotes, he had tried to answer some of the questions and criticisms that I had while reading first edition. I did not find his attempts to be very successful but I did find that he himself now questions his view of the topics discussed in this book (more on this later).
********** Soufflé: Puffed up with hot air **********
The title of my review is a disproved soufflé of a book. First, let me try to explain the soufflé part: A soufflé, as you know, is puffed up with a lot of hot air. When you cut into it, collapses and you're left with a fraction of what originally seemed to be a solid whole. So, too, with this book we are left with much less once we take out the hot air.
He starts off saying that because our genes have survived in a highly competitive world, we can expect "ruthless selfishness" from them. He goes on, "This selfishness will usually give rise to selfishness in individual behaviour." Then he states that what seems to be altruism in animals is really the gene being selfish in wanting itself to survive in close relatives. That is, in fact, the basis of his whole book.
However, he states that describing the gene as "selfish" is just a convenience. In fact he says, "no sane person thinks DNA molecules have conscious personalities". So, I wondered, what would the book look like if he took out the misleading personification of genes/DNA? Genes cannot be selfish but they can be useful, and that's what it generally means for something (rather than someone) to be competitive - useful and affordable. In fact, if new genes come about through random mutations, as many, including Dawkins himself, claim, then if survival of genes were important to evolution regardless of how helpful they are, evolution would be a failure because most random mutations are going to be harmful. So if evolution works at the level of the gene, it would have to be ruthlessly weeding out any genes that do not serve the organism well. So let's try the premise of the book without the hot air of gene personification: Genes that survive in a competitive world must have been very useful to the organism who possessed them. This will usually give rise to selfishness in individual organisms? Altruism can only occur because our genes, that have stood the test of time as being useful to us, are making us care only about their own survival? Doesn't sound quite as convincing. Dawkins himself, in the introduction to the 30th anniversary edition, says: "it was not until 1978 [two years after the book was first published] that I began to think clearly about the distinction between `vehicles' (usually organisms) and the `replicators' that ride inside them (in practice genes...)." So, at the time he wrote this book he wasn't clear about the difference between a human being and genes! He wrote this (in the intro in 2006) as a comment to this sentence on page 3 (written in 1976): "Let us try to teach generosity and altruism, because we are born selfish. ...". On the next paragraph he says that it may be possible, though difficult, for humans to not obey our genes' instructions to be selfish. He says: "Among animals, man is uniquely dominated by culture, by influences learned and handed down." Now, wait a minute! If genes instruct us to be selfish, where do we learn unselfishness from? How did it get into our culture in the first place? Did beings from a different universe, where they have no selfish genes, introduce unselfishness into our culture? Did we learn unselfishness from inanimate objects, which have no genes at all? After all, every living thing on this planet has genes. Or, perhaps, he thinks God put unselfishness into our culture rather than allowing for it in our genes. Doubtful, since he has also written a book called The God Delusion. So, now, he has taken this statement back; he now knows the difference between genes and organisms, and does not think that our genes make us selfish. If genes don't have the power to make organisms selfish, what's the basis of this book? No more selfish genes making us selfishly look after them; no more explanation needed whenever we see altruism. Actually, the whole theory collapses and so does the premise of this soufflé of a book.
********** Logical alternative **********
Doesn't it make more sense that we are naturally, genetically, capable of both selfishness and unselfishness? That we do tend to look after "our own" but that includes our mates (even when they're not having or raising our children), it includes our friends, our pets, even our plants (and not just when they give us food). Also, when we can afford to be, or when we're moved to it by understanding the emotions and difficulties of strangers, we do care about others far from our circle. None of this can come from the culture, unless the culture got it from our own natural tendencies. Also, the fact that we tend to act mostly locally first, makes practical sense and does not mean we are acting selfishly. And, of course, we know that non-human animals also care about more than their own genetic kin. Anyone who knows anything about dogs would never doubt that.
What you could be left with, if this book were re-written without this very obvious lack of logic and tricks that are for "convenience" that serve the purpose of puffing up the theory and the book, is the idea that genes that are useful to organisms tend to survive. This makes sense but you have to go beyond that. With new discoveries on how genes work, you would also have to write about how flexible, adaptable and responsive to the environment genes are - the better to serve the organism. You would never name such a book The Selfish Gene.
Now let's take a look at some of the flaws and outdated/disproved aspects of the theory:
********** Index of Relatedness: Very Deceptive Math **********
Organisms are supposed to care about their close kin to the degree that the relative shares its genes. The very misleading math used "for convenience" to explain this is the index of relatedness which is ½ between siblings or between a parent and a child. So, many people have come to believe that the percentage of genes shared by siblings is 50%, or close to it. This makes the theory that we are much more interested in the survival of our siblings than we are in the survival of a stranger because of our genes, quite believable. In fact, all human beings share a baseline of over 99% of their genes - even when unrelated!
This is likely to be true of all species of organisms and, in fact, humans share between 95% and 98.5% of our genes with chimpanzees. Knowing that, it seems less likely that our genes are making us care about our kin much more than strangers. A bit more of the hot air has escaped. Dawkins does comment on this in the endnotes of the 30th anniversary edition. Commenting on the part on page 90 where he says: "For simplicity I shall assume that we are talking about genes that are rare in the gene pool as a whole", he admits in the endnotes that "The device of assuming that we are talking about a gene that is rare in the population as a whole was a bit of a cheat" and refers us to a paper by another author for a possible explanation of why this cheating is OK.
********** "Selfish" Genes - even if you understand the metaphor **********
Even if we do understand the metaphor of "selfishness", is each gene supposed to be "selfish" or just one gene or group of genes? In the 30th anniversary edition introduction, he says: "[E]ach gene is seen as pursuing its own self-interested agenda against the background of the other genes in the gene pool..." so he believes each gene is "selfish". How does that work? Wouldn't a gene or group of genes already be established that make us look after our kin? Wouldn't other genes (including new mutations or rare genes) be benefiting from these other genes? After all, it makes no sense that each gene would have the effect(s) it normally has plus making us act in a way that favors our kin; the latter part would be superfluous and the gene(s) that already made us look after our kin, would be acting on behalf of all other genes. So even if we did not allow the personification of genes to mislead us about what it means for a gene to be selfish, it would be impractical for each gene to be selfish; and even the "look after your kin" gene(s) wouldn't be selfish as they are acting only on the behalf of other genes now that everyone looks after their kin and that gene is ubiquitous.
********** What are genes, de-personified? **********
In reality, genes are simply molecular blueprints for making proteins. They are microscopic and really difficult to confuse with organisms like, say, a human being. They cannot be selfish. They are not our brains and they're not even the "brains" of an individual cell. A cell with its DNA removed (by removing its nucleus) can continue to live and do all that cells need to do, except make new proteins, for up to two months. The cell tends to die eventually because it can no longer make new proteins to replace those damaged by wear and tear. Can any organism survive and function for two months without a brain?
We now have some new information about genes and how they work, due to the human genome project and other studies since the 70s when The Selfish Gene was written. It is now apparent that the environment has a role in controlling which genes are turned on or off as a means of helping the organism to better adapt. Scientists are now using terms like "the fluid genome" and "web of life" and mutations are now said to be "non-random or directed". Apparently, beneficial mutations occur more frequently than neutral or harmful ones. A new branch of biology has spawned called "epigenetics" which means beyond genetics. None of this is good for the theory of selfish genes that built organisms as survival machines for themselves. As cell biologist and author of The Biology of Belief, Bruce H. Lipton says: "Genes do not control biology, they are used by biology."
********** Disproved answer to the question: Why are there miles and miles of "unused" DNA within each of our bodies? **********
In the Editorial Reviews at Amazon.com, two questions are asked. The first: Why are there miles and miles of "unused" DNA within each of our bodies? The answer now seems to be that they're not unused at all. What was previously thought to be unused is now believed to have a regulatory role, determining which genes are turned on and when this activation takes place.
********** Disproved answer to the question: Why should a bee give up its own chance to reproduce to help raise her sisters and brothers? **********
Next, in the disproved category we come to the second of the two questions posed by the Editorial Reviews at Amazon.com: Why should a bee give up its own chance to reproduce to help raise her sisters and brothers? Here, again, new information is bad for the selfish gene theory. On pages 173 - 175, Dawkins gives us his answer to this and calls the explanation, which involves a ¾ relatedness between the worker bees who do not reproduce and the bees they help to raise, "one of the most spectacular triumphs of the selfish gene theory." Unfortunately for him, he had to take it back. On his endnotes on the updated edition he says: "new facts lead us to doubt the importance of the ¾ relatedness hypothesis" but says we should not look at this as evidence against kin selection. He does not discuss the new facts but they are discussed in The Handicap Principle. It turns out that different males mate with the queen so the relatedness goes down to ¼, but, worse yet, worker bees frequently move and work in another colony where the queen and other workers are completed unrelated to them - relatedness: 0 or near 0; a spectacular defeat for kin selection.
********** Battle of the sexes **********
In chapter 9, Battle of the sexes, he says that "the female sex is exploited, and the fundamental evolutionary basis for the exploitation is the fact that eggs are larger than sperms." Now, to me, this thinking is very obviously flawed for many reasons including the fact that, as he himself states on page 143 in this chapter, in animals that do not help raise offspring, only a small portion of them father most of the next generation. The example he gives is that in elephant seals, 4% of the males accounted for 88% of all the copulation observed. Almost all females who are physically able to, get to copulate and reproduce while a vast majority of the males do not. Since his own definition of success is passing your genes along, doesn't that mean that, in the case of the elephant seals, that about 96% of them are not as successful as the females? In reality, males either have to invest in their offspring (as in many species), or, in species where the male does not do so, the majority of them fail to reproduce (The Handicap Principle). It is interesting to note that in the latter category, the males tend to have pronounced handicaps like bright colors and cumbersome tails (as in peacocks) which make them more vulnerable to predators - not exactly an advantage!. Oh, and, by the way, in the 30th anniversary edition, he takes it back, saying that "even if one sperm is small and cheap, it is far from cheap to make millions of sperms and successfully inject them into a female against all the competition" but he finds another reason (fighting vs. caring) for the "fundamental asymmetry between males and females." What he doesn't mention is that this asymmetry does not mean that females are naturally exploited. Oh, and by the way, if it's natural for males to exploit females, why do male humans fall in love? Doesn't that reduce the amount of exploitation that they do?
********** The Handicap Principle: a radical change may be needed **********
Last in the disproved category, because the review is getting very long, is the Handicap Principle, proposed by Amotz and Avishag Zahavi who wrote a book by that name which was published in 1997. In The Selfish Gene's latest edition, Dawkins says that he is a "late convert to the Zahavi... `handicap principle'" and, on page 313 in the endnotes he says that this theory, which he believes is true might "necessitate a radical change in our entire outlook on the evolution of behaviour, a radical change in our view of many of the issues discussed in this book." What do the Zahavis (husband and wife) say about kin selection? In a section called: KIN SELECTION THEORY AND ITS DRAWBACKS, they say that "group selection theory and kin selection theory have the same flaw: they invite social parasitism. In fact, kin selection is simply group selection among relatives." They continue to say that they "find it strange" that "many researchers who reject group selection see kin selection as a viable, stable mechanism." In this section, they mention Dawkins by name a couple of times as one of the people with whom they disagree.
********** Positives **********
As I said at the beginning, this book is interesting and he writes with a biting wit that I found enjoyable most of the time. To me, it was interesting to see how many logical flaws I could find and how the author puffed up this soufflé of a book with personification that he then says would make you insane if you believed it. For both myself and others, it is interesting to see, and think about familiar things in a different way. It gave me something to work with (or, rather, against) in trying to understand the subject.
In addition, I did enjoy Chapter 12, NICE GUYS FINISH FIRST, which was not in the first edition, where he discusses strategies for the game called "Prisoner's Dilemma". There is interesting information throughout the book and there are several interesting thought-provoking ideas - that do not fall apart with logic and current knowledge. It is also clear that Dawkins does not intend to have a negative impact on society despite all this "selfish", "robot", "survival machine", "exploitation" talk. I think that some of the questions he brings up show a very high level of moral thinking.
However... a not-very-moral accusation of insanity
In the 30th anniversary intro, Dawkins quotes part of one of the review given here at amazon.com and comments on it and on similar responses he has gotten to this book. The quote is about wishing to unread the book which has caused this reviewer "bouts of depression" because it blew away any vague ideas he had about finding something deeper to believe in. Dawkins response is that 1. wishful thinking can't undo the truth and 2. (get this!) presumably there is no purpose in the ultimate fate of the cosmos, but we do not tie our life's hopes to the ultimate fate of the cosmos; "not if we are sane." Something deeper to believe in, a purpose to our lives beyond survival, is changed to "the ultimate fate of the cosmos" and people who care about it are accused of insanity! I know of many very sane people who care about these things and I've even heard of studies that show that such people live longer, healthier lives.
****** And finally...Who do you think you are if not a lumbering robot? *******
In the endnotes, commenting on the "lumbering robot" phrase used in the first edition, he asks those of us who are not religious to "face up to the following question. What on earth do you think you are, if not a robot...?" I would like to answer that question: I think I am a human being; a product of billions of years of the amazing process of evolution; a thinking, feeling, compassionate, curious, passionate, caring, living being who laughs and cries and hopes and strives. A being whose complexity neither I, nor any other human being, can come close to understanding and who can never be reduced to the status of a robot. So to those of you who get depressed or upset by theories such as the ones which tell you are just a survival machine for genes, I say, never, ever, let anyone tell you that you are less than you know yourself to be!
We are deeply influenced by our beliefs and those of the people around us. Before you accept any theory or explanation about something as important as the purpose of human life, find out what other explanations and theories exist. Look into your own heart and look at the actions of those around you. Ask questions; find examples; find counter-examples; think critically; keep an open but skeptical (in the original sense: probing, questioning) mind.
In the case of this subject, in order to get other ideas which are more up to date with findings from the human genome project, for example, I recommend that you read a book or two on epigenetics, like The Biology of Belief by cell biologist Bruce H. Lipton. Other books related to the subject of epigenetics are: Evolution in Four Dimensions by Eva Jablonca & Marion Lamb; and The Genie in Your Genes by Dawson Church. I also recommend the following books: Signs of Meaning in the Universe by Jesper Hoffmeyer and Darwin's Lost Theory of Love by David Loye. You can also search online for information about the latest findings and thinking by searching for combinations of phrases like: horizontal gene transfer, evolution tree web of life pattern; epigenetics, fluid genome, triadic evolution, and anything written by David Loye on evolution. You may be very pleasantly surprised by the views of evolution and related topics that you will find.
It is up to you to decide what you believe yourself to be and what you believe the meaning of your life to be. Whether you decide to read this book or not, my most sincere hope is that you use your wisdom and discretion in making those decisions.