Apart from my work in programming and technology, I always want to get views from other subjects such as biology, history, arts and philosophy. This book gives an insight into how genes are expressed in animals and living being. Towards the end of the book, it does a contrast with human culture and how similar and different it is with the perpetuation of the genes.

A very thought provoking book on how it is in fact in our hands to spread love, unselfishness and creativity. If you are looking to get a perspective into the theory of Darwin, do give this book a read!


##Beginning of natural selection

Intelligent life coming of age…

Intelligent life on a planet comes of age when it first works out the reason for its own existence. If superior creatures from space ever visit earth, the first question they will ask, in order to assess the level of our civilization, is: ‘Have they discovered evolution yet?’

Fundamental unit of selection…

I shall argue that the fundamental unit of selection, and therefore of self-interest, is not the species, nor the group, nor even, strictly, the individual. It is the gene, the unit of heredity.

Earliest form of natural selection…

If a group of atoms in the presence of energy falls into a stable pattern it will tend to stay that way. The earliest form of natural selection was simply a selection of stable forms and a rejection of unstable ones.

Mistakes and evolution…

Their modem descendants, the DNA molecules, are astonishingly faithful compared with the most high-fidelity human copying process, but even they occasionally make mistakes, and it is ultimately these mistakes that make evolution possible.

Fight for resources amidst the earliest replicators…

But when the replicators became numerous, building blocks must have been used up at such a rate that they became a scarce and precious resource. Different varieties or strains of replicator must have competed for them.

Earliest carnivores…

… ‘discovered’ how to break up molecules of rival varieties chemically, and to use the building blocks so released for making their own copies. These proto-carnivores simultaneously obtained food and removed competing rivals.

From earliest replicators to human beings…

Four thousand million years on, what was to be the fate of the ancient replicators? They did not die out, for they are past masters of the survival arts. But do not look for them floating loose in the sea; they gave up that cavalier freedom long ago. Now they swarm in huge colonies, safe inside gigantic lumbering robots, sealed off from the outside world, communicating with it by tortuous indirect routes, manipulating it by remote control. They are in you and in me; they created us, body and mind; and their preservation is the ultimate rationale for our existence. They have come a long way, those replicators. Now they go by the name of genes, and we are their survival machines.


##The gene definition

Fundamental difference between animals…

An octopus is nothing like a mouse, and both are quite different from an oak tree. Yet in their fundamental chemistry they are rather uniform, and, in particular, the replicators that they bear, the genes, are basically the same kind of molecule in all of us-from bacteria to elephants.

The DNA…

It consists of a pair of nucleotide chains twisted together in an elegant spiral; the ‘double helix’; the ‘immortal coil’. The nucleotide building blocks come in only four different kinds, whose names may be shortened to A, T, C, and G. These are the same in all animals and plants. What differs is the order in which they are strung together… This DNA can be regarded as a set of instructions for how to make a body, written in the A, T, C, G

Knowledge acquired and passing it into the genes?

No matter how much knowledge and wisdom you acquire during your life, not one jot will be passed on to your children by genetic means. Each new generation starts from scratch. A body is the genes’ way of preserving the genes unaltered.

Genes…

Throughout this book, I have emphasized that we must not think of genes as conscious, purposeful agents. Blind natural selection, however, makes them behave rather as if they were purposeful, and it has been convenient, as a shorthand, to refer to genes in the language of purpose.

Longevity of genes…

We, the individual survival machines in the world, can expect to live a few more decades. But the genes in the world have an expectation of life that must be measured not in decades but in thousands and millions of years.

A successful gene…

We have already asked what are the most general attributes of a ‘good’ gene, and we decided that ‘selfishness’ was one of them. But another general quality that successful genes will have is a tendency to postpone the death of their survival machines at least until after reproduction.


##Survival through survival machine

Genes and control of its survival machine…

The genes too control the behaviour of their survival machines, not directly with their fingers on puppet strings, but indirectly like the computer programmer. All they can do is to set it up beforehand; then the survival machine is on its own, and the genes can only sit passively inside.

Adjusting in an unpredictable world…

One way for genes to solve the problem of making predictions in rather unpredictable environments is to build in a capacity for learning.

What is consciousness?

Well, when you yourself have a difficult decision to make involving unknown quantities in the future, you do go in for a form of simulation. You imagine what would happen if you did each of the alternatives open to you. You set up a model in your head, not of everything in the world, but of the restricted set of entities which you think may be relevant … Perhaps consciousness arises when the brain’s simulation of the world becomes so complete that it must include a model of itself.

Making decision based on the present conditions

Not only are brains in charge of the day-to-day running of survival-machine affairs, they have also acquired the ability to predict the future and act accordingly. They even have the power to rebel against the dictates of the genes, for instance in refusing to have as many children as they are able to.

Decisions based on the environments in the past

The genes that have survived have done so in conditions that tended on average to characterize the environment of the species in the past. Therefore ‘estimates’ of costs and benefits are based on past ‘experience’, just as they are in human decision-making.


##Characteristics

Caring for the young…

The truth is that all examples of child-protection and parental care, and all associated bodily organs, milk-secreting glands, kangaroo pouches, and so on, are examples of the working in nature of the kin-selection principle.

Caring vs bearing…

To some extent, caring and bearing are bound to compete with each other for an individual’s time and other resources: the individual may have to make a choice: ‘Shall I care for this child or shall I bear a new one?’

Death in the wild…

Wild animals almost never die of old age: starvation, disease, or predators catch up with them long before they become really senile. Until recently this was true of man too. Most animals die in childhood, many never get beyond the egg stage. Starvation and other causes of death are the ultimate reasons why populations cannot increase indefinitely.

More off-springs, the better?

A moment’s reflection shows that this simple ‘more means better’ argument cannot be true, however. It leads to the expectation that five eggs should be better than four, ten better still, 100 even better, and infinity best of all. In other words it leads logically to an absurdity. Obviously there are costs as well as benefits in laying a large number of eggs. Increased bearing is bound to be paid for in less efficient caring.

The welfare state

The welfare state is perhaps the greatest altruistic system the animal kingdom has ever known. But any altruistic system is inherently unstable, because it is open to abuse by selfish individuals, ready to exploit it.

Grandmotherly altruism

A woman could not invest fully in her grandchildren if she went on having children of her own. Therefore genes for becoming reproductively infertile in middle age became more numerous, since they were carried in the bodies of grandchildren whose survival was assisted by grandmotherly altruism.

Balance…

A gene that made a child grab more than his fair share when he was a child, at the expense of his parent’s total reproductive output, might indeed increase his chances of surviving. But he would pay the penalty when he came to be a parent himself, because his own children would tend to inherit the same selfish gene, and this would reduce his overall reproductive success. He would be hoist with his own petard. Therefore the gene cannot succeed, and parents must always win the conflict.

Equal number of males and females…

The strategy of producing equal numbers of sons and daughters is an evolutionarily stable strategy, in the sense that any gene for departing from it makes a net loss.

Viscosity…

Viscosity means any tendency for individuals to continue living close to the place where they were born. For instance, through most of history, and in most parts of the world (though not, as it happens, in our modern world), individual humans have seldom strayed more than a few miles from their birthplace. As a result, local clusters of genetic relatives tend to build up.

Female coyness and playing hard to get …

One way for a female to do this is to play hard to get for a long time, to be coy. Any male who is not patient enough to wait until the female eventually consents to copulate is not likely to be a good bet as a faithful husband. By insisting on a long engagement period, a female weeds out casual suitors, and only finally copulates with a male who has proved his qualities of fidelity and perseverance in advance. … a long engagement can also benefit a male where there is a danger of his being duped into caring for another male’s child.

Show of strength…

In particular, many mammal predators are known to go for the old and the unhealthy. An individual who jumps high is advertising, in an exaggerated way, the fact that he is neither old nor unhealthy. According to this theory, the display is far from altruistic. If anything it is selfish, since its object is to persuade the predator to chase somebody else.

Mutual symbioses…

Neither partner could live without the other. If their union had become just a bit more intimate we would no longer have been able to tell that a lichen was a double organism at all. Perhaps then there are other double or multiple organisms which we have not recognized as such. Perhaps even we ourselves?

Ancient parasitic mergers

Over evolutionary time it will cease to be a parasite, will cooperate with the host, and may eventually merge into the host’s tissues and become unrecognizable as a parasite at all. Maybe, as I suggested earlier, our cells have come far across this evolutionary spectrum: we are all relics of ancient parasitic mergers.

Mutual grooming…

An individual may not be able to reach his own head, but nothing is easier than for a friend to do it for him. Later, when the friend is parasitized himself, the good deed can be paid back. Mutual grooming is in fact very common in both birds and mammals.


##Human culture vs genes

Culture and evolution…

Most of what is unusual about man can be summed up in one word: ‘culture’. I use the word not in its snobbish sense, but as a scientist uses it. Cultural transmission is analogous to genetic transmission in that, although basically conservative, it can give rise to a form of evolution … Language seems to ‘evolve’ by non-genetic means, and at a rate which is orders of magnitude faster than genetic evolution.

A fundamental principle true of all life…

If forms of life exist whose chemistry is based on silicon rather than carbon, or ammonia rather than water, if creatures are discovered that boil to death at -100 degrees centigrade, if a form of life is found that is not based on chemistry at all but on electronic reverberating circuits, will there still be any general principle that is true of all life? Obviously I do not know but, if I had to bet, I would put my money on one fundamental principle. This is the law that all life evolves by the differential survival of replicating entities. The gene, the DNA molecule, happens to be the replicating entity that prevails on our own planet. There may be others.

A new primeval soup…

The new soup is the soup of human culture. We need a name for the new replicator, a noun that conveys the idea of a unit of cultural transmission, or a unit of imitation … Imitation, in the broad sense, is how memes can replicate. But just as not all genes that can replicate do so successfully, so some memes are more successful in the meme-pool than others.

Genes and memes …

When we die there are two things we can leave behind us: genes and memes. We were built as gene machines, created to pass on our genes. But that aspect of us will be forgotten in three generations. Your child, even your grandchild, may bear a resemblance to you, perhaps in facial features, in a talent for music, in the colour of her hair. But as each generation passes, the contribution of your genes is halved. It does not take long to reach negligible proportions. Our genes may be immortal but the collection of genes that is any one of us is bound to crumble away.

Cultural trait…

a cultural trait may have evolved in the way that it has, simply because it is advantageous to itself. We do not have to look for conventional biological survival values of traits like religion, music, and ritual dancing, though these may also be present. Once the genes have provided their survival machines with brains that are capable of rapid imitation, the memes will automatically take over.

Foresight and genes…

One unique feature of man, which may or may not have evolved memically, is his capacity for conscious foresight. Selfish genes (and, if you allow the speculation of this chapter, memes too) have no foresight. They are unconscious, blind, replicators. The fact that they replicate, together with certain further conditions means, willy nilly, that they will tend towards the evolution of qualities which, in the special sense of this book, can be called selfish.

Long term vs short term…

even if we look on the dark side and assume that individual man is fundamentally selfish, our conscious foresight-our capacity to simulate the future in imagination-could save us from the worst selfish excesses of the blind replicators. We have at least the mental equipment to foster our long-term selfish interests rather than merely our short-term selfish interests.


##Selfish and the unselfish

Own body

We showed that the very idea of an ‘own’ body was a loaded assumption. In one sense, all the genes in a body are ‘parasitic’ genes, whether we like to call them the body’s ‘own’ genes or not.

The necessity for life …

But the individual body, so familiar to us on our planet, did not have to exist. The only kind of entity that has to exist in order for life to arise, anywhere in the universe, is the immortal replicator.


##Beyond genes

For me, the concluding chapters were the most actionable and inspiring - that despite this selfish world, we can build a world of mutual win.

Many situations in real life are, as a matter of fact, equivalent to nonzero sum games. Nature often plays the role of ‘banker’, and individuals can therefore benefit from one another’s success. They do not have to do down rivals in order to benefit themselves. Without departing from the fundamental laws of the selfish gene, we can see how cooperation and mutual assistance can flourish even in a basically selfish world.

I am looking forward to understanding more about the evolution of culture and human beings in history and biology.

What similar books would you recommend to understand our human culture and evolution?