Saturday, January 26, 2013

The Selfish Gene

I am not one into non fiction. If we dis-regard Rich Dad Poor Dad and Freakonomics and the books I read during pregnancy and for parenting :P . I was tempted to pick this book by an excerpt written on Facebook by an ex-colleague. It seemed very interesting and irresistible.  So I searched heaven and earth to get a copy and finally managed to get a torrent. Thus began my first book on an e-reader. ( I started off reading on K's tablet till he finally gifted me a kindle mini for anniversary. The best thing ever!!) 

Well coming back to the book by Richard Dawkins- it was nothing like what came through in the excerpt. It seemed more like a sociology book. It ended up being a treatise on zoology! Now I have always like biology through my growing years - more so my dad being a professor in Botany - it was inescapable rather. I always wanted to be a doctor too :( There there there I digress again. Huh. Where was I - the book. Yes. The book explains evolution from the perspective of genes. It proposes how organisms - plants, animals, viruses are mere vessels for propagation of genes. They metamorphose every organism and they are ruthless and 'selfish' in their approach. Only the selfish ones survive the vagaries of nature and are able to propagate themselves.

The bit of the book that is most interesting is where he explains evolution according to Game Theory. He takes the example of the game of Prisoner's Dilemma. (Feel free to dose off now - this is going to be elaborate ) 
There are 2 players A and B playing against a Banker. They have 2 cards - Cooperate or Defect. They choose a card - which the other is unaware of and give to the Banker. Depending on their chose the points are scored. 

  • They both choose cooperate. They both get a bonus for it say +100.
  • They both choose defect. They are penalised for it say -100.
  • A chooses cooperate, B chooses defect. B gets paid for the temptation to defect +50 and fines A -10.
  • B chooses cooperate, A chooses defect. Its the mirror image of the previous scenario.
As per the author all organisms (err... genes) are playing this game iteratively. There have been computer simulations of this and there is the best strategy too! I am tempted to say it - but then :) Thats the most brilliant point of the book. I felt it works in real life too. That was one of the USP of the book for me. There were many insights which are purely technical but then seemed so true in human interaction. For instance :-

  • An organism has as much relatedness to ones own child as it has to its baby sibling (there is a mathematical proof to it) . Hence genes 'make' the organism care as much for the baby siblings because either way they get propagated further. Makes sense eh?  But then an organism is more sure of its child (How does it know its baby brother is really its 'own'? ) This gives rise to the increased attachment to own children. Seen many times in human life, how we tend to take care of our younger siblings as our kids. 
  • Quoting from the book - 'The mother lays the visible, tangible egg or bears the child. The poor father is much more vulnerable to deception. It is there fore expected that fathers will put less effort than mothers into caring for young. Similarly, maternal grandmothers can be more sure of their grandchildren than paternal grandmothers can and might be expected to show more altruism than paternal grandmothers.' He goes on to elaborate many such weighing of relationships. He does leave the argument open to challenging and states' Perhaps social anthropologists might have interesting things to say.'
  • The book elaborates how the male of a species is always the more decorated one - having a mane or an elaborate tail. But for humans it seems the battle of sexes is reversed. 'Modern western man is undoubtedly exceptional in this respect. It is of course true that some men dress flamboyantly and some women dress drably but,on average, there can be no doubt that in out society the equivalent of the peacock's tail is exhibited by the female, not by the male.Women paint their faces and glue on false eyelashes.' Again an area he leaves open for more debate and research.
  • Just like genes tend to propagate themselves, he advocates we have the equivalent of 'Mimeme' - ideas which propagate themselves. They could be in the form of tunes, catch phrases, styles, ways of making pots and pans and the like. He proposes that the idea of 'God' might have been such a 'meme' which has been successfully propagating itself since time immemorial. Food for thought :)

The most interesting must read chapter of the book is one named 'Nice guys finish first'. A very different thought in this dog-eat-dog world. Drove home the fact that even if the gene is 'selfish' good things survive.

Quite a different book from the general crop that I read. Was interesting enough like a novel but must confess skimmed through some bits which were too much into the subject. Not an everyday read, but am happy that I managed to read  it.


The Furobiker said...

the book sounds very tempting! Btw, congo on ur kindle. ! :)

Jack said...


Mostly Greek to me. So I may skip this one.

Take care

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