The Selfish Gene

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    • #17608

      I am half way through reading Richard Dawkin’s The Selfish Gene and I find myself slightly confused. I cannot seem to separate my emotions when reading this book. I understand a little about the gene-centric view of evolution, but I am now slightly confused as to what genes really are. Dawkins argues that it is the genes who are ‘competing’ to survive, does he not? But what exactly is a gene?

      My understanding was it was the hereditary unit of information in an organism (in each cell?), and genes tell an organism how to form, what traits and characters it should have. But a gene is not a live, is it? It is not the cell itself.

      I don’t know if I am just stupid, but why does the gene want to continue to propagate? I need some educating.

    • #114664

      Any entity that can reproduce AND produce variation in "offspring" will tend to evolve, to perpetuate more successful variants. There are DNA "parasites" that copy themselves and spread the copies throughout a genome over generations. I’m not sure that the Selfish Gene is anything but an attempt to TEACH the basic concepts of selection-based evolution; I would agree with you that selection on the products of the genes is going to be more powerful than selection on the sequences alone.

      The first stages of biogenesis would have involved selection among small replicating molecules of some type(s) – they wouldn’t have been something we would normally term "alive" (which is just a label we put on things), but they would still have evolved, moving toward bubble-enclosed complexes…

    • #114732

      These ideas of wants, desires and competitions are just metaphors for natural consequences. Obviously a gene can’t actually want anything. What Dawkins describes in that book is a chain of cause and effect. Genes that have certain characteristics are more likely to propagate than other genes without those characteristics. It’s the same process you see at the population level; he’s just pointing out that it can happen at the gene level as well.

      Selection, whether natural or artificial, is less about a will to survive than it is about cause and effect. If a certain characteristic leads to more opportunities to "reproduce" (whatever form of reproduction we mean), that characteristic will tend to become more common.

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