How genes work


Continuing the discussion from Richard Dawkins wishes he'd named his "The Selfish Gene" book "The Immortal Gene" instead:

First of all, genes are meaningless without environmental context.

At some point in the past I came up with the following parable: A gene is discovered that almost inevitably gives women who have it an aggressive and nearly always fatal form of breast cancer. Some women who have the gene decide to get preventative mastectomies. At first this is seen as extreme, but over time more and more women decide that’s the right way to go. A generation or two later that is the norm and nearly all women are screened for that gene to get mastectomies if they have it. What does that gene do?

It is a gene that prevents breast cancer.

Then a couple of years ago Angelina Jolie decided to get a double mastectomy, so this isn’t even just an illustrative myth, it might be reality.

Similarly, hot peppers probably evolved their heat to avoid getting eaten. Now they are cultivated by humans because they are hot and humans like that. So a trait which evolved to prevent them from being eaten ended up being the trait that made them get eaten, but it just happened that being desirable food for humans is the best way for a plant to survive. There is no predicting the effect a trait will have, let alone a gene that causes that trait.

Because genes are meaningless without that context, it is silly to even talk about what any gene does or tries to do, and it is very silly to anthropomorphize them with traits like “selfishness”.

Second, the entire of idea of “selfishness” as applied to genes is just completely post hoc, while “selfishness” suggests an active trait.

Suppose I took a metal sheet and bored holes in it. Then I took a bunch of stones and put them on the sheet and shook it. Obviously the stones smaller than the holes would tend to fall through and those larger than the holes would not. What if I was then going to grind one of those groups of stones to dust? If you call genes “selfish” then you’ve have to call the group of stones that happened to be on the non-grinding side of this equation “selfish.”

Happening to be the right shape to make it through a deadly gauntlet isn’t selfish, it just is.

Third, the concept of “selfishness” itself is something that only exists in a complex social setting applying social rules.

What if there could be a gene that was completely altruistic as a gene. A gene that somehow, wherever it found itself in a genetic sequence, boosted the positive effects of those genes around it. Presumable this gene would be passed on regularly, so we would call it “selfish” after the fact because it survived. There’s a famous story in philosophy about this, the world’s only altruistic man is on a sinking ship with only one lifeboat and two other passengers. Does he altruistically give up his seat on the boat? Or does he take the only seat on the boat knowing that he can do more good for others later? When we are talking about picking the big slice or the little slice of cake we can talk about selfishness and altruism, but we need to have that social context to even make sense of the terms.

Fourth, the idea that selfishness leads to success or good results is a goddamned scourge. By saying that genes are selfish Dawkins was either caught up in or helping to create a culture that sees selfishness as nature’s law. Cooperation is nature’s law as much as selfishness is, and cooperation is better for us than selfishness.

What would any gene do without cooperation? Suppose we took a gene that was associated with being tall, extracted it from the cell nucleus it was in, put it on a rocket and sent it to the moon. It isn’t making anyone tall, it isn’t going to replicate, it is just a molecule in the cold. Only genes that play well with others ever get to reproduce themselves.

Finally, and most irritating to me, there is this thing called token-class distinction. If you start talking about gene A, you are almost certainly talking about a class of molecules of a certain form, not about a particular individual token instance of that gene (like I was in the rocket-to-the-moon example). But without people to understand it, there is no such thing as gene A to begin with. The class doesn’t exist, only the tokens. If you say I have gene A, you mean I have a molecule that is categorizes as gene A for every cell nucleus in my body. Genes that make hemoglobin are busy doing that if they are in my bone marrow, but are doing either nothing or a completely different job if they happen to find themselves in a brain cell.

Do you know what almost none of the genes in my body ever do? Reproduce. The only genes that ever get to pass themselves on to a new generation are those that are in sperm or eggs. Your body contains tens of trillions of cells, only a few million of which are even capable of becoming another organism and only a handful of which (if you are a woman) or quite likely none of which (if you are a man) will ever do so. Using our regular ideas of the words, would we say that 50 trillion things working together so that one thing that only has a 50% chance of being part of their family might have a chance of survival is selfish or altruistic?

When Dawkins wrote the “Selfish Gene” he didn’t understand genetics (no one did, and I’m sure we’ve still got lots to learn) and he definitely hadn’t thought much about the idea of selfishness. The fact that he now thinks he should have called it the immortal gene means that he hasn’t thought much about the idea of immortality either.


I thought the effort was two-fold. First, so that only adventurous people would eat them, to ensure they’ d be spread far and wide to exotic locales. Secondly to facilitate being “naturally” and somewhat violently broadcast about the soil a few hours later…


Well, I would tend to think that they didn’t evolve with human being in mind, given that evolution takes a long time. Secondly, The hot exterior of the pepper probably dissuaded the vast majority of animals from ever getting to the even hotter seeds inside.


Birds don’t react to capsaicin. To them, wild chillies are just really tasty berries. A birds digestive system also seems to help with germinating chilli seeds.


Have you read the book?


Dawkins wrote in 1976

Before going any further, we need a definition. An entity, such as baboon, is said to be altruistic it it behaves in such a way as to increase another such entity’s welfare at the expense of its own. Selfish behavoir has exactly the opposite effect. "Welfare is defined as “chances of survival”, even if the effect on actual life and death prospects is so small as to be negligible. One of the surprising consequences of the modern version of the Darwinian theory is that apparently trivial tiny influences on survival probability can have a major effect on evolution. This is because of the enormous time available for such influences to make themselves felt.
It is important to realize that the above definitions of altruism and selfishness are behavioral, not subjective. I am not concerned here with the psychology of motives, I am not going to argue about whether people who behave altruistically are “really” doing it for secret or subconscious selfish motives. Maybe they are and maybe they aren’t. and maybe we can never know, but in any case that is not what this book is about. My definition is only concerned on whether the effect of an act is to lower or raise the survival prospects of the presumed altruist and the survival prospects of the presumed beneficiary.

from the “perspective” of the BRCA1 gene, it only matters whether the genetic material is copied. Think of it as a parasite, or a virus, without intelligence.


Oh, yeah, sorry I was just having some cheeky fun with arm-chair anthropomorphic evo-psych. Your post was so great and complete, a “like” didn’t feel like enough, but I didn’t have anything of substance to add other than a poop joke…


There seems to be a tradition of biologists gently abusing this distinction. Particularly for species there’s lots of writing to the form of “the leaf-cutter ant has scissor-like jaws” or “the ocean sunfish eats jellyfish” or “the Herring Gull lays 2-4 eggs”. Where properly there is no such one creature as these, but many individual ants, sunfish, and gulls in each species, and then only mostly with such properties. Not all gulls are going to be lucky enough to have two eyes, let alone two eggs.

Really you could call the whole notion of a species as a fiction, something that doesn’t exist without people to understand it, and you wouldn’t be wrong. The difficulty of defining when things are the same species are in the first place – problems with ring species, cryptic species, cases of distinct populations that can but usually don’t interbreed, gradual transitions of fossil types – are all testaments to the fact that species aren’t discrete entities in nature.

But this can be overstated, and biologists who treat species as real aren’t entirely wrong either. Because a key property of life on earth is that its traits do not exist on a continuum, but in these close statistical clusters that most if not all individuals conform to. Trying to understand evolution without them is overlooking its main epiphenomena. They’re like mountains or even islands, not always possible to clearly define in edge cases, yet still a main feature of the territory.

I think your last objection somewhat misses this. Like text or code or any information, it’s only the instances of a gene that map to anything physical and its class is an abstraction, but that doesn’t inherently mean it’s a mistake to try to understand them in terms of the behavior of the latter. Calling these “wants” is inaccurate, but it’s the same as how one might casually say a molecule “wants” to drop to a lower energy state, or how something evolved “to avoid” being eaten. I’m not sure it’s really that misleading; to me the question is if it conveys the actual tendencies.


I wasn’t complaining about the actual content of the book, I was complaining about the absurdity of the idea of genes being “selfish” that has made its way out into popular culture. I didn’t read the book. I read the first page and threw it across the room because it was the stupidest thing I had ever read (clarification: I have read “the stupidest thing I have ever read” approximately weekly in my adult life).

Does he then rigorously apply this, that is:

Altruism: my survival :arrow_down: your survival :arrow_up:
Selfish: my survival :arrow_up: your survival :arrow_down:

Because if so, I think you would find that the vast majority of genes in our bodies, relative to one another are: my survival :arrow_up: your survival :arrow_up: and are neither altruistic nor selfish but would be better called something like “cooperative”. Find me the genes in our DNA that make is less likely that HBB will be passed on the next generation and I’ll… uh… be surprised? Once genes are stuck together in an organism, they are in it together whether they like it or not, and actual selfish actors would be a negative for survival by definition. Of course, Dawkins plays a little word game there. He defines altruism in a way we can accept (one up, one down) and then says selfishness is “the opposite” which sounds right. But does “the opposite” mean we reverse both polarities or merely that if not altruism then selfishness. Maybe Dawkins is careful about this, I wouldn’t know, I know that most people are not.

Of course there is also a problem with having a behavioural idea of selfishnes to begin with. If I push you out of the way of a bus and get hit myself then I was behaviourally altruistic even if I was trying to push you so that you’d get hit by the bus and I just misjudged. In other words, there is no relationship between “behavioural selfishness” and selfishness. You might say that on the aggregate this comes out in the wash, but it doesn’t, systems meant to do one thing accidentally but systematically end up doing another all the time.

Beyond that there is a problem with having a behavioural definition of selfishness for molecules: molecules do not have behaviours in the same way baboons do. “Behaviour” is used metaphorically to talk about molecules the same way it could be used to talk about a slinky going down stairs. Things happen or don’t happen because certain molecules are there or not there. I’m not mistakenly imparting intelligence to genes when I compare them to rocks that either fit or don’t fit through holes, I’m going further in my efforts to ensure I don’t impart intelligence to them. When you talk about the “behaviour” DNA, you have to stop as ask yourself what ideas you are importing with the idea of “behaviour.” Just like the rocks, they either continue to exist or do not, and so we can’t even call them “selfish” or “altruistic” or anything else until after we know whether they happened to be in the half that lived. That stretches the meaning of those words to the point of breaking.

It’s fine to say that the Herring Gull lays 2-4 eggs (unless your post is an elaborate trick to get me to think something untrue about Herring Gulls!) and it probably isn’t misleading because the person you are talking to is likely making all the right assumptions - only females actually lay any eggs, you are talking about how many eggs they lay in one clutch, you are only speaking of those females who do lay eggs at some point, there will some some outliers who lay only one or more than four because there are always outliers, etc. But if you told that to a five-year-old and they said, “Even the boys?!?” then you’d have to accept that your statement was unclear because of your audience.

My contention is that when someone says that genes are “selfish” that it is unreasonable to guess that the listener is making the correct assumptions to make that true. People have been trying to make metaphors for how very small things work for a long time and those metaphors lead to people thinking crazy things. People thought wave-particle duality was a paradox. It’s not a paradox, it’s just that those metaphors don’t work. Metaphors that help people with a great deal of knowledge are very misleading to people without that expertise.

I don’t mind saying, “Gene X produces vitamin C” when what you mean is that if you suppress that gene in a rat the rat ceases to produce vitamin C, or “Gene Y protects you from malaria” when what you mean is that people who have that gene get malaria less in the same environment, or have fewer fatalities after contracting malaria. But “Genes are selfish” suggests a lot of things that are flatly untrue.


Oh this is bullshit.

I think you need to watch this John Maynard Smith video-- George Price’s theorem and how scientists think He uses “behavior” in much the same manner as Dawkins does, and he’s in pretty much the same field.


The ultimate counterargument!

The conclusion of my bullshit was: We can’t know whether a gene is selfish or altruistic until we know whether it is in the half that lived or not

You linked me to a video on price’s theorem; a theorem which relies on the following definition of “fitness”: number of children

And relies on the following definition of altruism: a trait which decreases your own fitness while increasing the fitness of others

That is, “altruism” (and by corollary “seflishness”) is defined entirely in terms of whether or not you had children; i.e., whether or not you were one of the ones in your species who had children, i.e., (colourfully) whether you were in the half that lived.

The theorem that builds into its definitions exactly what I am saying: things are called altruistic after the fact based on whether they happened to result in survival. That in no way resembles how people use the word “altruism” in English, and so using it that way in a popular book like The Selfish Gene is going to mislead people into thinking crazy shit.

DNA strands do what they do regardless of whether that is self-preserving or suicidal, it’s just that if it is suicidal then they won’t be around long. But what is self-preserving and what is suicidal can change when the environment changes, so a good survival trait can quite suddenly become an huge detriment. The exact same trait that increases fitness in one generation could decrease it in the next in the real world because of changing factors surrounding the organism. Since altruism and selfishness are defined in terms of fitness, a trait could change from altruistic to selfish and back again over generations if the environment changed. That’s all in the definitions and is probably untroubling to a scientist who knows what the terms mean. It is utterly counter-intuitive to the idea those words are used, and so it is misleading.

Anyway, the points that annoy me the most are usually extremely esoteric or even non-teric. Still, I’m curious about whether the rest was also bullshit. In his popular book, meant for a lay audience, was Dawkins careful to distinguish between Altruism, Selfishness, and traits that help themselves and others (or those that hurt themselves and others) or did he sort of paint all non-altruism as selfishness? Are there actually genes in my genetic code that make it less likely that other genes in my genetic code survive while making it more likely they survive (and what is the mechanism that makes that possible)?

I’ll watch your video.


I understood that and wasn’t out to claim otherwise, or lie about birds. I was just saying some of the charges seemed overly broad, the sort that could be leveled against any teleonomy, which I would argue. Plus, you know, some related thoughts just meant to be friendly chatting on an interesting topic.

If it’s ok to keep that up, it’s also weird to see welfare being defined in terms of survival. Maybe this was meant to be taken at some level other than that of organisms? Because that would seem to erode the dichotomy between the welfare of them and their genes, but talking about the survival of individuals that way doesn’t seem to make much sense.

Back when people did tend to describe selection as acting on individuals, the trick was always how to apply that to animals like worker ants, bees, or termites. And the problem is less cases where some volunteer their lives for their family, but that they generally don’t reproduce. As far as plain survival goes they’re not all that bad, not among insects.

Many other animals are of course terrible at surviving. We can marvel at extreme cases – male Dawson’s bees fight to total annihilation, black widows offer themselves to predatory jaws, female octopuses starve themselves. But really all reproduction comes at a risk to survival, at least in terms of energy cost, and I doubt it’s ever been a puzzle. Humans are familiar from our own condition. In the long term there is no surviving, only the heirs one leaves behind.

Given this it seems really strange to pick a definition of welfare where this more usual case is altruism toward an abstract parasite, while the worker insects if generous in helping others at least act for their own welfare by being sterile. It makes for what I could see as selfish genes – or really a selfish genome – but projects on organisms a concept of self-interest that seems entirely alien to most.

That said, I guess my having a tough time imaging the interests of such organisms separate from their lineage may be part of the point. Maybe the selfish gene was a step toward that at the time, the way waves and particles started before they became too confusing? I don’t entirely get how people thought of these things before the 1960s, seeing that now inclusive fitness seems entirely natural to me, no metaphors needed.


But isn’t the reason he would change the title of the book because people who are critical of it talk about it as if the book argued the title? Which it doesn’t.
Your post reads like what the book actually says about genes and not at all a critique of it.


So is Dawkins, its why he regrets the title of his book. Because nobody got past the title. People are dumb.


That’s how evolution works or is supposed to work. The individuals best adapted to their environments tend to breed more over less well adapted individuals. The fittest survive, the least fit do not. The question arises-- who is the individual? The clade? The species? The colony? The clan? Dawkins proposes that the individual-- this selfish individual concerned only with replication and immortality-- is the actually the gene, and altruism in animal groups is best explained as a strategy for producing more copies of these selfish genes…

I really need to find a copy. It’s been decades-- and unfortunately, the kindle version is said to be riddled with typographical errors. So please forgive an inelegant paraphrase.

The problem with the selfish gene is that phenotypes, not genotypes end up being selected.


Alright, I can see how I sounded overbroad. My response to you was to try to clarify that you have to rely on assumed knowledge of your audience to make that kind of statement. Just like if the five-year-old said, “Even the boys?!?” you would have to say “No, only the girls” if someone said, “Wait, they way you are using ‘selfish’ is completely divorced from any common understanding of ‘selfish’, isn’t it?” then the answer ought to be, “Oh yes, it’s just a loose metaphor.”

See, that concept of self-interest is really what I have a problem with. What if, instead of trying to find the selfish actor in reproduction, we just said that self-interest isn’t the motivation. If we just don’t project self-interest in the first place then the worker ants don’t seem like a problem at all.

If I can weave these comments together, this is what I’m really on about:

We know that self-interest is the law of nature because Adam Smith nakedly asserted that it was the case. But then there comes along the obvious fact that actually cooperation is pretty much the norm as much as selfishness is in nature. So we need to figure out, what unit can we call selfish. Define selfishness as anything that isn’t altruism, boil things down to constituents so tiny and so mechanical in their operation that we couldn’t possibly call them altruistic, and bang, we’ve got selfishness. We’ve imputed selfishness onto things that we would never even dream of imputing a self upon.

If we go up to the most macro level possible instead of going down as small as we can then we see all life together as one thing that is fundamentally struggling against entropy. The rabbits are breeding so that they will be around to feed the foxes. Everything is going to die anyway. The last time I looked into it, our best guess is that entropy must eventually win and everything is for nothing. If you were looking for one adjective to describe the continuation of life it wouldn’t be “self-interested” it would be “Sisyphean”.

“Survival of the fittest” but “fittest” is defined in the equations as that which survived. It’s an enlightening tautology but it is a tautology. And life is actually just a special case - the whole universe follows the same rule - survival of the fittest restated in it’s most simple form: things exist (or seem to). Every attempt to try to put any other meaning to “fitness” whether it’s strength, intelligence, white skin, or “selfishness” is a mistake.

People understand via metaphor, and so these metaphors are probably responsible for a lot of our current understanding. So I’d say this is right on:

Yeah, this all came out of a comment that I made that I thought the “selfish gene” was an absurd notion. I blame Dawkins for helping to perpetuate it because I am so aggressively anti-authoritarian that I blame everyone who is accepted as an authority on anything for everything. But without the kind of thinking Dawkins was doing we wouldn’t currently be at a place where we could point out how stupid that kind of thinking was.


Perhaps a roughly contemporaneous book, The Dialectical Biologist, will be more to your taste.


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