2 min read

more selfish gene

i came across this article1 from professor Itai Yanai that does a great job describing the significance of The Selfish Gene and how even today, 45+ years after its publication in 1976, the powerful concepts that Richard Dawkins explained in his book are yet to be fully grasped by scientists.

Most importantly, Dawkins demonstrated with the utmost lucidity that we had biology upside down: evolution — and hence biology — is not concerned with the organism, but with the genes that survive unscathed through the eons by jumping from body to body. To bring this point home, he memorably defines bodies as survival machines: “robot vehicles blindly programmed to preserve the selfish molecules known as genes.” These survival machines — us — are discarded as our genes move on to another transient individual. And so, as Copernicus reoriented the solar system such that we are not at its center, and Darwin demoted humans to evolved great apes, Dawkins dealt the final blow to anthropocentrism: even we as individuals are not at the center of natural selection.

This change of perspective that relegates the individual (or the organism) to a simple and disposable “survival machine” is extremely powerful, and our brains are not hardwired to think this way. And it makes me wonder whether statements like this, from scientific bodies are expressing this innate bias.

From the National Human Genome Research Institute of the National Institutes of Health (NIH):

Non-coding DNA corresponds to the portions of an organism’s genome that do not code for amino acids, the building blocks of proteins. Some non-coding DNA sequences are known to serve functional roles, such as in the regulation of gene expression, while other areas of non-coding DNA have no known function.

There are strands of DNA that have no known function, and there’s an impulse to find their “function”.

From the perspective of the individual, it is logical to expect a function from every bit of us. If evolution is about replicating efficacy and risk management and survival of the fittest, individuals carrying dead weight in the form of useless strands of DNA would be deselected through evolution. Therefore all these “lazy” molecules must have a function.

But if we reorient our view from the survival machine’s to that of the gene, then it makes perfect sense that some molecules do not code for anything. If the environment2 is such that the molecules do not need to perform any function and yet can replicate with fidelity, then why bother doing any “work”. Lazy is totally fine.

And as the author closes his article, yes, it’s a book that must be re-read many times. I’ve read it only two times so far.

The Selfish Gene continues to be read, yet its most important ideas have not fully pervaded a scientific community that still sees genes as the agents of a species’ coherent genome. One reason may be that the term “selfish gene” itself is such a strong meme (another powerful term introduced by the book) that the complex ideas behind the book’s title are easily forgotten. It is still unnerving how commonly we fall back into putting ourselves — the survival machine — into center stage, when the gene perspective allows a view that is so much clearer.

notes & references

1Yanai I, Lercher MJ. Forty years of The Selfish Gene are not enough. Genome Biol. 2016 Mar 2;17:39. doi: 10.1186/s13059-016-0910-7. PMID: 26936472; PMCID: PMC4774003.
2The environment: other genes in the survival machine, genes in other survival machines, other survival machines, and the ever shifting physical environment