Are Genes Really Selfish? – Instant Egghead #57


In 1976 biologist Richard Dawkins
published the bookThe Selfish Gene. In it he explores the role
that genes play in evolution. Since then he’s sold
over one million copies, but unfortunately it has been used
to justify some selfish behavior. But are genes really selfish? Yes… and no. Genes, as you may recall, are chunks of DNA
that encode for proteins. Proteins are the basic builting blocks of life. Proteins acting in concert
manifest its traits. And traits can be anything from eye color
to certain behavior. If a trait helps an organism survive
and produce offspring the gene for that trait gets passed on. If it doesn’t, the trait
and its corresponding genes fall by the evolutionary wayside. So in the everyday sense of the term
genes aren’t selfish. They’re just molecules of DNA. They have no agenda of their own. Still, armed with this knowledge
you might conclude that genes making an organism more greedy
and agressive would have an advantage. and to some degree that’s correct. But it’s also overly simplistic. We know that humans and animals
do nice things for each other Even when it appears
to hurt their own success There’re at least
two compelling explanations for why these acts of altruism survived. Sometimes behaviours seem altruistic
but there’re actually short term loans. For example the vampire bat will die if it doesn’t eat blood
for more than two days It lives in large groups and if one bat goes hungry, another one one will step up
and regurgitate some of its meal. Kinda gross but data shows
that vampire bats keep score. And anybody not returning favours
is eventually cut off. This behaviour
is called reciprocal altruism. How it evolved is still a bit of a mistery. After all some bat had to be
the first blood donor with no guarantee of being repaid Then there’s kin selection which is basicaly doing something nice
for a family member because you share some of the same genes. Bees among other insects
provide the clearest example. Worker bees are all female, sterile and due to a strange fact
about honey bee meeting share 75% of the same genetic information If they were to have their own offspring
they’d only share 50%. Therefore, it’s in the interest
of their genes not to have baby bees and help the queen produce more sisters So as you can see even though
genes are in it for themselves they have more tricks up their sleeves
than just being selfish. For Scientific American’s Instant Egghead,
I’m Eric Olson.

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