individual vs gene ? w/PS on posting quotes

Paul Cockshott wpc at clyder.gn.apc.org
Wed Aug 2 22:26:37 MDT 1995


Our postings on this have become a bit technical but
I am still putting this one out on the list since at
least the first point may be of more general interest.

>"Process without a subject" ?  I have no idea what that means.

It is characteristic of ideological theories that they explain
developments in terms of active subjects, or in terms of what
events mean to a subject. This ranges from banal refrain of
the religious that science only explains what happens but not
why it happens, to bourgeois economics explaining prices in
terms of subjective valuations. Sciences explaind things in
terms of processes with their own laws of motion - which
excludes the notions of subject or meaning.

I view the use of the term 'individual' or the metaphor of
'selfishness' in biology as a hangover from bourgeois economic
ideology - perhaps mediated by Malthusianism. This is not to
deny the scientific character of Darwinism, but only to observe
that the process of creating a language for a science is
gradual. The use of the same words 'individual' or
'selfishness' has made it easier for right wing ideology
to appropriate the authority of biology for what are
essentially reactionary social conclusions.

What I have been trying to argue is that the term 'individual'
no longer has a sufficiently well defined status in biology
to justify attaching ideological weight to it. For instance,
take my reference to the haploid phase. In one sense you
are obviously right to say  that haplo/diploidy does not
affect the definition of an individual organism, since
one can think of individual haploid bacteria etc. But
applied to mammals or a-fortiori to humans, the term
individual carries with it the connotation of a developed
multi-cellular organism interacting with others rather than
the haploid phase of ova and sperm. Whilst from the standpoint
of genetic reproduction both phases are of equal status,
both occasions for selection etc, the haploid phase is
harder to appropriate under an ideological reading of the
word individual.


>"non-monotonic fitness function" ?  The only thing I recall you
>concluding from your example is that some kind of polymorphic
>equilibrium results, so again I don't know what you mean; how is the
>"contradiction" that you mention different from sickle-cell example?

In the case of sickle-cell, the same mechanism, an alteration in
red cell elasticity, is responsible for increasing resistance to the
malaria plasmodium as for impeding capilliary blood flow, so as
we move from ss to sS to SS we get a monotonic increase in the
effect. The example I gave was of genes that in combination
with one another can be positively deleterious. The point is to
show that the genes in an organism do not 'pull together'.
Population genetics shows that selection can be powerless to
eliminate these antagonistic combinations.

>I also don't see a response to my points about non-abstract
>individual organisms on the ground being the only things that
>literally reproduce genes.

This may seem pedantic, but the same process could be expressed
in a sentence without a subject: genes are reproduced in
individual organisms. What I understood Dawkins to be arguing
in the Extended Phenotype, was that a focus on the individual
organism as the phenotype was mistaken - it can equally be
understood as modified environments, symbiotic relationships etc.
It is only by making the self reproduction of information the
focus of study, rather than the individual, that this shift in
view occurs.

>Selection/evolution acts upon genes by acting upon bodies.

Yes, among other things.

>The two are inseparable.

No, selective constraints on the haploid phase, which, with
the exception of mosses etc can not be described as bodies,
are if anything even stronger due to the lack of redundancy.


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