"self" definition, indiv. vs. genes

Mon Jul 31 16:18:33 MDT 1995

(bits of Paul Cockshott's post on indiv vs society are appended
Hi Paul,
I'm back.  While I was away, I whipped up this little tome I entitle:

Self interest *is* reasonably well defined in evolution
An individual *is* a selfish collective of genes

I am very happy to hear that you appreciate Dawkins, I've enjoyed
"The Selfish Gene" for many years [the second edition is better than
the first, BTW.]  I presume that you find him not guilty of genetic
determinism / bad science / vulgar sociobiology, as I do [he just
seems to enjoy explaining things in provocative but insightful

It is true that genetic self-interest is a problematic notion but I
don't see it quite the same way that you put it.  There is a history
of thought on the topic within evolutionary biology in this century
that began with the assumption of "species-interest" or even a whole
Nature-interest [truly panglossian], then group-interest (group as
local, inter-breeding population), individuals as self-interested
even at costs to others, Hamilton's inclusive-fitness (which is a
version of individual interest), and finally came to see potential
conflicts even between various genes within an individual.

The method of creating each change in focus was to look for conflicts
of interest within each of the "units" previously thought to be a
singular self/ishness.  Conflicts within groups [even within the
"nuclear" family] and sometimes within an individual are expected on
the basis of neodarwinian evolutionary theory and demonstrated by
data.  It is also true that data which did not fit with the previous
view prompted people to look for a new view.  I see this as part of
the source of Dawkins' "gene's-eye view".

I find it very refreshing that we're speaking much the same language,
as I hope/expect that you will easily understand me here, but I
haven't seen "unit of selection" used in the way that you do.

In my evol-bio training, the unit of selection is the unit that
lives, dies and reproduces, which is an individual.  This is the unit
that is subject to selection, as it may live longer or shorter and
reproduce more or less.  I covered some of this in my post on
"group-selection" earlier this month, I think, with the bottom line
being that individuals as units of selection nearly always beats out
the idea of larger groups [village, band, population, etc].

Your point about Dawkins' genes as a challenge to the analytical
focus upon the selfish individual is a new one to me.

I have been talking about individuals vs. groups, because that is
where the questions/comments/controversy have been on the list so
far.  Also, genes don't have behavior, individuals do.  I haven't
tried to bring in any additional technicalities unless someone asks,
or I think it is relevant to behavior.  I try to explain here why I
do not think that the issues of population genetics and "self" that
you brought up are needed to understand the implications of
evolution, and why it is reasonable to use an individual-centered
approach in evolutionarily informed analyses.

It is as a result of selection that gene frequencies change.  But it
is not gene frequencies per se that selection acts upon.  In fact, it
is not one's genes that face the selective forces of the world
directly, it is one's phenotype, the actual body and behavior.  The
individual presents itself for selection, but the consequences of
selection present themselves in the form of changing gene
frequencies.  See the distinctions?

There are good reasons for many different genes to work together very
well when they find themselves stuck in a body together.  [Doesn't
Dawkins cover this?  I don't have my Selfish Gene at hand here, and
it's been a while since I re-read it.]  Any one gene that can't work
with the others can ruin the whole project, killing itself along with
all the rest (one individual dies.)  All the genes [in the nuclear
DNA] within an individual are in the same boat, they sink or swim
together.  This means that each one's reproductive interests are
identical to the others'!  No wonder they all pull together, because
no one gene can reproduce alone.

I think this is almost a definition of an individual, or perhaps a
"unit of interest", i.e. a unit within which there is no conflict of
[reproductive] interest.  (This is part of the definition of a
multicellular organism, which is an individual, as opposed to a bunch
of identical cells each going its own way.)

Genes are at least partially disaggregated [is this part of what you
mean by disag.?] and resorted into new combinations at each act of
sexual reproduction - this is the very definition of sexual reprod.
(as different from asexual, which produces individuals genetically
identical to their parents.)

Therefore, each gene must be able to work within each new combination
or else the new individual will not make it.  From this we get a view
of the "gene pool" as a group of co-evolved genes.  If any of them
cannot work with any of the others, those "uncooperative" genes do
not persist.  This is one of the reasons that genetic change in terms
of new genes arising either by cross-breeding or mutation must be
gradual.  Most sudden significant changes will not fit in well enough
with the other genes in order to accomplish the interdependent /
cooperative task[s] of contributing to building a successful
phenotype / body / organism.

So, an individual is actually a genetic collective, which does truly
act as one selfish unit.  It is only in this form that any one gene
can survive and reproduce at all.  That is why the disaggregated
gene's point of view is not a challenge to the general view of the
individual as both an analytical unit of selection and a unit of
selfishness [except of course this must still be complicated by the
addition of inclusive-fitness considerations.)

There is a technical caveat or rather a great example of conflict of
interest between genes of the nucleus and genes of the mitochondria -
intra-cellular and intra-individual reproductive warfare!  But it
does not apply to humans or to behavior, and this post is just about
long enough.

I'll have to come back again to address ideology.

Thanks for your post,
Lisa Rogers

>>> Paul Cockshott <wpc at clyder.gn.apc.org>  7/20/95, 09:44pm >>>

... If one is defining the self interest in genetic terms, the
problem is that the 'self' is not the unit of selection. The unit of
selection is the frequency of individual code sequences in the
population gene pool.

Given that any individual represents a randon and temporary  subset
of these sequences, self interest is not well defined in terms of
selection. ...

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