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Are Genes Really Selfish? [Video]

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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Biologist Richard Dawkins coined the phrase “the selfish gene” with his best-selling book of the same name. “Selfish”, however, was perhaps an unfortunate word choice because genes lack their own will and can actually drive altruistic behavior. I explain how in our latest Instant Egghead video:

Correction (5/15/14): This video erroneously states that honeybee workers share 75 percent of their genetic information. Because the queen bee mates with multiple drones, however, their genetic relatedness is actually 25 to 40 percent.

More to explore:

Selfish Genes Also Must Cooperate (Scientific American Blog Network)

Why We Help the Evolution of Cooperation [Preview] (Scientific American)

Video Credits:

Produced, edited & written by Eric R. Olson
Filmed by Joss Fong



About the Author: Eric is multimedia journalist and producer who specializes in science and natural history. His work has appeared on the websites of Scientific American, Nature, Nature Medicine, Popular Science, Slate and The New York Times among many others. He is a former video producer & editor for Scientific American. Follow on Twitter @EricROlson.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. tuned 3:35 pm 12/10/2013

    “Whatcha doin’ Brain?”
    “I am culturing a infectious virus that cause genes in people to express only altruistic behavior towards ME.”
    “What are we gonna do tonight?”
    “What we do EVERY night, Pinky.
    Try to take over the WORLD!”

    Link to this
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  4. 4. Snicker-Snack 8:04 am 12/11/2013

    Eric Olsen: Based on your commentary in the video, It doesn’t appear that you’ve read the book, The Selfish Gene. Have you not read book?

    Link to this
  5. 5. Daniel Schegh 1:07 pm 12/11/2013

    Eric, I’m going to give you the benefit of the doubt and assume that you actually read The Selfish Gene and what you are doing in the video is trying to summarize what it says. I do this because what you describe in the video is more or less exactly what the book is about: how molecules like genes are maximally spread by having outward effects (phenotypes) that cause them to spread more, including altruistic acts of the organism that displays the phenotype.

    The problem then is that your video implies that the book gets it wrong. You say bad things have been done in its name and question the title about genes being selfish. You should be clear that what you are describing is in agreement with the book, not in opposition as implied.

    If you do mean to suggest your video is opposition to the book, well then you are wrong about that.

    Link to this
  6. 6. GreenMind 4:42 pm 12/11/2013

    The Selfish Gene has a fundamental flaw in that it says that the unit of SELECTION is the gene. This is very seldom true. Selection always occurs at the individual level, and sometimes also at the level of families, groups and species. Some selection at the gene level can also happen when a gene has too many of one kind of nucleotide in a row, which can interfere with duplication of the gene. Also, there are rare genes that are selected at the level of the gene, such as the T allele, found currently only in mice, as far as I am aware.

    The T allele messes with meiosis. When a mice is heterozygous for a normal t allele and for the T allele, it forces meiosis to only create sperm cell with the T allele, in a process called genetic drive. The mutation is also lethal in homozygous form, so all TT individuals die, and only Tt individuals survive. But Tt individuals are very healthy and aggressive, and if they get into a population of mice they tend to be successful in breeding. If one enters a population of wild mice, eventually all the population becomes Tt, and the population dies out. But Tt individuals are so aggressive that they often migrate into a new population, which it then also takes over and wipes out. Only a process of group selection prevents the gene from wiping out the entire species. The group selection favors traits that prevent new migrants from entering the group.

    Cancer is a case in which genes are indeed selected at the gene level, and the result is that the entire body dies.

    Dawkins’ mistake is saying that genes are selected, where the truth is that usually only complete sets of genes are selected. Only entire genomes are usually selected and so cooperating with other genes is an extremely important feature of a gene. If a gene messes with other genes, they all die together.

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  7. 7. jgrosay 10:33 am 12/13/2013

    I’d say that ‘selfish’ is not the same as ‘Self-protection’, or are both just different degrees in the same continuous?

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  8. 8. jayjacobus 3:13 pm 12/15/2013

    People have a first person perspective which causes a first person preference.

    A second person perspective is imagined. A second person perspective cannot overcome a first person perspective because the second person perspective arises from the first person mind.

    Link to this
  9. 9. jayjacobus 3:33 pm 12/15/2013

    Genes don’t have a perspective. They are on or off. Saying a gene is selfish implies that the gene has a preference which it doesn’t.

    Link to this
  10. 10. GreenMind 5:11 pm 12/16/2013

    Saying that a gene is selfish, and is “trying” to increase in frequency is like saying that a bubble underwater is “trying” to rise. It is just the forces around each of them that do both. You can imagine that an anthropomorphic bubble hates to rise, because it “dies” when it hits the surface, but the water and gravity around it force it upward. Stop the gravity and the rise stops, like in weightlessness inside a space station.

    The environment and presence of other genes similarly force the frequency of a gene to rise or fall. If one copy of a gene mutates into a new favorable variant, and starts increasing in frequency, that means the old variant starts decreasing in frequency. Does does that mean that the new variant is selfish and the old one unselfish? No. There is no selfishness. There is no unselfishness. There is only math.

    “Try not. Do or do not!! There is no try.” Yoda.

    From the opposite perspective, an object that actually has a preference and capable of being selfish still has no choice but to obey the forces around it, like a man falling out of a plane without a parachute. Regardless of his perspective, physics and math say he has to fall until some other factor gets in the way, like the Earth.

    Link to this
  11. 11. TomKelly 1:40 am 12/17/2013

    Outdated.Edward O. Wilson has pretty well refuted gene selection, proposing group selection as a empirically observed alternative. The group whose members cooperate beats the group with selfish, me-first members every time.

    Link to this
  12. 12. jayjacobus 10:15 am 12/17/2013

    If being part of a group is advantageous, the individual joins for his/her own benefit not to benefit others in the group. This is an observation about self preservation.

    Link to this
  13. 13. GreenMind 2:05 pm 12/19/2013

    jayjacobus, there was a decades-long debate about whether group selection reduces to individual selection or kin selection. It doesn’t. Certainly individuals can join a group for reasons like self-preservation, and that is an individual trait, selected at the individual level. However, groups have traits that cannot apply to individuals, even theoretically. For example, group size, group diversity, and sex ratio all apply to groups, not individuals.

    As a painfully obvious case of group selection, you can take all the fittest individuals from the entire species and put them in a group, and they will die out if they all happen to be male or all female. That is group selection.

    Link to this
  14. 14. GreenMind 2:40 pm 12/19/2013

    Tom, I agree that cooperation has turned out to be unexpectedly powerful, but it is more complicated than that. I expect you already know about this, but it can’t hurt to lay it out.

    At the individual selection level, the individual advantage of being selfish or cooperative affects whether the genes for selfish behavior rise or fall inside the groups and the population as a whole. At the group level, the group advantage for cooperation favors groups that have a higher frequency of cooperative behavior (by changing their size, number, colonization rate, survival rate, etc.). These two levels of forces can oppose each other or reinforce each other. If they oppose each other, you can get to a balance between them and a stable equilibrium.

    Also, while the strength of individual selfish behavior can be more or less constant regardless of how the population is divided up, group selection depends strongly on how the population is divided up. This is called population structure, and that can change from day to day or year to year. If there is a drought, a group may be too big for the available resources, and survival may then reduce to individual selfishness again.

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  15. 15. jayjacobus 3:58 pm 12/21/2013

    It should be recognized that there are people who are unselfish. But they must think in a self motivated way.

    In other words, unselfishness must have an attraction to the person’s self. Either that or the person is avoiding something extremely distasteful.

    The rules of behavior modification must apply to both selfish and unselfish people.

    Link to this

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