I am reading Richard Dawson’s The Selfish Gene, a very curious book on several counts. In this new edition he offers some more recent thoughts about the title that are appreciated. “Selfish” here is used to convey how totally dedicated a gene is to replication. Would a gene bother generating its soma if it could replicate without one? Sort of like a virus which is just a bit of DNA encased in a rather simple membrane. What I just called ‘soma’ Dawkins calls ‘machine’; that is, he calls plant and animal bodies “replicating machines.” In this he is quite reductionistic or positivistic, both virtues here though not the only ones. Chemistry is chemistry, organic or non: reactions are rule bound. I like ‘soma’ better because it leaves some room organically for the mind. I understand and appreciate his sense of the biological machine, but I don’t call a battery a machine, though I guess it is one from this perspective. We are already close to building an artificial organic machine for some specific purpose, unlike the rest of us organic machines dedicated to gene replication, whether old school (sex) or engineered. Still, I find the reductionism here a bit impoverished.
Dr. Dawkins also presents the conundrum of what is the unit of life to be replicated and so provide a basis for evolution. As I understand his argument, genes are not precisely defined and what is replicated over and over and over again are units of varying size. A level above called cistrons could also be considered the unit of replication, and above that, chromosomes are often considered to play that role. Genes are themselves composed of protein molecules and operate through a great variety of proteins. Scale of organization is evidently an important consideration here, because some genes have been around for billions of years (like the song-speech genes discussed in the blog on 12/14/14) and chromosomes for only a lifetime. And some evolutionary biologists still focus on the individual’s survival as the key to evolution.
Dawkins also cites the importance of context, whether the gene on its chromosome or the microbiome of our soma, the little machines contributing to the big machines and vice versa. Indeed, taking his gist a little further, the context would also seem to include our ecology because all life seems inter-dependent. Any organism’s ecological niche these days must include the organisms cohabiting and surrounding. Dawkins posits that life began out of “primordial soup” and it seems to follow that we are now part of a evolved soup, more bits and pieces differentiated amongst the broth. The picture developing here is of the earth covered, its surface infiltrated, with genetic material, some of which has been here a long time and some not so long. The earth, meaning dirt, is full of fungi, algae, bacteria and insects all over the earth, meaning the planet. This brings up the notion of Gaia, the idea that the earth is a living organism, or less expansive in conceptualization, that the earth is itself the replicating machine (a battery providing the energy) and the somas a reflection of the wondrously varied ecological niches therein.
As long as we are discussing context and scale I will add the consideration of the amino acids and other organic molecules found throughout the known universe. And what about Neil deGrasse Tyson’s speculation in the Cosmos series that life could be seeding or re-seeding multiple times as each solar system rotates through space around its galactic hub and asteroids over these galactic time scales traveling about bringing everyone life’s necessities. The earth does not replicate itself but it does provides the gene pool a lovely place for its continuance.
Now about mind? Yes, yes, mind resulting from some particular evolutionary stream of soma and its genes must confer (at least in the short run of a few million years) survival advantages, but what does it mean about genes, somas, and ecologies that mind is such a powerful (again, seemingly for now) adaptation? I hope to find out more about this when I get to the chapters on mind and memes (and this is the book wherein Dawkins coined the latter term) in The Selfish Gene.
For those who contemplate this approach to understanding our lives and begin to feel like a pretty small chemical cog in the universe, I offer this poem by one of our best, William Carlos Williams.
It’s a strange courage
you give me, ancient star:
shine alone in the sunrise
toward which you lend no part!
So long for now from Gaia, our home. Merry Solstice and a Happy New Year.