50 whys to look for genes: 18. Organisms are the survival machines of genes

“They are in you and in me; they created us, body and mind; and their preservation is the ultimate rationale for our existence… Now they go by the name of genes, and we are their survival machines.” Dawkins, The Selfish Gene (1976)

In other words, the genes we have are those that gave our ancestors advantage over competitors in survival and reproduction.  Any gene that does not give an advantage will die out—will not survive.

Complications

As the previous post noted, “parameters, such as the ‘fitness’ of [i.e., the advantage conferred by] genes or genotypes… are difficult or impossible to estimate,” even in well-controlled laboratory populations. Is it possible nevertheless that evolution in the wild could operate in a way that, in effect, discriminates among genes on the basis of the advantage each gene gives in survival and reproduction?  How would scientists show that this is the case?

Two deep conceptual assumptions underlie the Selfish Gene view of life: 1) There is an agent within any apparent agent–the living being does not develop without being directed by something else; 2) There must be some standard external to organisms (in Dawkins’s account, omnipotent natural selection) in order for them to know what they should do.

As noted in an earlier post, there is an irony in Dawkins, the outspoken atheist, making and fostering these assumptions, for these are shared with believers of religion.  “Putting the two assumptions together: the directing agent within is mirrored by the directions that people as believers or [as] survival machines should follow.”

Perhaps there is a third shared assumption: It is OK to base one’s account of the world on unobservables (fitness associated with genes or God) if it is hard for you personally to make sense of the world if the unobservable did not exist.

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(Introduction to this series of posts)

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