What can our Selfish genes teach us?

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  • Karan Bhatta

In one of Oscar Wilde’s great children’s stories, ‘A Selfish Giant” who has a beautiful Garden is afflicted by an everlasting winter with arid snow and cold breeze.This happens after he forbids children to play in his garden by building a giant fence around it. karan photo2 Only when the children find a way to get inside the garden after making a hole in the wall does the Giant realize that the rain and warmth had forsaken his garden precisely because he had been so ungracious to the children, who had the times of their lives inside the auspices of the Giant backyard . The Giant eventually realizes that one of the children is God with whom he flies heavenwards. This story might be a perfect representation of two things that Richard Dawkins so beautifully presents in his wonderful boo “The Selfish Gene”: first How group altruism in the genetic level defines the growth of a species and And second How we all can through careful deliberation , give up our selfish hard weirdness and,possibly, transcend it.

Here’s a wonderful video of the description of how the understanding of our selfish genes help us to become better human beings.

Richard Dawkins is one of the leading public intellectuals of one time who has gathered a notoriety of sorts in some religions circles as he is wrongly labelled as a scientific reductionist i.e. Someone who has taken the beauty of humankind, its evolution and its progress and tried to define it purely in terms of genes and how they interact with surroundings as well as other genes. One nun who had read this book cried for weeks thinking life to be meaningless if all of life could be so easily explained on a genetic level.

But “The Selfish Gene” argues the opposite. Life can’t all be so simply explained on a genetic level.Every time one talks about a gene we have to remember the complexity that a gene possesses. The DNA information content in each nucleus is greater than 30 volumes of the Encyclopedia Britannica put together. This means that your brain which is processing this information right now has close to a trillion copies of the Encyclopedia Britannica. That’s how huge numbers we are dealing with when we talk about Genes and the book never loses touch with such astonishing facts.

The other reason why things are not as easy as they horrified nun put it is because we still have not grasped how the first gene came about. But what we do know is that the very first self-replicating DNA made it possible for any such information on it to survive. sprang multi factious lives as we see it.It beggars belief that evolution –the tortuously slow process that only changes the tiniest of fraction of our genetic make up can produce such mind-boggling life focus like carnivorous trees, to male mantis who have sex even after its female counterpart eats its head, to laborious ants who has seen guided only by an urge to work, to human beings that are comprehending it all. But as Iago remarks in Shakespeare’s Othello, “There are many events in the womb of time which will be delivered.”

Even more brilliant is Richard’s Reflection on the self-preservation of the first gene whose long distant ancestors we are.

What weird engine of self-preservation would the millennia bring forth? Four thousand million years on, what was to be the fate of the ancient replicators? They did not die out, for they are past masters of the survival arts. But do not look for them floating loose in the sea, they gave up that cavalier freedom long ago. Now they swarm in huge colonies, safe inside gigantic lumbering robots manipulating it by remote control. They are in you and me .They created us, body and mind,and their preservation is the ultimate rationale for our existence.

The book as Richard himself puts it facetiously should be titled “The slightly selfish big bit of chromosome and the even more selfish little bit of chromosome.” but why not ? Any single letter word might not bring out the best representation of the thesis of any popular book. How many best sellers do you know whose title is a single word? a Few?? Besides these also would be a cut-off in the higher end of the word limit. The number of books that have made it as best-sellers and that have a ridiculously long title, say more than 5 words is also quite low. Maybe mathematically, the best way of a book survives to have a three letter long title. This might be why most of his books are 3 lettered ones: The Blind Watchmaker, The Ancestor Tale, Unweaving the Rainbow etc. Dawkins uses such simple looking mathematical formulations to give us a one of how many animals in a species are likely to behave in given manner to maximize their overall chances of survival.

The titles of the chapters are brilliantly titled,”why are people” “genesmanship”, “nice guys finish first”,”you scratch my back I’ll ride on yours” to name a few. In these chapters you will find critiques of evolutionary theories of his fellow comrades, and as a sign of intellectual coverage of his own as well.

There is an age old question that every child often asked ,”do you love your papa more or your mamma?” Dawkins , once inverts this question and makes us think whether your papa would love you more or mamma. He builds his argument up and explains this brilliantly using the concept of Parental Investment and even this up through a few generations and through larger and larger family trees.

It might be such deliberations that make people believe in the absurdity of life if it were down to simply genes interacting thus providing a bad rapport for Dawkins.But never does Dawkins say that he has painted the picture he has only rather daringly and beautifully provided some elegant
brush-strokes to the understanding of organisms at the genetic level.

The bigger picture as Dawkins puts it is to be able to reflect upon our own make up in the genetic level, to see how the replicators bind us, in the tyranny of our-self, and affect us. Only then will we be able to attempt to fight the unfreedom set forth by them and move toward “pure altruism”, which might be unnatural but something nothing humankind has ever seen before.This is the essence of study of genes- our selfish replicators.

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