Mark Ridley:

Home | The whole bibliography | My book on Consciousness

(Copyright © 2000 Piero Scaruffi | Legal restrictions - Termini d'uso )

Yet another introduction to Darwin's theory of evolution, this time by a distinguished Oxford biologist. Ridley makes a distinction between the macroscopic effects and the microscopic causes of animal behavior. The distinction is important in order to understand puzzling behavior such as cooperation. According to Darwin's theory, the rule among animals should be competition, not cooperation. The puzzling feature of the animal world is that animals often help each other, and sometimes some individuals would sacrifice their lives to save others. This does not make any sense if the goal is merely to survive. Altruism was explained by Richard Dawkins with the idea that evolution applied to genes, not to bodies. Bodies are the vehicles that genes use to attain everlasting life. Bodies are disposable. Genes are not used by organisms, genes use organisms. I am nothing but a machine invented by a bunch of genes to maximize their chances (not mine) to survive. I will die. But if I am fit and make children, my genes will survive me. And if my children are fit, they will die but those genes will continue to exist in other bodies, generation after generation. It's the genes, not the organisms. That said, Darwin's idea of competition among individuals for survival must be slightly modified: it is not individuals that compete, it is genes. In order to maximize its chances of survival, a gene would cause one of its bodies (one of the bodies that contain that gene) to help "kins" (bodies with the same gene). The macroscopic effect would be cooperation among organisms, while at the microscopic level that cooperation is truly an attempt by the gene to outsmart other genes, i.e. it is competition of the most cynical kind. You have to think like a gene, not like a body. If you are a gene, you have no problem sacrificing some of your bodies to save some others. Your ultimate goal is to survive (you are the gene) and you can use any of those bodies as the vehicles to continue your journey through time. Altruism makes as much sense as selfishness in a Darwinian theory, as long as you look at the microworld, not just at the animal kingdom (the macroworld) as we see it. In mathematical terms, sex provides a way for a gene to participate to a lottery a number of times: each body is a participant in the lottery of survival. The more bodies, the more chances to win the lottery. This is a special lottery, though. Winning this lottery entails some work (creating and maneuvering the organism) and this work must be done jointly with other genes. Sex is the process by which a gene is chosed to work in a body together with other genes. In each offspring the gene is working with a different set of genes. Each offspring is a combination of genes. Some of those combinations will prevail, i.e. they will generate an organism that is capable of surviving in the environment. The gene has a vested interest in that as many of those offsprings survive. If you are one of those offsprings, you think that it's all about you. But it is all about the genes that are inside you, and that you share with your siblings (and some with your cousins, and some with your entire tribe, and some with the entire human kind). If you are a gene shared by me and my brother, it makes perfect sense that I give my life to save my brother's children. I am not jeopardizing my chances of surival, I am maximizing the chances of survival of the genes of our family.

Permission is granted to download/print out/redistribute this file provided it is unaltered, including credits.