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I read Dawkins, and I know that his theory is more subtle than publicly perceived. But he did much disservice to himself with choosing metaphors and stressing their unsubtle interpretations.

For example, he says in the 1st chapter of "The Selfish Gene":

Let us try to teach generosity and altruism, because we are born selfish.

Yet, the point of his theory is that genes must be necessarily selfish in their own "ecology"; as his nice examples show, that does not mean that the organisms would be uncompromisingly selfish.

Metaphors aside, I do not think that Dawkins' theory is complete. In particular, niche construction theories might complement Dawkins' extended phenotype view in substantial ways. Dawkins' public image would likely improve if rival ideas would be met with more respect.

Short-term necessities exist, but they are not that much absolute. I can challenge the following "basic" views:

  • That tiny selfishness advantages grow big with time. The social or ecological environment might "fight" tiny selfishnesses with a variety of "tricks". Say, if you grab much food, you may get less reproductive chances for some "accidental" reasons.

  • That you don't have much chance of successful survival if you are less selfish than competitors. If you are strong (somewhere or everywhere) enough, you may have the freedom to be suboptimally greedy - with various positive upshots. Most species are apparently only as much greedy as it is necessary. Natural life does not look to be stressed of escalating competitions. Can you really see conspicuous supremacies, dominant control of resources, or emphatic struggling for life in a jungle? Even rats do not look stressed of anything similar to "rat races". Destructive competitions must be occurring not so often or lasting for long. You can "know" how to outlast and feast on them.

  • That you can't get to the long term if you cut your throat in the short term.. Extreme situations are true, but on the statistical scale they might be far less important. Very often, you can only do so much to avoid damage to your throat and tail - the luck decides a lot. Dealing (even gambling) with repetitive risks might be a more useful skill than an extra jump inch. And when it comes to (emergent) handling of risk, long term risks are probably no less manageable (and important) than short term risks.
by das monde on Wed Oct 10th, 2007 at 07:45:23 AM EST
[ Parent ]
... if you cut your throat in the long term.

This is a point that people sometimes lose track of when looking at evolved behavioral strategies from a tacit perspective of consciously worked through strategies ...

... which is that not only are long term successful strategies winnowed out in terms of what can survive the short term, but the initial starting point for short term strategies are those strategies that survived the long term.

And so, indeed, it is not necessary for every long term strategy to out-perform every short-term strategy in all circumstances, but rather only necessary to hold onto some share of the population long enough for the short term strategies to burn themselves out.

And further, there is a hierarchy of viability ... something must be physically possible before it can possibly be a biological variation subject to biological evolution, and biological evolution determines the substrate upon which behavioral evolution works itself out.

If genes are selfish, and if having a carrier that exhibits group altruism is an advantage to the genes in an animal that lives in roving bands with stable female kinship groups and adult males recruited from outside the band, and if that was us for a hundred thousand years or more, then the last 5,000 years would certainly not be enough time to substantially modify a biological substrate predisposed to group altruism.

I've been accused of being a Marxist, yet while Harpo's my favourite, it's Groucho I'm always quoting. Odd, that.

by BruceMcF (agila61 at netscape dot net) on Wed Oct 10th, 2007 at 10:08:18 PM EST
[ Parent ]


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