What genes want (was re: Why are we allowed to age?)

I William Wiser (wwiser@best.com)
Sat, 14 Jun 1997 12:02:20 -0700

I wrote:

>>Let me see if I can get this right. Start with a self replicating organism,

Curt Adams wrote:
>Not quite. The agent of evolution is the individual gene, not entire
>organism genomes. Genes actually prefer to be in a bunch of different
>individuals so they don't have all their eggs in one basket, so to speak.
> Too many copies, or even children, of the same individual can actually be
>bad in that they may all share some particular weakness.

What I have in mind is anything that replicates physically (or for that
matter anything that creates something that creates something). Organism
was a poor choose of words on my part. I was going to say molecule but
that was to specific to early evolution. I also considered thing.
Your term agent is not bad.

Genes are one of the things that evolve but they are not the only thing.
Bits of DNA both smaller and larger than genes evolve as do other molecules
in the body, most but not all of these molecules are coded for by genes.
I find it easiest to understand the principles with simple molecules.

I'll reiterate. The number of copies of something in existence can be
reduced to four factors, the number of copies you start with, the amount
of time a given copy endures, the rate at which a copy duplicates itself and
the fidelity of the copying.

It gets slightly more complicated if one allows for mutations and considers
them as partial duplicates.

I don't at all mind personifying genes as long as we keep occasionally
reminding ourselves we are doing so and reconsidering any new results without
personification. When we say "what genes want" I generally translate that
to what genes tend to do.

Genes can be taken to mean the physical DNA in my body or to mean every
instance of a given DNA sequence in all the bodies it occupies. So, some genes
prefer to be in many individuals and some don't. I suppose when many
people say genes want they are suggesting what the most common genes tend
to do or perhaps suggesting the best survival strategy for a gene.

I think I can safely say that successful genes (the ones that are common or
endure) use many different strategies and what is most successful varies with
the environment. Genes and other similar molecules affect their environment
and the environment in turn affects them. Some genes use strategies that are
successful only because of the way they interact with more common genes
(fighting to the death over food for example works best when many others use a
flee strategy) the various genes tend to reach a equilibrium (so many thieves
per system).

All that being said I would concur that genes are usually better off having
copies in many different and diverse bodies and that most genes prefer to
do so. However there can be disadvantages to that strategy in some
situations. This seems to be a very hard lesson for evolution to learn
I suppose because genes have not had long to adapt to human level intelligence.

>Many genes do encourage violent competition and do quite well by it.
>The genes "want" as many copies of themselves as possible, by whatever means
>possible. And they are *incredibly* dense. Insofar as they "think", it's
>over evolutionary timescales.

Genes want what genes get. I am suggesting that I think a more cooperative
system is what we are likely to get and therefore what genes have been
working towards (admittedly in a very indirect way).

In a sense you are more correct. Genes want many things from
suicide to ice cream. Most genes want to replicate (some quick and dirty
others more cautiously). Violent and competitive genes are present in
most organisms and have varying degrees of influence. However I think that
less violence in the long run is a high probability event and therefore
the "desire" of the collection of all genes.

Genes don't particularly want there own survival that is just a means to an
end. To genes (as a group) what is important is that they create one or
more intelligent creatures capable of surviving. After that they don't care
what we do. I am being a bit playful here but if I am going to personify
genes I may as well make them friendly. I realize many other scenarios are
possible but I may as well assume the best.

Here is my reasoning. Once you have mutating self replicators intelligence
is quite likely. With increases in intelligence the capacity for violence
becomes greater. The higher the cost of violence the less favorable the
reward ratio for using it. You tend to end up with something like a nuke
on every block and a strong incentive never to have anyone get really

Then again I have seen a lot of E. coli breed till they all die
off from lack of nutrients. If enough genes do enough stupid things
everything gets to start over. Or violence may persist at a moderate
level below some threshold of serious adaptation.

Its all getting to complex in my head at this point. I don't think I or
anyone else knows what is going to happen or what genes tend to do in the
long run. I do think there is a lot more to be learned by looking at the
question (preferably with math and computers) but not by me today.

>Actually if we get to that point, memes will be running the show and not
>genes. The genes will just be tools at that point and considering them as
>self-interested agents won't give any useful information.

Individual genes really don't act as if they have goals (well, really
simple ones maybe but nothing as grand as replication). Groups of genes
look more goal oriented. Evolution working on most genes over time seems
to be going somewhere. If we say genes have goals then one of their goals
was to create memes so I'll hold them responsible.

I think what I am getting at is that some of the earlier post about genes
seemed to frame them as enemies, something to overcome. Genes are much
nicer to people than the non living universe. They have made a stunningly
beautiful world for us. In aggregate they seem to be working towards
creating life that transcends them.

If a gene does something to my advantage it is just as reasonable to say it
did it for me as to say it did it for itself. Selfish genes tend to
survive more than unselfish genes but if a gene creates a mutant even
more likely to survive than it or other genes, then we would be more
correct to call that gene altruistic than selfish. So, genes tend to be
selfish but every now and then one comes along that is altruistic
and makes something even better than itself.

I generally avoid personifying genes. I also frequently find it useful not
to personify people, or rather to remind myself what is really going on in
their brain. Once again what we actually have is a continuum which at some
fuzzy level of directed behavior we call purpose.

Anyway, please don't take me seriously when I personify genes
in significant ways. Its mostly tongue in cheek. I suggest anyone
adding to this discussion define what they mean by genes as they use
the various meanings. There is unfortunately no standard meaning.

I. William Wiser  <wwiser@best.com>  Longevity Consultant