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Dawkins' Selfish Genes — are they really selfish?

By JohnThomas Didymus
Posted Feb 21, 2012 in Science
The leap of imagination which led Richard Dawkins to propose a gene-centred view of evolution in his "selfish gene" theory would appear to have arisen from the reductionist drive in contemporary evolutionary thought, for a wholly bottom-up, non-goal oriented conception of evolution, which steers scrupulously clear of all possibility of intervention of teleological argument in biological evolutionary theory.
Dawkins' idea of the "selfish gene" no doubt derived some of its inspiration from the analogy of the parasitic behavior of the virus which hijacks the cellular apparatus of its host to propagate its genome. The analogy, however, fails to succeed in its essential precepts because while the virus propagates "selfishly," usually, at the expense of its host, genes spread rapidly in a gene pool usually only when they contribute traits of survival value to the biological system as an irreducible entity at the relevant level of analysis of complexity. Thus, the behavior of the gene is not "selfish" in the sense in which the virus "genome" may be said to be selfish. Any conceptualization of "gene behavior" which carries the analogy of the virus too far must fall flat: genes, unlike viruses, are socially adjusted entities, behaving a sociable manner in the society of genes they belong to.
The foregoing points to the basic, fundamental and essential conceptual flaw in conceiving of the evolution of the irreducible complexity of biological life in the reductionist terms of "selfish gene" units. A "selfish gene" centered theory of biological evolution would seem a meaningless and unproductive theoretical approach to the phenomenon of life when we consider the irreducible complexity of biological processes, especially at the biochemical level of function.
In the quest for theoretical mastery of the vaguely defined notion of "life," as ascribed to biological systems, we must start at the level of biological systems complexity at which we encounter biologically complete genetic information. In ordinary discussion of biological phenomena in which we seek a synthetic appreciation of biological life, we usually refer to the cell carrying complete genomic definition of the organism as the unit of life.
One may postulate that the existence at the individual cellular level of multicellular biological systems organization of the "big picture" of the organism in the DNA genome constitutes circumstantial evidence in support of a top-down structural organization of biosystems in evolutionary development.
The bottom-up way of thinking may seem reasonable and maybe even unassailable in the context of reductionist thought which seeks to steer biological scientific thought from the path of the much detested teleological argument in the evolution of life. A question, however, seems to have escaped biologists: If biological systems organization is with a primary bottom-up evolutionary orientation how and why did each cell acquire a complete genomic definition of the entire organism? How did the evolution of a bottom-up organized cell society acquire a blatantly top-down ontogeny?
The bottom-up theoretical model implies that previously autonomous ("selfish") simple unicellular systems incidentally aggregated for mutual benefit, driven only by a goal orientation of enhancing individual survival, and then, fortuitously (under natural selection pressure), organized themselves into complex cellular social systems which we refer to as the multicellular organism. But in this scenario, we are presented with what looks like a suboptimal exchange of benefits from the perspective of the "selfish" cellular unit. The previously autonomous unicellular organism sacrifices its body of genetic information as a system capable of autonomous existence for hostage status: it gets downloaded with a heavy burden of largely redundant information for building an entire multicellular system, out of which only a small section is activated in an irreversible manner as its specialization progresses.
Equally puzzling is the evolutionary mechanisms of cell differentiation in embryogeny. It seems very curious indeed that biologists would ignore the staggeringly massive challenge to the dominant bottom-up evolutionary model of bio-systems organization posed by the plain facts of embryogeny.
Could "selfish genes" really be selfish?
Could a theoretically meaningful pathway ever be suggested in the language-thought of the bottom-up model for how multicellular organisms acquired a top-down ontogeny?

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