virus: Random Chance

Tue, 29 Oct 1996 12:08:29 -0600

I'm just writing to express a concern I have when reading through
the literature.... people seem to use phrases like "genes want" or
"ideas want"... Perhaps this is a "language of convenience", as
Dawkins says, but it is a misleading language. Dawkins himself
wrote a vastly popular popularization, but I think he may have
messed up by 'personifying' genes.

I'm too stubborn.... evolution, to me, makes perfect sense by
combining 'random chance' (which is required by Dawkins anyway),
and 'likelihood of survival'. Start at page fifteen of "The
Selfish Gene":
"At some point a a particularly remarkable molecule
was formed by accident. We will call it the Replicator."

That is the last time in his book that anything happens by accident...
afterwords, the replicators 'want' things, they 'gamble', and 'pre-
dict' what will survive the best. But... they don't! All they do
is make copies: those inexact copies which are better suited for sur-
vival actually survive. Those copies which are worse (or identi-
cally) suited for survival die off. But the gene is stupid. It is
not selfish in any thoughtful sort of way... it just looks as though
'seflishness' ensures survival. Therefore, organisms which exhibit
an interest in self-preservation, lo-and-behold, are preserved...
But what is 'interest'? That's personification again: bad! These
primordial organisms don't have interests; in this theory, they are
random chance. Now - enter what we call 'evolution': one organism
doesn't care that a glob of acid chews right through it; the next
organism has (randomly) developed a trigger mechanism which causes
it to float away in the opposite direction when part of its armour
is damaged; so when the acid blob bumps into it, it floats away:
self preservation. Now: the acid ate up the other organism, but
this one gets away and (assuming both organisms are replicators)
replicates, so survives to pass on its genes.

Now, did the replicators stop and say, "hey - if I had a trigger
mechanism, then I could avoid acid blobs, and survive longer"? I
sincerely doubt it. If it did, then sure - call it the selfish gene.
But what really happened? I think it's all random inexact copying -
random chance. The gene is not an intelligent programmer or designer.
The gene is stupid. It's a little biochemical glob of goo that makes
copies of itself - that's all. I am a machine that is well-equipped
for survival.... I came to exist because a replicator made (inexact)
copies of itself. That's all - the replicator didn't know what it
was doing, (and certainly didn't care what it was doing.) Intelli-
gence comes about like everything else: the result of just another,
or more likely a series of, evolutionary accidents. Then, since
intelligent beings were more likely to survive than non-intelligent
beings, so they did. Plain enough.

And so on and so forth.... we never need to say the genes "wanted"
to do this or that, or were "designing", "predicting" or "gambling",
or doing any of that stuff.... all that is happening is that replicas
are being made and evolutionary accidents continue to happen. The
organisms which result may develop brains and intelligence and comm-
unications, at which point they will talk about concepts (memes) like
'sefishness', but the replicators don't care about that... they just
stupidly obey the laws of nature.

(Whadya expect from a physics student, eh?)

If this is all OK, and in fact the entirety of "The Selfish Gene" is
merely written in a "language of conveniece," please let me know....
otherwise I'll be forced to jump on Barbrook's wagon.

- JPSchneider.