A discussion on genetics, evolution, and information with Richard Dawkins

June 30, 2021 • 10:30 am

Reader Luke sent a recently filmed 48-minute discussion between Richard Dawkins and Jon Perry. Luke says “Perry does the excellent Stated Clearly YouTube channel. This was posted on his ‘personal’ site.”

Luke added this, too:
It’s a good conversation. It mostly focuses on River Out Of Eden and the ideas within that book. I know Richard has a new book out, but it’s refreshing here that he takes a deep dive into his past writings. While he touches upon atheist arguments, most of the conversation concerns Darwin, evolution, the genetic code, information theory, computers and function. This, I think, is where Dawkins is at his finest — talking about evolution. There’s a great moment when Dawkins is talking about the genetic code and machine code and Perry pulls out a strip of computer tape! [JAC: this happens at 12:48.] A great illustration of the ideas discussed!
It’s clear Perry is very much inspired by Dawkins, and it’s good to see. His YouTube channel is one of the best and most consistent.

Because of my past as a working biologist, I found the discussion of biology (sexual selection, brood parasitism, etc.) more interesting than the long discussion of code, the genetic code, information, and so on.

I enjoyed the section about whether animal signals evolve via genes that improve “cooperation.”  Whether you answer this “yes” or “no” depends on how you conceive of “cooperation”.  If you mean that cooperative signals evolve even though they reduce the fitness of the replicators within populations (i.e. cooperation as pure altruism), there’s no way that cooperation can evolve by individual selection (more accurately, by differential replication of genes among individuals in a population). Remember, you have to include kin and reciprocity when dealing with the evolution of cooperation within a population.

Most biologists think that the vast bulk of cooperation in animals evolves in a way that increases the fitness of the cooperators in a population. It confers an individual advantage to cooperate. You scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours, ergo you give excess food to your fellows so long as they remember to give excess food to you when you need it. Lions in a pride can gain advantages by cooperating in a hunt by being able to get more per capita food by being able to bring down larger prey or by being more successful at catching prey.

If you want a general increase in cooperation that does not enhance the fitness of individuals, you’ll have to posit forms of group selection.

I know of no examples of cooperation in animals—including any evolved cooperation in primates like ourselves—that cannot be seen as having evolved by individual (or genic) selection. Such examples, to be convincing, would have to show that while they may increase the longevity or “splittability” of a group, would have to reduce the fitness of the cooperators themselves, even when you include their kin. Some aspects of social insect behavior might conform to a group selection model, but recent work refuting such suggestions by Martin Nowak and his colleagues suggests this isn’t the case. At this point we can say that evolutionists know of know adaptations in organisms that must have evolved by group rather than “individual” selection. In the last chapter of my book on Speciation with Allen Orr, however, we describe how some evolutionary trends might be due to a form of group selection, but these are not features or behaviors of individuals.

6 thoughts on “A discussion on genetics, evolution, and information with Richard Dawkins

  1. Group rivalry (with mechanisms like in-group favoritism etc), seems to be something deeply ingrained in humans. Behavioral propensities selected because they improved the fitness of individuals in smallish, closely genetically related communities, like being ready to fight until death for the group, seem to have been co-opted in the later Holocene by supergroups like states where they no longer improve the fitness of self or close kin, but possibly the fitness of the group as a whole. Is there a modern, not Nazi-ideology-contaminated term for that, if it’s not group selection?

  2. Yep – Dawkins in his element. The religion stuff just had to be done – a chore – but it was in the way – less so now. It takes so much work, just to get to the real work. I’ll have to listen later.

  3. Dawkins’ Christmas Lectures, as with most Royal Institution Christmas Lectures are pretty good, and how young he was! Reminds me of actor/comedian David Mitchell.

    I wonder how many others those lectures have inspired and why we in the US couldn’t have had something equally enriching in this country.

    1. the US couldn’t have had something equally enriching in this country.

      It doesn’t?
      What is the closest approximation, and does it get anything like the same attention the RI lectures do?

  4. ” . . . and how young he was!”

    “Golden days, in the sunshine of our happy youth
    Golden days, full of gaiety and full of truth
    In our hearts we remember them all else above
    Golden days, days of youth and love

    How we laughed with the joy that only love can bring
    Looking back through memory’s haze
    We will know life has nothing sweeter than its springtime
    Golden days, when we’re young
    Golden days

    Sigmund Romberg, “The Student Prince”

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