Trusted Medicine Education: The Role of the Selfish Gene

Conventional thought about genetics is that a gene will be carried through successive generations if it confers a benefit to a species survival. So for example, a gene that reduces the risk of a heart attack will be carried on. This isn’t technically correct. Genes don’t care how long you live, they care about making copies.  You are simply a vehicle for your selfish genes.

Where did genes come from?

A gene is nothing more than a collection of molecules linked together. The code created by this molecule (expressed through the pattern of its parts) can be read by enzymes in your body and translated to build whatever you need. Genes are not conscious, they are simply mechanical. At some point in the distant past, a collection of carbon, oxygen, hydrogen and nitrogen came together in such a way that they could replicate. These ‘replicators’ were molecules that, due to forces between molecules, would force nearby atoms to link together and copy them. It’s not quite this simple, so Richard Dawkins please calm down.

Over time these molecules, and there were a lot of them, began to grow larger, compete with each other, and absorb each other into longer chains. Some chains were inherently better at doing this, so were favoured. Over millennia a simple molecule became millions of molecules long, spreading and replicating. As a result of this, the proteins created by these chains began to do funny things. Like create a simple sensor for areas where energy was abundant, and create a tail to waft these chains toward them.  This stepwise tendency toward complexity is termed ‘adaption’ and the end result is the explosion of flora and fauna that graces our planet.

How simple can become complex

Many criticise this explanation, suggesting that a gradual process could not account for complex structures like the eye. The key to understanding why this would work is to think of the eye in terms of its component parts and function. Then think back, considering every generation a slight improvement in both structure and function of the last. Keep going back, and eventually, you come to the most simple arrangement. It’s no great leap to explain how a molecule could create that, so why anymore to explain the next step.

It is important to note that none of this was conscious at the level of the gene. Behaviours exhibited by the host organism would increase the rate of reproduction of the gene so the gene would carry on. But somewhere in its robotic replication, this meant that the goals of the gene and the organism became the same. For an organism reproduction of its species, for the gene reproduction of itself. The difference is that the gene doesn’t care, it’s just a machine.

So next time you go out looking for love, remember that aeons of history don’t give a damn.  We are just tools for a machine. A selfish one

Thanks to Richard Dawkins, Charles Darwin and Alfred Wallace. 

At Trusted Medicine we are improving Public Health through education. We love what we do, but we need your help. Please share our work, help us reach more people.


Any opinions above are the author’s alone and may not represent those of his/her affiliations. Any comment is based on the best available evidence at the time of writing.  All data is based on externally validated studies unless expressed otherwise. Novel data is representative of the sample surveyed. An online recommendation is no substitute for seeing your own doctor and should not be taken as medical advice.

Image courtesy of Pixabay. 

About drbmjanaway (16 Articles)
Doctor and author with an interest in neurology, evolutionary biology and public health communication

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