Day 053 - What survival machines want and what they get

Submitted by Sam on 12 July, 2011 - 22:35

Bodies are the vehicles of survival for genes, which programme proteins to make systems which will live long enough to reproduce, ensuring that the genes themselves continue to replicate. Whilst genes obviously have no conscious purpose or desire to replicate, it is their natural propensity to create organisms that do exhibit such behavioural characterstics, whether consciously or otherwise. Following in Dawkins' tradition then, it is convenient to refer to the effects of genes with the compressed language of intention, imagining what they might 'want' as a short-hand way of referring to the behaviour their interrelated effects tend to produce in their host organisms to benefit their genes' own propagation. What a gene 'wants', in short, is to ensure its own survival, by replicating as widely as possible throughout a population.

To this end, genes are 'selfish', largely seeing other survival machines either as impediments or as resources to be exploited. The important exception to this indifference is when those other machines are close relatives to the first, when they will likely be vehicles for the same genes as it carries itself. If they are not genetically closely related, other survival machines represent a threat, potentially competing for mating partners or other resources. The logical policy to adopt against this threat might seem to be for each organism to murder all of its rivals, and perhaps even then eat them for food. However, this policy does not necessarily always work, as removing one rival from the complex system of many rivals may benefit yet another rival more than it benefits oneself.

What tends to happen therefore, is that various survival machines adopt various pre-programmed behavioural policies, perhaps of the form 'if rival is smaller, attack; otherwise flee'. Some strategies be more effective than others, and will therefore tend to spread throughout the population. What is crucial is that the behaviour of each individual depends largely on what the majority of the other members of the group are doing – if the majority of other genes are encoding the behavioural pattern 'if rival is smaller, run away; if larger, attack', then clearly a selective advantage is shown to those that exhibit the reverse trait. After a period of oscillation, an evolutionarily stable strategy will be adopted; a pre-programmed behavioural policy which cannot be bettered by any alternative strategy if most members of the group follow it. It may not necessarily represent the optimum efficiency for the group were they to conspire together to create a perfect strategy, but instead gains its persistence from being 'immune to treachery from within' – once such a strategy has evolved through the testing of many other forms, a deviant individual cannot, on average, out-perform it. If it can, and has evolved a newly successful strategy, then another period of oscillation will occur until this is selected as the new evolutionarily stable strategy for the group to adopt.

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