Day 055 - Selfish and selfless

Submitted by Sam on 15 July, 2011 - 00:04

Whilst a gene for saving close relatives from death (even at the expense of your own life) could theoretically spread in the gene pool, it could only be successful if its bearer is actually able to identify its close relatives, which is not necessarily an easy task. One way for an organism to recognize its kin with some degree of reliability would be to remember other members of the species who share a physical resemblance to them. A gene encoding the behavioural equivalent of 'be nice to those who look like you as they might be your relations' would generate the kind of altruistic behaviour that would mutually support the spread of selfish genes shared through different bodies.

In some species that stay in small groups or who do not move around much, there is a good chance that any member is closely related to another, and so genes which tend to promote altruistic behaviour towards any member of the same species may tend to spread through the gene pool, as any possessor would be more likely to look out for other possessors than not. Dawkins offers the example of a male baboon defending its troop from predators, risking its life to protect the genes which are statistically probable to be invested in other members of the group, which may contain many close relations.

However, no matter how altruistic the behaviour encoded by genes is, it can never be as strong as the encoded propensity towards individual selfishness, simply because your genes can only ever be completely certain of your own individual identity, whilst altruistic genes can never be sure to completely recognize close kin, as they are susceptible to errors in classification and, may mistake perfect strangers for close kin.

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