Frivolous Monsters

Two Books That Changed The Way I Think – Number 01

Richard Dawkins’ 1976 book The Selfish Gene is one of two that has recently literally changed the way I think, how I feel, and about how I view life itself. It details how the genes in our body were created and how they evolved, but not for our benefit, but for their own purposes. It depressed me. Let me explain…

Oddly I thought this book would be leading a battle of science verses the Bible, regarding creationism, whereas in the middle I found it depressing how mankind seemingly had been reduced to pre-programmed meat-robots all acting at the behest of our hard-wired gene code that has been handed down to us via the best judgement of our respective ancestors. This was more where I saw the battle-line drawn and found myself wistfully siding with God over Dawkins as at least, according to the Bible, God gives us all free will.

Still you can’t disagree with Prof. Dawkins too much as he is married to fan-favourite Lalla Ward.

The other day I saw a child eying up the giant Tetris machine in the bus station and goggling at the prizes he reckoned he could oh-so-easily win. Obviously the immediate thought is that, if the machine is anything like an arcade machine, this gullible youth didn’t stand much of a chance. However, now I’ve had it drummed into me, through three hundred pages of gene-based evolution, into thinking in terms of an Evolutionary Stable Strategy.

So any machine that was easily beatable would have lost money hand over foot and therefore have been quickly killed off and replaced by a machine that didn’t. But if people know this they won’t give it any money, it wouldn’t be able to pay its own way, and the same terminal result would occur.

This would therefore eventually lead to a machine which could survive in its environment, say a bus stations in t’north, which cannot be beaten very often but, more importantly, is still alluring enough to attract the scrotes (just think of bees and flowers) who push money into it like a back-street stripper’s pants, therefore turning a profit that would allow the company who own it to “propagate” through the purchase of other similar cash-generators until they’ve got themselves an army of successful machines.

I realise that this is almost a science fiction fan’s wet dream as I’ve just outlined a credible machine evolution story that ends with robots which are capable of drawing in and defeating mankind…

When I say mankind I think I really mean teenage boys.

Of the interesting science mentioned in the book there were two things that stuck out for me. One harked back to something I remember the very late Kenny Everett doing on TV when I was very, very young and probably shouldn’t have been watching anyway.

For those that aren’t old enough, or British enough, you should probably just take it for granted that Kenny Everett was one of the UK’s premiere scientists of the seventies… Yeah, that’s probably it. He’s pictured wearing a white coat and everything. What more do you want?

I’ve been unable to verify that this childhood memory actually ever happened, the entire internet has failed me, but I remember him acting on behalf of science and mankind and trying to mimic God through creating life by mixing together all the necessary chemicals in a black dustbin to get… Nothing. Because despite having everything he needed it lacked the spark of life, or the touch of God, or… You get the idea. It doesn’t seem very funny, but that’s how I remember it.

However very early in the book, that was originally published in 1976, that chemists did this very same experiment (without the bright lights of a television studio) and combined the raw materials that were thought to be present on a young Earth (water, ammonia, methane, carbon dioxide) in a flask and irradiated it with ultraviolet light and, after a few weeks, the flask was found to contain a weak brown soup made up of more complex molecules including amino acids which are the building blocks of proteins.

So that’s the complexity of life reduced to a write-up in someone’s lab notebook. Another passage I found resonance with, for completely different reasons, was relating to some study of animals or insects that I’ve obviously mentally blocked out:

In one study […] 4 per cent of males accounted for 88 per cent of all the copulations observed. In this case, and in many others, there is a large surplus of bachelor males who probably never get a chance to copulate in their whole lives. But these extra males live otherwise normal lives, and they eat up the population’s food resources no less hungrily than other adults. From a ‘good of the species’ point of view this is horribly wasteful; the extra males might be regarded as social parasites.

Right… I’ll get my coat.

The second great science bit that I found interesting was an actual example that I saw as scientific proof, not just in showing how we can inherit what appears to be altruistic behaviour but, in how we are just units programmed by our genes. The example used honey bees.

The disease foul brood attacks the honey bee grubs in their sealed wax cells. Epidemics of foul brood are stamped out when the infected grubs are removed from their cells by adult bees and thrown out of the hive. They murder their young, but for the good of the colony. The actions for doing this involve removing the wax cap from the cell before pulling them out and removing them. Research has been able to breed strains of honey bee with only a partial set of the genes required so that they may remove the wax cap to reveal the diseased grub, but in not having the gene to remove it they don’t.

On the other hand without the gene to remove the wax cap the honey bees do nothing, but yet when man steps in and scrapes it off for them they then dutifully remove their infected young.

And all of a sudden life seemed to make more sense, about how we’re all programmed to react, and how life is just a battle to pass on our precious genes to the next generation.

And then one day in the middle of the night I had to get up and, practically naked, enter my elderly Jewish neighbour’s back garden to rescue one of my hedgehogs from vulpine jaws. Despite my efforts the little thing died 24 hours later, presumably from internal injuries, but at least I prevented him being torn apart by what I claim is a rogue fox.

Once upon a time this would have really upset me. But now I just saw it as the failure of the genes in this particular hedgehog to make it through to the next generation.

Perhaps my heart has grown cold to the world.

My cold vegetarian heart.

Perhaps I’ve grown up.

Or perhaps I’ve just got old.

I was impressed with this revealing bee result, about how our genes programme us, but in effect it has made me less compassionate, as it turns out we’re all just robots hanging about bus stations in t’north.

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6 thoughts on “Two Books That Changed The Way I Think – Number 01

  1. It never hurts to think unselfishly about the future. I wish more people did.

  2. Good post, my fellow vegetarian. Now warm your heart.

  3. Oh and I am still wondering how one measures one’s Britishness. I shall be asking myself for a while if I am British enough, too British, or do have an insufficiency of Britishness.
    I look forward to your blog about it.

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