I tried reading this book once before and gave up. I found it too heavy, although intriguing. When I visited Landmark couple of weeks back, I found a revised edition which was priced rather low. I could not resist the temptation to buy it.
The cover of the book reads “The million copy international best seller” and it does live up to it’s reputation in sections. Dawkins claims that Genes are the basic unit of survival and all living beings (including us) are the survival machines for the genes. Genes control and manipulate the survival machines (all animals, plants, insects, bacteria et al) to maximize their chances of survival and growth. The only aim of these genes is to multiply and they do it at all cost. They are completely and ruthlessly selfish.
He gives some chilling examples in nature of this selfishness. Did you know that a cuckoo lays its eggs in the nest of another bird and thus escapes the responsibility for caring for the chicks? The baby Cuckoo hatches earlier than the other eggs and pushes them down. This ensures that he gets all the food from the unwitting foster mother. There are more such examples. It makes you wonder if the words we use to describe nature such as divine and motherly is just wistful thinking on our part.
Dawkins goes on to prove that even altruistic behavior exhibited in nature, like the worker bees and animals warning the herd of the prey with a cry and thus making them more prone to attack also serves very selfish ends. I found the logic rather farfetched in some chapters.
There are two chapters in the book which are absolutely amazing and makes the whole book definitely worth reading. I liked one because it was radically original and the other because of its conclusion. I am going talk about the latter in this post because it is directly linked to my previous post – The Prisoner’s Dilemma. We concluded that although the best possible option for the prisoners is to cooperate they always tend to defect because they have no way of communicating their intention to the partner. Below is the illustration of the Prisoner’s Dilemma in a Matrix format.
We can assume that the genes are no different from the prisoners here; completely selfish and looking to maximize their returns. One scientist called Axelrod had an interesting idea. He advertised for experts in Game theory to submit strategies for an Iterated Prisoner’s Dilemma game. He got 15 entries and made each strategy compete against the other (Totally 255 separate games were played). Wonders of Wonders! The winning strategy was simplest and superficially the least ingenious of all.
It was called Tit for Tat. It started with ‘Cooperate’ move and thereafter copied the opponent’s move. The book analyzes how and why this strategy won, in spite of more intelligent, nastier and selfish strategies being played. A strategy such as Tit for Tat was categorized as ‘nice’ by Axelrod due to the following reasons.
1) It is never first to defect
2) It is forgiving. Although it may retaliate immediately, it has only short term memory. It does not remember the defection for ever.
3) It is not envious. It does not bother about whether others are making more points. It just continues to cooperate as long as it’s opponents do. You can see, Tit – for-tat can never make more than its opponent in any one game because it is never the first to defect.
Axelrod found, what ever be the combination of strategies, in the long run, ‘nice’ strategies won. In his tournament all but one of the top 15 strategies were ‘nice’ and all but one of the bottom 15 strategies were ‘Nasty’.
This must be the ultimate irony. In spite of the ruthless selfishness of the genes, in the long run only the good ones survive. And Dawkins has aptly titled the chapter “Nice guys finish first”.