Random Thoughts

The Ironic Defeat Of Genes, Markets & Empires

It was William Hamilton’s scientific analysis that explained the altruism of worker bees and the differential cannibalism of salamander populations and formed the basis of Richard Dawkins’s popularization of the “Selfish Gene” theory. These took the evolutionary selection process deeper to the level of gene selection just as Murray Gell-Mann’s quark theory did to particle physics. In the simple unicellular organisms with haploid set of genes reproduction in its asexual form is based on mitosis. A single set of chromosomes replicates into a double set and then bifurcates concomitantly with division of the cell body to give rise to two daughter cells each with a single set of chromosomes. There is no conflict between the duplicated chromosomes as each of the two sets is destined for a future life in the two daughter cells with their passports to immortality.

Selfish Baby

In some of such organisms sexual reproduction occurs only in trying times. This diploid avatar then buckles down by developing a hard resistant exterior called a “tun” which is blown by the wind from a dried out pond to distant regions, till it lands in a water collection (pond) or till the rain comes and provides it with a suitable pond. It then proceeds to divide into two daughter cells and reverts to reproduction by asexual binary fission until adversity arrives again. In these creatures haploidy (single set of chromosomes) is the normal way of life and diploidy (double set of chromosomes) is merely a phase to combat adversity. Over time, in human beings and most multicellular organisms, the process becomes topsy turvy. The diploid phase becomes the life cycle of the organism and the single haploid stage occurs only in the germ cells, sperms in the male and ova in the female.

In the male, the division of its germ cell into two sperms is an equal opportunity phenomenon and each of the two sperms are fully capable of fertilizing an ovum to form a zygote and then a baby. The sex of the baby is determined by whether the sperm carrying an X chromosome (from the father’s mother’s genes—a baby girl) or the sperm carrying a Y chromosome ( father’s father’s Y chromosome –a baby boy) unites with a mother’s X carrying ovum and fertilizes it. No wonder, males are profligate sex maniacs willing to plant their sperm into a willing and sometimes unwilling womb, to proliferate indiscriminately, oblivious to sexually transmitted disease including the fatal AIDS.

Females are choosy and discriminating because they have to bear the burden of pregnancy and child care. As Scarlett Ohara said to Rhett Butler when he made an indecent proposal, “What’s in it for me but a passel of brats”? Things have changed a bit since abortion on demand, oral contraceptives, the morning after pill RU-486 and feminist liberation, despite the ire and bete noire of conservative Republicans. The problem runs deeper than the perverse obsession of Republicans.

Evolution’s answer to extreme selfishness is ironic. Those who are so self-centered by their genetic compliment to want to live their lives entirely for themselves often choose not to waste their time, resources and feelings on having children receive poetic justice by becoming dead ends for their genes, ideas and philosophy.

Evolution, to combat the shorter life span and more rapid reproduction of parasites forever searching for the key to entry and infestation of the bodies of multicellular organisms, invented meiosis in the germ cells (sperms and ova).

In meiosis, the diploid chromosomes (one set from the father and one set from the mother) line up in the precursor cell of the germ cells and exchange homologous segments with each other. This combinatorial strategy ensures that no two human beings except homozygotic identical twins are the same. Thus the single set of chromosomes in each sperm are a hybrid of the mother and father of the male and similarly in the ovum a hybrid of the chromosomes of the mother and father of the female. To make matters worse, the precursor of the ovum in the female divides twice into four cells of which only one becomes the ovum and the remaining three cells are destined to a dead end in the future, in the lottery for immortality.

Genes, as I emphasized earlier are selfish like rich persons, lobbyists, corporations and politicians and more so than ordinary persons. Thus they find loopholes in their desire for the limelight of being in the ovum and not end up as dead ends. Some rebellious ones do not separate out during cell division and their non-disjunction, particularly in older women, leads to an extra chromosome in the ovum resulting in a triple dose in the fertilized zygote (two from mother’s ovum and one from father’s sperm). Such abnormalities, called trisomies, are the cause of Mongolism and many premature abortions.

Rogue genes called segregation distorters, also seek preferential inclusion into the ovum. There are even assassin genes which cause the death of their twin sperm to increase their odds for fertilizing the ovum by assassinating their competition. This Hobbesian jungle warfare is countered by other genes to prevent the rogue gene from jeopardizing their welfare by handicapping or destroying the human or animal organism which is the vehicle for propagating the entire genome. Meiosis was the evolutionary defense against such assassin genes because it, by its lottery, keeps the assassin genes ignorant by double division about whether its copy is located in the other cells produced by meiotic division. Fortunately the assassin genes are not suicide bombers and unwilling to detonate at the cost of destruction of its twin which maybe in one of the other three sister cells..

All these regulatory mechanisms are not perfect. Interested readers should look up the writings and books of David Haig, Burt and Robert Trivers and Mark Ridley. The bottom line of this long tirade is that selfishness of individual genes can be detrimental to the organism as a whole, and evolution and the parliament of genes has to and does act as a regulatory body to prevent such selfishness from destroying the whole genome or the entire organism. The lesson is equally applicable to markets and the behavior of a few selfish greedy individuals who can destroy the national economy and fanatic and egotistic leaders with delusions of grandeur of empire who can destroy the entire nation.

Evolution’s answer to extreme selfishness is ironic. Those who are so self-centered by their genetic compliment to want to live their lives entirely for themselves often choose not to waste their time, resources and feelings on having children receive poetic justice by becoming dead ends for their genes, ideas and philosophy. The more they propagate their ideas and infect others with their memes and ideology, the more they succeed in bringing about the demise and extinction of their genes and ideology. The epidemic is contained by the immunity of the right thinkers with less self absorbed genes. Such is not the case with unregulated markets manipulated by the extremely selfish or the unchecked hubris and obsession with empires of the power hungry megalomaniacs. The consequences of their folly is often disproportionately borne by the innocent majority without greed, sin or hubris. Often these are the elderly or prudent savers or the young soldiers who are ruined, disabled or dead for no fault of theirs.


More by :  Gaurang Bhatt, MD

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