River Out of Eden: A Darwinian View of Life by Richard Dawkins

  1. “The universe has created an ability to self-replicate using the surrounding materials to make exact copies of itself, including replicas of such minor flaws in copying as may occasionally arise. What follows is what we call life. Never were so many facts explained by so few assumptions. Not only does Darwinian Theory command superabundant power to explain. Its economy in doing so has a sinewy elegance, a poetic beauty that outclasses even the most haunting of the world’s origin myths. One of my purposes in writing this book has been to accord due recognition to the inspirational quality of our modern understanding of Darwinian life. There is more poetry in Mitochondrial Eve than in her mythological namesake…Another of my purposes is to convince my readers that “ways of making a living” is synonymous with “ways of passing DNA-coded texts on to the future.” My “river” is a river of DNA, flowing and branching through geological time, and the metaphor of steep banks confining each species’ genetic games turns out to be a surprisingly powerful and helpful explanatory device.”
Key Takeaways
  1. The river = a river of information through time, DNA
  2. It is obvious but not a single of our ancestors died in infancy as they were able to pass along genes that helped them survive. We all inherit all our genes from an unbroken line of successful ancestors. The world becomes full of organism that have what it takes to become ancestors
  3. Genes do not improve in using, they are just passed on, unchanged except for very rare random errors. It is not success that makes good genes. It is good genes that make success, and nothing an individual does during its lifetime has any effect whatever upon its genes.
  4. Genes can buy their way through the sieve, not only by assisting their own body to become an ancestor but by assisting the body of a relation to become an ancestor
  5. To be good at surviving, a gene must be good at working together with the other genes in the same species – the same river. To survive in the long run, a gene must be a good companion. It must do well in the company of, or against the background of, the other genes in the same river. Genes of another species are in a different river. They do not have to get on well together – not in the same sense, anyway – for they do not have to share the same bodies
    1. A biological reasoning and example as to why cooperation is the highest form of competition
  6. Bauplan = blueprint, or a fundamental body plan (Dawkins argues against this as it can lead to errors in thinking as changes in species are subtle)
  7. Genes as digital information
    1. Pulse Code Modulation – The transmission of genes is well-nigh perfect even if the transmission along the line is poor. The discrete levels are set far enough apart so that random fluctuations can never be misinterpreted by the receiving instrument as the wrong level. This is the great virtue of digital codes, and it is why audio and video systems – and information technology generally – are increasingly going digital…After Watson and Crick, we know that genes themselves, within their minute internal structure, are long strings of pure digital information. What is more, they are truly digital, in the full and strong sense of computers and compact disks, not in the weak sense of the nervous system. The genetic code is not a binary code as in computers, nor an eight-level code as in some phone systems, but a quaternary code, with four symbols. The machine code of the genes is uncannily computer like…Up until 1953 it was still possible to believe that there was something fundamentally and irreducibly mysterious in living protoplasm. No longer
    2. Genes are pure information – information that can be encoded, recoded and decoded, without any degradation or change of meaning. Pure information can be copied and, since it is digital information, the fidelity of the copying can be immense. DNA characters are copied with an accuracy that rivals anything modern engineers can do. They are copied down generations, with just enough occasional errors to introduce variety. Among this variety, those coded combinations that become more numerous in the world will obviously and automatically be the ones that, when decoded and obeyed inside bodies, make those bodies take active steps to preserve and propagate those same DNA messages. We – and that means all living things – are survival machines programmed to propagate the digital database that did the programming. Darwinism is now seen to be the survival of the survivors at the level of pure, digital code.
    3. DNA, seen in this light, becomes tempting to liken to a family Bible
  8. Mitochondria ideal for dating common ancestry within a species because, besides mutations, they’re identical and come from one common mother
  9. Supernormal stimulus – a stimulus even more effective than the real thing
  10. Eyes have evolved in different species and in different ways dozens of times. Dragonflies see completely differently than humans
  11. Sphexish – Hofstadter’s word for inflexible, mindless behavior
  12. Do good by stealth – a key feature of evolution is its gradualness
  13. Nature is not cruel, only pitilessly indifferent. We humans have purpose on the brain. We find it hard to look at anything without wondering what it is “for, what the motive for it is, or the purpose behind it. When the obsession with purpose becomes pathological it is called paranoia – reading malevolent purpose into what is actually random bad luck. But this is just an exaggerated form of a nearly universal delusion. Show us almost any object or process, and it is hard for us to resist the “why” question – the “what is it for?” question. Beware this “purpose fallacy” – the “as if designed” assumption.
  14. Utility function – maximize happiness for the greatest number. In nature, DNA survival is being maximized, not happiness. God’s Utility Function seldom turns out to be the greatest good for the greatest number. God’s Utility Function betrays its origins in an uncoordinated scramble for selfish gain. Group welfare is always a fortuitous consequence, not a primary drive. That is the meaning of the “selfish gene.”
  15. Henry Ford illuminated on this Utility Function when it is reported that Ford once “commissioned a survey of the car scrapyards of America to find out if there were parts of the Model T which never failed. His inspectors came back with reports of almost every kind of breakdown: ales, brakes, pistons – all were liable to go wrong. But they drew attention to one notable exception, the kingpins of the scraped cars invariably had years of life left in them. With ruthless logic Ford concluded that the kingpins on the Model T were too good for their job and ordered that in the future they should be made to an inferior specification.” This may seem counterintuitive in some respects but in nature, as in cars, it is possible for a component of an animal to be too good, and we should expect natural selection to favor a lessening of quality up to, but not beyond, a point of balance with the quality of the other components of the body. More precisely, natural selection will favor a leveling out of quality in both the downward and upward directions, until a proper balance is struck over all parts of the body.
  16. In nature, often come across physiological changes with changes in hierarchy. Female blue-headed wrasse quickly become a bright-colored male if his place needs to be taken once he dies
  17. Information Bomb – there is another type of explosion a star can sustain. Instead of “going supernova” it “goes information.” The explosion begins more slowly than a supernova and takes incomparably longer to build up. We can call it an information bomb or, a replication bomb, or life. We humans are an extremely important manifestation of the replication bomb, because it is through us – through our brains, our symbolic culture and our technology – that the explosion may proceed to the next stage and reverberate through deep space. The triggering event of a replication bomb is the spontaneous arising of self-replicating yet variable entities. The reason self-replication is a potentially explosive phenomenon is the same as for any explosion: exponential growth. The more you have, the more you get
  18. Success is simply synonymous with frequency in circulation
  19. Language is the networking system by which brains exchange information with sufficient intimacy to allow the development of a cooperative technology. Cooperative technology, beginning with the imitative development of stone tools and proceeding through the ages of metal-smelting, wheeled vehicles, steam power and now electronics, has many of the attributes of an explosion in its own right, and its initiation therefore deserves a title, the Cooperative Technology Threshold. Indeed, it is possible that human culture has fostered a genuinely new replication bomb, with a new kind of self-replicating entity – the meme, as I have called it in The Selfish Gene – proliferating and Darwinizing in a river of culture.
What I got out of it
  1. The analogy of DNA as pure, digital information is helpful as is the idea of information bombs