The Genomic Contract

The concept of the social contract (or compact, as some prefer), developed by such political philosophers as John Locke and Jean-Jacques Rousseau, heavily influenced the Founders. It describes a society as the result of a kind of unwritten contract among its adult members to cooperate and not prey on one another, who pool their powers and jointly decide to delegate some of those powers to agents who function as a government.

In 1976 Richard Dawkins wrote The Selfish Gene, in which he developed the concept that the fundamental unit selected for fitness in biological evolution is not the individual but the gene, and that it is a success strategy for genes to have their organisms sacrifice themselves to insure the survival not just of their own progeny, but of the genes they share with their relatives. This view of genetic evolution explains the advantage of individuals uniting in societies, because it is the society, more than the individual, that enables the survival of the genes shared by its members.

If we carry forward this gene-centric model of evolution, however, we see that it is not really "the gene" that is the fundamental unit. Genes mutate, and the mutations, if they make the organism more fit, tend to survive and yield "progeny" that are descended from them, but not the same. So it makes more sense to describe the fundamental unit not as a gene but as a genetic line of descent.

However, genes do not survive or propagate in isolation, any more than individual organisms do. It therefore makes sense to describe a genome as a kind of society of genes, united by a kind of contract, analogous to the social contract, which we may call the genomic contract. As a society, instances of genes cooperate to propagate the survival of a few copies of themselves, or mutated descendants. In multicellular organisms, especially those that reproduce sexually, most cells are nonreproductive and do not act to insure the survival of direct copies of their own genes, but the genes of cells differentiated to function as reproductive cells, in much the way that social species of organisms do.

Looking at genomes as societies of genes united by a genomic contract is not just a philosophic exercise. It can help us understand how genes are organized into genomes, how they adopt specialized roles, how they sacrifice themselves for the benefit of others, and even how they make collective "decisions". We may even be able to identify persistent transactions among them. We may be able to apply variations on economic, political, and anthropological models to help us understand them. We can speak of games with genes as players, and apply the methods of game theory.

This is only an introduction to the use of this concept. It is hoped that others will pick up on it and develop it further.


Fertraz said...

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Fernando de Trazegnies
Catholic University of Peru

Publius said...

.. and that it is a success strategy for genes to have their organisms sacrifice themselves to insure the survival not just of their own progeny, but of the genes they share with their relatives.

.... instances of genes cooperate to propagate the survival of a few copies of themselves, or mutated descendants.

... how they sacrifice themselves for the benefit of others..


All this altruism at such a site. So let's see now, genes become bleeding heart liberals and want to sacrifice their hosts?

Helping out the poor as a way giving to others and telling me to do the same? You help out the poor because YOU get something more out of it that what you give. A feeling of superiority, a feeling of smugness, a feeling of feeling good. Show me a person who shouts "help your brother, and think not of yourself" ...you know, "sacrifice", and I will show you the most self centered person of the group.

My point is that self centeredness is the way the society has survived. NOBODY sacrifices himself for the benefit of others that exceeds the total benefit to himself as perceived by himself. While others may benefit too, the "organism" doing the sacrificing is getting something more out of the bargain than he is giving up. Indeed this is what makes trade possible. Each party gets the "better" end of the deal ...from HIS self interested perspective, and as a result there is a net positive result. Both parties get more than (in their minds) they gave away.

So for me to step in front of a speeding train to save my kids, is not sacrifice. I do it cause I get something more out of it than what I give up.

Ya think Oprah, builds orphanages in Africa cause it helps out kids? Nope me thinks not. Do ya figure that deep down it is because her "feel good benefit" outweighs the "feel bad" loss of the money to her? It makes her feel good one could reasonably surmise. Just think of it this way if it was all about sacrifice then she should give more, however, it is NOT about sacrifice (nor should it be) and at some point giving more and more money she would feel not so good. If it is because it helps out kids, then surely all of her money would be better for those kids than her keeping it. Thus, it isn't motivated by helping out the kids it is motivated by wanting to feel good - Self Interest.

Tiffany said...

I was googling 'unwritten contract' and came across your article.

The first time I came across the idea of the social contract I was deeply shocked. I'd read Edmund Burke 'Society is indeed a contract...'.

I'd been a disillusioned young adult and thought that by ignoring everything I was not responsible. Then I tried to be responsible 'just for me'... so it came as a bit of a shock to hear what other people were thinking...

It changed my life.

I immediately saw how short-sighted and one dimentional I had been and have been mending my ways since my 'discovery'.

I have read about the idea of order at atomic levels (Bentov's Stalking the Wild Pendulum was the first I'd read) and if the microcosm does reflect the macrocosm, then - there is some hope for the chaos we see around us.

Your article is interesting and adds a little spice to the sociologists theories of micro-macro theory I've been looking into.

Publius -

I suggest you read Peter Singer's 'Ethics in the age of self interest'.

Self Interest includes grouping together for the benefit of the self (like herds of deer or schools of fish), of taking care of the environment (so the self doesn't get lung cancer), for owning a pet (so you lower your blood pressure) - the new idea of 'self interest' is to be interested in others, and responsible - because then you will benefit by feeling happier and useful to your society. Have a look at healthy, happy societies - if you want that for yourself, then that's the way you need to live. Most of them are communal societies, based on love and respect.

Self interest is selfish and rewarding for all if you follow it through.

YOu may understand this theoretically, but your attacking, disillusioned attitude shows you don't love society. You see 'selfish' as a negative - when, actually, I think its just a fact of life.

Love, by the way, also is one of the things that makes you feel happier... so if you are more selfish, you could love a bit more... ?


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