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The Selfish Gene

I just read The Selfish Gene by Richard Dawkins.  I’ve never read this book before, although I’ve certainly heard of it.  A few weeks ago, I read How the Mind Works by Steven Pinker.  One of his sources was The Selfish Gene.  It had the reputation of being a radical and perhaps illogical scientific work.  I decided to find out for myself.

Charles Darwin searched for the mechanism of evolution, and told us that natural selection was it.  He also told us that perfection of design in natural organisms was the result of millions of years of evolution by natural selection.

Richard Dawkins extends this idea by telling us that genes are the actual subjects of natural selection, not individuals or species.  He also tells us that genes are the real designers of natural organisms.  Their purpose is always to benefit themselves by designing better organisms.  They are naturally selfish.

Dawkins has two main arguments.  The first is to convince us that genes are more important in evolution than individuals or species.  Of course, anything that is the subject of natural selection, and that is refined over many generations of organisms, has to be selfish.  There’s no other way for such an entity to survive in evolution.

His other argument is to explain to us how apparently unselfish behavior by organisms will still benefit the genes.  Some animals invest a great deal of time and effort in caring for their children, for example.  Children are the next generation, carrying the genes that need to survive into the future.  It’s a good strategy for parents to care for them.

Dawkin’s book was not at all what I expected.  His arguments are compelling.  I’m convinced that genes are indeed the units of evolution.  I’m also convinced that we humans are not controlled by our genes, not at the mercy of them.  All that genes can do is to design our bodies and minds, and to regulate our development in the embryo.  Our genes also give us conciousness, a mind that can think for itself, and the ability to behave in any way that seems reasonable to us.  We take responsibility for our own actions.  Our genes created us and designed us, but left us free to make our own choices.

 

Also Perfection

Last week I published a blog called Perfection is an Illusion.  It dealt with perfection of design during evolution.  I only realized afterwards that the title could equally well apply to being a perfectionist.  Some people do strive for perfection.  They seem to believe that the world will change when they achieve perfection.  When they reach it, people will admire them, people will celebrate their achievement, people will finally apprectiate them.

Just before I retired, I attended a presentation by a psychologist who specialized in perfectionism.  Perhaps you call tell from the suffix?  Perfectionism is an ideology just like communism and capitalism are ideologies.  Its a system based on a single idea.  He gave us many stories during this presentation, all taken from autobiographies.  One that was particularly striking to me was about a top-tier ballet dancer who said that she never enjoyed dancing.  No matter how well she was dancing, she always believed that she could do better.  His message was that by striving for perfection, you could waste your life chasing a dream or an illusion.

This was of great interest to me because I knew I had many characteristics of a perfectionist.  Perhaps I really was one.  My job at the time was software development, a job that I found to be very rewarding.  The typical phases were design, construction, and testing.  I did strive for excellence in the product.  However, one of my favorite sayings was:  “sometimes adequate is the best we can do”.  By that I meant that software developers typically work on many projects at the same time, and that completing these projects was more important than making them perfect.  Each one only had to be adequate in design before being released.

Striving for perfection may be a sign of false beliefs.  You have to realize that you are admired for your many positive qualities already.  Do not other people think of you as reliable, honest, considerate, consistent, and punctual?  You might have to ask them to find out what they think.  At least, don’t rely on your own idea of what they think.

People who are perfectionists have a powerful need for validation by other people.  This is a normal need.  It’s something we all have.  You may have to find your own validation instead of imagining what others think of you.  Do you find that you are highly critical of yourself and others?  Perhaps you also believe that others are just as critical of you?  That’s probably not true.  Perfectionism is an extreme.  Extremes of any sort are not good.  The opposite of perfectionism is another extreme, also not a good thing, and nothing to admire.  You need to find a balance between extremes, one that allows you to enjoy life at the same time.

 

Perfection is an Illusion

The Reverend William Paley published a very influential book called Natural Theology in the early 1800s.  In this book, he made three primary points.  The first was that the presence of a designer is obvious to all of us.  In a famous illustration, he described finding a pocket watch lying on the ground.  From its intricate design, it was clear that the watch was not a natural object like a stone, but that it must have had a designer.

He also told us that animals and parts of animals, a grasshoppers leg for example, were perfectly designed for what they had to do, and that the designer was God.  He described how birds mate and care for their eggs and chicks, not because they anticipate the outcome of this behavior, but out of pleasure and love.  These sensations and emotions also were part of God’s design.

This was the only conclusion he could reach at the time, and the only conclusion that his readers could reach also.  No other phenomenon could achieve perfection of design in wild creatures.  God was the designer.

Charles Darwin, the author of On the Origin of Species and The Descent of Man, written in the mid to late 1800s, also searched for the cause of this apparent perfection.  Contrary to popular opinion, he didn’t discover evolution.  He discovered something more important, the mechanism of evolution, which he called Natural Selection.  Operating over millions of years, with this mechanism, evolution could be the designer.  Through the accumulation of changes, a wild creature could become adapted to its role in life, achieving apparent perfection.  Sometimes the perfection can be uncanny.  Darwin wasn’t alone in this discovery.  Alfred Russell Wallace also discovered natural selection around the same time.

In the late 1900s, Stephen Jay Gould, a prolific author and relentless researcher, told us that natural designs were not perfect after all.  They are excellent, but they are only perfect if you ignore the imperfections.  Natural designs often contain features that the creature has inherited from its evolutionary ancestors.  In fact, they often provide further evidence of how the creature has evolved, or evidence of features that adaptation cannot change.

Still, evolution is the cause of apparent perfection in design.  Paley was right in some instances.  Sensations and emotions are certainly part of the design.  It’s not just physical.  Paley was wrong in naming the designer as God.  We know now that millions of years of evolution can be the designer all by itself.

 

Dance Instruction

I have a dance lesson every week with my instructor K.  She is excellent.  I tell people that whenever I get the chance.  Still, I didn’t realize how good she was until I invited Y to join us for a lesson.  She is a friend and occasional dance partner.  Y wanted to learn a new pattern in tango.  We had been trying it together, but we were never successful.  I mostly observed, but danced with K or Y from time to time.

Y explained what she needed in order to learn the pattern, and also explained how she learned something new.  K understood perfectly, and made it clear that she understood.  I watched this dialogue with amazement.

At each stage of the pattern, Y asked for what she needed.  K obliged, again at each stage of the pattern, until Y could do it perfectly.  Then she said to try it with me.  I went through the same pattern with Y.  Of course, we had trouble at some points.  My lead was wrong sometimes.  My timing was wrong sometimes too.  K told me what I was doing wrong, and made sure that I corrected it.  We both learned.  Pretty soon, we were doing the new pattern perfectly.

I was impressed with my instructor K, with how she was able to adapt her teaching methods to a person who learned differently from the way I did.  I was equally impressed with my friend Y, how she was able to express exactly what she needed.  I know I’d find it difficult to do what seemed to come easily to them.

 

Milk Wars

The US president and the Canadian prime minister are clashing over milk markets in their respective countries.  Are we at war, at least a trade war?  It certainly sounds like it.  It’s more likely just preliminary moves to subsequent negotiations.

There really is a problem, the same problem that plagues many agricultural products.  It’s a problem of too much competition that appears in any market where there are many small producers of identical products.  Economists call this situation perfect competition.

There are four possible solutions to this problem, none of them good solutions.  A free market is the ideal solution, but in that type of market, the producers can’t make a living because prices are too low.  Farmers cry out for help.  Governments answer with subsidies for the producers.  With subsidies, producers can make a living, but they tend to over-produce, flooding the market and driving prices down further.  Another solution is for governments to purchase the surplus product, thus keeping the prices up.  The trouble with that solution is that governments have to keep the surplus product permanently off the market, usually by destroying it.  Nobody likes to see good food being destroyed.  Supply management is yet another solution.  In this regime, producers restrict their production, thus keeping prices up.  Governments have to prevent imports that would otherwise drive the price down.  Producers can make a living, but consumers have to suffer because of higher prices.  As I said, none of these solutions are perfect.

The other factor is recent changes in the milk marketplace.  Large companies have entered the market, using their size to out-compete small dairy farms.  Some of the large companies are producers themselves, but others are processors or distributors.  The result is that small farms have been driven out of the market, especially when there is no restriction on competition from large companies.  In this article, small dairy farmers in Wisconsin are complaining about the condition of the milk market in their state.  The market has also shifted.  Consumers have been increasing their purchases of butter lately, leaving a surplus of skimmed milk that they don’t want.

Behind all the accusations that have been thrown about, there are some indications of what various groups really want.  US milk producers are plagued with an over-supply of milk, with consequent low prices.  They want to export their surplus product, so that prices can rise again.  Canada looks like an ideal place to sell this product.  Republican politicians, on the other hand, want to end the firm control that the Canadian government has over the milk market in Canada.  They also want to end Canadian protection of the milk producers.

Canada, of course, is a sovereign country.  We can have our own system of control over agricultural markets.  It doesn’t have to be the same as the American system.  We are not obliged to accept exports from the US.  We do, however, need to negotiate trade agreements with other countries, including our neighbor the United States.  With fair negotiations, both countries will benefit from from such agreements.

 

No Competition

All I needed was a sponge, just a plain sponge, for mopping up in the kitchen.  I looked in three local stores.  They had plenty, but all of them had a scouring pad attached.  I wanted a plain one, without the scouring pad.  They didn’t have any.  I didn’t even see a place in the display where they used to have them.  Most of what they did have had the same brand name.  The others were house-branded copies.  Am I the only one looking for a plain sponge?  What do other people use these days?  I finally found a plain sponge on a shopping web site.  As I expected, it was inexpensive.  Is it the local stores that don’t stock plain sponges anymore?

Maybe it’s the result of market domination by one company?  Maybe there are a few large companies in the sponge market.  Companies seem to buy up other companies these days as a way to control the market.

Maybe it’s the result of false competition?  Companies own many brand names these days and advertize them heavily.  This practice creates the illusion of competition where there is none.  All of the brands are owned by the same company.  Maybe there are several companies in a market, but they match their products, and sell them at the same price?

What is it about competition that makes it so important?  Companies generally don’t want competition.  It restrains their profit by keeping prices down.  It prevents their participation in international markets, where they might have to meet foreign companies head on.  Consumers do want competition.  It keeps prices down.  It stimulates innovation.  It ensures product variety.  Consumers should be in the majority, outnumbering business owners and investors by a wide margin.  They should be able to carry any vote.  As well, government agencies ensure competition by regulating corporations.  Such regulation is called unnecessary by some people and some political parties.  Is it really unnecessary?

The American dream promotes the idea of becoming successful through your own efforts.  Lately, though, the meaning of success has been redefined.  Now it means making lots of money by eliminating competition.  Likewise, deregulation has become a way to remove government constraints on business.  Competition agencies are under threat.

We need these government agencies.  They are necessary to protect consumers.  They represent consumers and advocate for them.  Without these agencies, consumers will be at the mercy of companies.  Of course, companies are not vindictive.  They are not benevolent either.  They are simply in business to make money.  Evading competition is one way to accomplish this.

 

What The Walker Saw

If you are looking for “What the butler saw”, you’ve come to the wrong place.  This article is about what I saw when I went on my second walk of the spring.  It was a beautiful day.  Most of the snow had melted.  It was warm.  The wind was calm.  Blue skies and sunshine invited me to get outside.

Unlike last week, the sidewalks were mostly clear and mostly dry.  Ice and snow were gone.  Puddles were gone too.  I was carefree in my walk.  I had time to look around.

I saw piles of gravel on the boulevard, left behind by snowplows clearing the streets.  Here and there, I saw chunks of concrete.  These must have come from curbs torn up by snowplows, but I didn’t notice any damage to curbs.  There must be some, though.  The chunks of concrete must have come from someplace.

I assume that the city will clean up the gravel piles and chunks of concrete on the boulevard.  They’ll do it as part of their spring cleanup of city streets.  The snowplow contractors will be responsible for any damage to curbs; they’ll eventually be repairing the damage.

I did see one place where the sidewalk plow missed the sidewalk and plowed through a lawn instead.  Now that the snow has melted, the sidewalk is covered with sod and still wet.  I don’t know what the city will do to correct that mistake.  They only missed one small piece of sidewalk, though.  Most of the sidewalks were nicely done.

Still, it was a pleasant walk.  I went further than I had intended.  By and large, the city and the contractors did a good job of snow clearing.  Even though I noticed a few faults, I’d still like to congratulate them on their efforts this winter.