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Selfish genetic elements? Certain
truths are rather disenchanting. We, as living organisms, never asked for such
a fate; a destiny of molecular control. And yet, such a fate is that we are
getting more and more comfortable with each day. If we are uncomfortable with
our genetic materialism, perhaps it is because it trumps the simplicity of our
former spiritual materialism? Alas, our pragmatic preoccupation with genetics
reflects our thirst for immortality, which is proportional to our disdain for
reality, evinced by our penchant for entertainment.
Burt and Trivers continue the
postmodern tradition of unraveling genetic Code: the mother of all Codes, no?
Another thread loosed from the nucleic bird's
nest of our basis. To speak in terms of interests, we can say that the 'interests'
of the Code, or more specifically 'selfish genetic elements', do not converge
at the level of the individual organism, but rather at the level of the Code
itself. Biologists, for some time now, have referred to selfish genes and
such. Burt and Trivers are careful to ensure there is no misunderstanding of
the terminology they use:
The term "selfish gene"
was first introduced as the title of a popular book by Dawkins (1976) to
capture the increasingly gene-centered view of evolution that developed during
the 20th century; he used it to refer to all genes. But genes that
affect other individuals can be cooperative, altruistic, and even spiteful,
while within individuals most genes are cooperative. Thus, in the scientific
literature "selfish gene" is now used almost exclusively to refer to
the minority of genes that spread at a cost to the organism. To be more
inclusive about the underlying molecular structure, which can range from a gene
fragment to a complete chromosome, or set of chromosomes, we prefer the more
general term "selfish genetic element" (Werren et al.1988).
Obviously, in using the term, no comment is being made on the morality of the
DNA concerned. Other authors have used "outlaw gene" (Alexander and
Borgia 1978), "ultraselfish gene" (Crow 1988) and "self-promoting
genetic element" (Hurst et al. 1996a) to denote virtually identical concepts,
and long ago Ostergren (1945) referred to B chromosomes as "parasitic."
Terminology aside, what is at stake here is the concept.
Code can act in ways so as to render the appearance of a behavior we can
anthropically call 'selfish'. Sections of Code can seek to replicate
themselves at the expense of everything else, even the body they occupy. Burt
and Trivers' text deals mainly with a review of biology we understand thus far
with regard to genetic selfishness, considered from a variety of structural and
mechanistic perspectives (molecular, cytogenetic, genetic, physiological,
behavioral, comparative, populational, evolutionary, etc.) They collect and
consider major categories of selfish Code. Despite the noted conceptual change
in usage of the term 'selfish' with regard to Dawkins' lexicon, Burt and
Trivers' work is related to the work of Dawkins as stated in The Selfish
Gene (1976)--and in the follow-up to that book, entitled The Extended
Phenotype (1982). Dawkins:
It is legitimate to speak of
adaptations as being 'for the benefit of something,' but that something is best
not seen as the individual organism. It is a smaller unit, which I call the
active germ line replicators. The most important kind of replicator is the
gene or small genetic fragment. Replicators are not, of course, selected
directly, but by proxy; they are judged by their phenotypic effects. Although
for some purposes it is convenient to think of these phenotypic effects as
being packaged together in discrete 'vehicles' such as individual organisms,
this is not fundamentally necessary. Rather, the replicator should be thought
of as having extended phenotypic effects, consisting of all its effects on the
world at large, not just its effects on the individual body in which it happens
to be sitting (Richard Dawkins, The Extended Phenotype, Oxford; Oxford
UP (1999), p. 4)
So where Dawkins' general theory is focused upon selective pressures,
the evolution of organisms, and a "gene's eye point of view," vis-à-vis
Code within and as vehicular bodies, all considered from a rather philosophical
point of view, Burt and Trivers' general review is more of a technical
rendering, which systematically considers circumstances wherein genetic
elements conflict intragenomically, and then 'selfishly' act to transmit
themselves, often spreading with detriment to the organism.
Burt and Trivers' treatise confronts us with a
myriad of genetic elements that fall into the category of 'selfish.' For
example, the 't haplotype' in mice "disables sperm not containing
it and thus gains an advantage (drives) in single inseminations of
females" (p. 19).Another example
is within the species Saccharomyces cerevisae (baker's yeast), wherein certain
mutant 'petite' strains can derive from mutant mitochondria showing selfish
drive (transmission greater than 50%) (p. 147). And potentially most
interesting are the 'transposable elements, ' the most common selfish genetic
material, which act as 'mobile DNA, ' "integrating themselves into novel
places in the genome," whereas other genetic elements generally compete
for a single location in a genome (p. 228). Transposable elements are even "capable
of moving between species."
One of the most interesting insights to be derived
from all of this is that "from an evolutionary perspective, these elements
are to a degree their own independent life forms, sometimes even with their own
distinct evolutionary histories, always with genetic interests that diverge
from those of the rest of the organism" (p. 475). Subsequently, we are
then faced with the idea that life's individual and substantial realities,
however 'real' they may seem, resist cohesion internally. In other words, "the
unity of the organism is an approximation" (p. 475). When the technical
and philosophical unity of the organism is in serious question, and at best an "approximation,"
perhaps we are then in a position to consider the reality of life's fate, which
seems rather simply, to evolve, rather than maintain a universally stable form.
The naturally selective process we associate with organisms competing within an
environment also exerts pressure within the individual on the order of the Code
itself: genetic material competing in living bodies.
Burt and Trivers' Genes in Conflict is an
important contribution to biology and to the humanities: for biology, because
it collects and represents a comprehensive source of information on the
developing understanding of selfish Code; for the humanities, because it
forces a reconceptualization of what all of 'life' is, and then perhaps, what
it might become.
© 2006 Nicholas Ruiz III
Nicholas Ruiz III was born in
New York City and is a doctoral candidate in the Interdisciplinary Program in
the Humanities at Florida State University. His work has appeared in Noema
Tecnologie e Società, Rhizomes.net, Media/Culture.org.au,
International Journal of Baudrillard Studies, Reconstruction,
Resistance and elsewhere. He is also the editor of Kritikos.