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Genes in ConflictReview - Genes in Conflict
The Biology of Selfish Genetic Elements
by Austin Burt and Robert Trivers
Harvard University Press, 2006
Review by Nicholas Ruiz III
Jun 27th 2006 (Volume 10, Issue 26)

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." (p. 16)

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,, Media/, The International Journal of Baudrillard Studies, Reconstruction, Public Resistance and elsewhere.  He is also the editor of Kritikos.


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