Your Body is a Spaceship – Your Genes are the Crew
Ponder that. Your body is merely a vessel – a temporary host to immortal beings. Their sole mission is to pass themselves on to their next host, ideally one that is stronger, fitter and better able to produce a more advanced ‘spaceship’ for their next journey… Welcome to the world of intergalactic time-travelers: your genes.
This post is the author’s interpretation of the concept of “Survival Machines” in ‘The Selfish Gene‘ by evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins, perhaps one of the greatest original thinkers still alive at the time of writing.
Think of genes as the instructions on how to run a spaceship. The ‘spaceship’ in this case encompasses not only humans but every animal and organism that ever lived. Or died. In the case of death, the instructions are lost forever. Only instructions that allow their ‘spaceship’ to stick around long enough to reproduce are carried on to the next generation.
Genes – these instructions within our body – have therefore been traveling within our previous versions of spaceships. Successful versions of course, or they would not be with us in the first place. Of course, genes would not be effective without exerting its influence on the phenotype of an individual.
That is to say, the instructions must affect their spaceship in an observable way. A change in a gene (or a group of them) must set off a series of effects leading to a change in the phenotype of the individual, which as a result is able to increase the chances of survival or reproduction. Such as a gene for sharper claws, or brighter feathers.
Do Genes Work Together?
We must understand, however, that there is no gene that single-handedly precipitates ‘sharp claws’ or ‘bright feathers’, but rather they arise as an effect of a combination of factors. That is not to say that a single gene – all other things being equal – is not able to drive sharper claws, but the relationships between genes are so complex that trying to understand the big picture through individual genes is an impossible task. Sort of like trying to explain how a spaceship is able to fly through space by analyzing each individual component separately.
But why do genes work together in the first place? Why not simply be the ‘best’ gene and hope to be consistently passed on to the next generation?
The problem lies in the situation that there is only one body carrying an abundance of genes, both ‘good’ and ‘bad’. A ‘good’ gene in the company of surrounding ‘bad’ genes that cause harm to the body might be thought of as unlucky, but if such a situation arises consistently then it cannot be considered a good gene at all, as it would never be passed on to the next generation no matter how much benefit it may provide to an individual.
There is only one way out for the entire group of genes that crew the spaceship – sperm or eggs. They are therefore forced to work together with a goal to sustain their body long enough for sexual reproduction to take place. If genes could exit for example, by being sneezed out like viruses to find another host to replicate, that is actually what they would do. It is simply the nature of genes to have this form of ‘selfishness’ embedded within them.
We hope you enjoyed this short interpretation of a key concept in evolutionary biology. If you’d like to debate or contest any point this article makes, Sean will be more than happy to engage in discussion.