Derek Sivers

River Out of Eden - by Richard Dawkins

River Out of Eden - by Richard Dawkins

ISBN: 1857994051
Date read: 2022-01-24
How strongly I recommend it: 6/10
(See my list of 320+ books, for more.)

Go to the Amazon page for details and reviews.

Biologist describes how evolution works, everything maximized for the gene’s survival. Includes related insights and analogies. I like his writing style.

my notes

Paternal genes and maternal genes do not blend; they recombine independently. A given gene in you came either from your mother or your father. It also came from one, and only one, of your four grandparents.

When you plead with your lover over the telephone, every nuance, every catch in the voice, every passionate sigh and yearning timbre is carried along the wire solely in the form of numbers. You can be moved to tears by numbers - provided they are encoded and decoded fast enough.

Up until 1953, with the discovery of DNA, it was still possible to believe that living material is deeply distinct from nonliving material.

DNA characters are copied with an accuracy that rivals anything modern engineers can do.

Every cell in your body contains the equivalent of 46 immense data tapes, reeling off digital characters via numerous reading heads working simultaneously. In every cell, these tapes - the chromosomes - contain the same information, but the reading heads in different kinds of cells seek out different parts of the database for their own specialist purposes. That is why muscle cells are different from liver cells. There is no spirit-driven life force, no throbbing, heaving, pullulating, protoplasmic, mystic jelly. Life is just bytes and bytes and bytes of digital information. Genes are pure information - information that can be encoded, recoded and decoded, without any degradation or change of meaning. All the different types of cells contain the genetic instructions needed to make any of the types. Only the genes appropriate to the tissue concerned are switched on.

Cells are programmed, by the genes switched on inside them, to behave as if they know where they are in relation to their neighboring cells, which is how they build their tissues up into the shape of ear lobes and heart valves, eye lenses and various muscles.

From the gene’s perspective, there is only the long-term outlook of the river of DNA flowing down through the generations, only temporarily housed in particular bodies, only temporarily sharing a body with companion genes.

We are all distant cousins of the Queen, and of everybody else, in more ways than can ever be traced. The only thing special about royalty and aristocrats is that they can do the tracing explicitly.

We get our mitochondria from our mother only. Sperms are too small to contain more than a few mitochondria.

Some Africans are more distantly related to other Africans than to anybody in the whole of the rest of the world.
The whole of the rest of the world form one relatively close group of cousins.

The rule of thumb a turkey mother uses to recognize nest robbers is a dismayingly brusque one: In the vicinity of your nest, attack anything that moves, unless it makes a noise like a baby turkey. A mother turkey that savagely killed all her own babies. The reason was woefully simple: she was deaf.

Nilsson and Pelger’s computer model: the time taken to evolve a fish eye from flat skin was fewer than four hundred thousand generations. At one generation per year, that it would take less than half a million years to evolve a good camera eye.
No wonder “the” eye has evolved at least forty times independently around the animal kingdom.

Miracle is simply a synonym for the total absence of explanation.

Nature is not cruel, only pitilessly indifferent.

Humans have purpose on the brain. We find it hard to look at anything without wondering what it is “for,” what the motive for it is, or the purpose behind it.

The mere fact that it is possible to frame a question does not make it legitimate or sensible to do so.
There are many things about which you can ask, “What is its temperature?” or “What color is it?” but you may not ask the temperature question or the color question of, say, jealousy or prayer.
Don’t assume that the “Why” question deserves an answer when posed about a boulder, a misfortune, Mt. Everest or the universe.
Questions can be simply inappropriate, however heartfelt their framing.

The true utility function of life, that which is being maximized in the natural world, is DNA survival.

The reproductive cake that must be divided among all males is equal to the cake that must be divided among all females.
Therefore if there are, say, more males than females in the population, the average slice of cake per male must be smaller than the average slice of cake per female.
It follows that the average reproductive success (that is, the expected number of descendants) of a male compared with the average reproductive success of a female is solely determined by the male-female ratio.
An average member of the minority sex has a greater reproductive success than an average member of the majority sex.
If you were trying to maximize the number of your grandchildren, should you have a son or a daughter?
We have already seen that you should have a child of whichever sex is in the minority in the population. That way, your child can expect a relatively large share of reproductive activity and you can expect a relatively large number of grandchildren.

The wastefulness of the harem economy: Males, instead of devoting themselves to useful work, squander their energy and strength in futile struggles against one another.

Maximized in every cranny of the living world is, in every case, the survival of the DNA responsible for the feature you are trying to explain.
It all makes sense once you understand the true utility function - genes are maximizing their own survival.

Humans have a rather endearing tendency to assume that welfare means group welfare, that “good” means the good of society, the future well-being of the species or even of the ecosystem.
But group welfare is always a fortuitous consequence, not a primary drive. This is the meaning of “the selfish gene.”

(story) : Henry Ford commissioned a survey of the car scrapyards of America to find out if there were parts of the Model T Ford which never failed. His inspectors came back with reports of almost every kind of breakdown: axles, brakes, pistons - all were liable to go wrong. But they drew attention to one notable exception, the kingpins of the scrapped cars invariably had years of life left in them. With ruthless logic Ford concluded that the kingpins on the Model T were too good for their job and ordered that in future they should be made to an inferior specification.
Ford’s alleged ruthlessness was, indeed, entirely logical. The alternative would have been to improve all the other bits of the car to bring them up to the standard of the kingpins.
Either the whole car is built to Rolls Royce specifications or the whole car is built to Model T specifications. If you make a hybrid car, with some components of Model T quality and some components of Rolls Royce quality, you are getting the worst of both worlds, for the car will be thrown away when the weakest of its components wears out, and the money spent on high-quality components that never get time to wear out is simply wasted.

Many insects impose a rigid separation between radically different stages in their life history. Caterpillars are devoted to gathering food and growing. Butterflies are like the flowers they visit, devoted to reproducing. They do not grow, and they suck nectar only to burn it immediately as aviation fuel.

Everybody is descended from an unbroken line of ancestors all of whom were at some time in their lives young but many of whom were never old.
So we inherit whatever it takes to be young, but not necessarily whatever it takes to be old.

The universe we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil and no good, nothing but blind, pitiless indifference.

The means used by DNA sequences to get themselves replicated are bewilderingly variable.
They include building more efficient hearts for hippos, springier legs for fleas, aerodynamically more streamlined wings for swifts, more buoyant swim bladders for fish.
All the organs and limbs of animals; the roots, leaves and flowers of plants; all eyes and brains and minds, and even fears and hopes, are the tools by which successful DNA sequences lever themselves into the future.