Wednesday, June 15, 2005

Camping up in Desolation Sound, provincial marine park for the last week. More eagles, seals, jellyfish and oyster catchers than you could shake a stick at (if you had a stick and you wanted to shake it at a bunch of animals). Also more mosquitos.
I took one book with me- Robert Wright's "The Moral Animal, The New Science of Evolutionary Psychology"- and about halfway into it I found the following passage about William D. Hamilton's theory of kin selection, which filled me with an overwhelming and inexplicable sense of deva vu.

"Consider a young ground squirrel that has not yet produced any offspring and that, upon sighting a predator, gets up on its hind legs and delivers a loud alarm call, which may attract the predator's attention and bring sudden death. If you look at natural selection the way almost all biologists looked at it through the mid-twentieth century-a process concerned with the survival and reproduction of animals, and of their offspring-this warning call doesn't make sense. If the ground squirrel giving it has no offspring to save, then the warning call is evolutionary suicide. Right? This is the question that was momentously answered in the negative by Hamilton.
In the Hamiltonian view, attention shifts from the ground squirrel that is sounding the alarm to the gene (or, in real life, the series of genes) responsible for the alarm. After all, ground squirrels don't live forever, and neither do any other animals. The only potentially immortal organic entity is a gene (or, strictly speaking, the pattern of information encoded in the gene, since the physical gene itself will pass away after conveying the pattern through replication). So, in an evolutionary time frame, over hundreds or thousands or millions of generations, the question isn't how individual animals fare; we all know the finally grim answer to that one. The question is how individual genes fare.
...If the [ground squirrels] warning call saves the lives of four full siblings that would otherwise die, two of which carry the gene responsible for it, then the gene has done well for itself, even if the sentry containing it pays the ultimate sacrifice."

This is the sort of idea that Creationists really, really don't like. If Darwin's theory of natural selection is rock music, this is norwegian death metal.
I couldn't figure out where the sense of deja vu was coming from though, until this morning, when I suddenly remembered this entry from Gerhard Richters "The Daily Practice of Painting.":

" is 'Life' that creates the physical organisms for itself and uses them until death, in order to remain active as Life.
A terrifying - because utterly inexplicable - vision. Aliveness, Life, as an invisible, non-material Something; a monstrous Unknowable, by which we are abused."