Non-Fiction Reviews


Selfish Genes to Social Beings

A cooperative history of life

(2024) Jonathan Silvertown, Oxford University Press, 20, hrdbk, xi + 220pp, ISBN 978-0-198-87639-7

 

I don't mean to be querulous, the news the past decade has been dismal as the world seemingly slides into chaos. It's full of political liars and cheaters: spaffers spouting casuistry.

In our youth, we SF buffs had been hoping for a bright future forged out of the white heat of technology. As we began our careers, those of us in science had dared to look forward to the new understanding we would we elucidate, and the technology springing from that, which would transform the world very much for the better. Yet for my entire career, I've seen the political classes literally trash our world. So much so, that several years ago after over a third of a century spending part of my time on climate change biology I have moved to focus more on deep-time biological evolution from an Earth system science (the co-evolution of life and planet) perspective: it was all getting so damn depressing.

Step up plant population biologist, Jonathan Silvertown, who now brings a little relief with his insightful Selfish Genes to Social Beings. It is a fascinating take on ecology as well as deep-time evolution.

He begins with the youths of Tlateloco, a tough neighbourhood in a tough city, who in the aftermath of the 1985 magnitude 8 earthquake, were just some of the volunteers who rescued 4,000 folk from beneath the rubble of buildings. They became the Topos de Tlatelolco (the Tlatelolco moles). Yet in a city rife with crime and murder, how come the Tlatelolco moles exhibited such altruism?

The answer is, according to Silvertown, that cooperation is an emergent property from Dawkins' selfish genes: cooperation, biology has repeatedly demonstrated, emerges from seemingly selfishness. This repetition, Jonathan Silvertown shows, has occurred a number of times including with eusocial species such as ants and bees where it is the colony of individual cell that acts as if it is a single entity with some cells specialising for the good of the whole. Perhaps my favourite example was the Portuguese Man O'war that looks much like a jellyfish but belongs to the related order of Siphonophores (I do love coelenterate phylum but I'm told I'm not allowed to use that term any more!). It has individual cells that form a colony it is not a single animal and features some highly specialist cells needed for the colony to survive and for the creature to appear as if it were a single entity. These cells co-operate for the good of the whole.

I am not going to recount the entire book: there is much packed in. But the sections on how simple cells (prokaryotes bacteria and their ilk) became good cells (eukaryotes) shows that co-operation takes place at the cellular level. They effectively incorporated prokaryote specialists into them that could do specific tasks such as use light to split water (photosynthesis) as chloroplasts, or generate energy from sugars (as mitochondria. That you are a bouncy reader is due to your cells having mitochondria, and that the plants you eat (or the plants that the animals you eat, eat) can grow with just carbon dioxide, water and a sprinkling of minerals, is down to chloroplasts.

Then there are the eusocial species (ants, bees and so forth) where many individuals co-operate in the interests of the single colony.

Of course, where there are co-operators there is the possibility of cheats (hence the mention of spaffers at this review's beginning). Fortunately, we have a way with dealing with cheats. In humans, this is frequently law enforcement. In biology there are also anti-cheat strategies. I never considered seΧual cell division, meiosis, in the way Jonathan Silvertown does so that it weeds out cheats. Fascinating stuff. Early on in the book he introduces us to the Prisoner's Dilemma and the subject of how to deal with cheats recurs almost throughout.

The final chapter summarises earlier discussion and brings together the major evolutionary transitions, who/what is co-operating, and biological cheat controls. Strangely (to me) Jonathan Silverton does not consider the evolution of Homo spp. as a major transition in evolution, but then he is looking at deep-time evolution a certain way (there are other perspectives and metrics). Nonetheless, this did not subtract from my greatly enjoying this book and the ride the author took me on.

Jonathan Silverton ends on an upbeat note, and today we need that. Given as worldwide Gini Coefficients are on the rise, there must be an awful lot of cheaters and cheating going on! Yet, cheats, he notes, rarely prosper or, to be exact, only prosper when rare. Yet personally, I feel that while we co-operators may eventually win the win the war against the cheats, I fear the next generation will lose the battle long before victory day. But, hey, what do I know?

So what is Selfish Genes to Social Beings possible target readership? Well, our site's two principal groups of visitors are scientists into SF, and SF aficionados into science: both these will enjoy this work. Biologists will probably gain the least they will already be familiar with much on offer. However, even so given scientists increasingly specialise as their career progresses, some in bioscience will enjoy the refresher and update (he includes research of the past half decade) into deep-time evolution. The book will also cause life scientists to reflect on co-operation as an evolutionary driver: this is something rarely discussed.

It is also a reasonably light read somewhere around the proverbial New Scientist magazine level. So no specialist knowledge beyond good school science needed.

However, for those into genre fiction there is considerable relevance. The author does not join these particular dots, but it is not hard for the reader to do so. Fiction's main plots frequently (dare I say nearly universally?) concern the tension between co-operation and cheating. For example, from Robin Hood to Star Wars the basic plot is one of co-operators coming together to defeat dominating cheaters. Even the best of characters also exploit this tension: Del boy in Only Fools and Horses, or Arthur in Minder are lovable rogues (cheats): you certainly would not want to buy anything off either Del or Arthur but equally, you'd know that if you are friend or family that they would look out for you (be co-operative).

The other thing you can do (and you can do this with friends watching the news) is to identify politicians as to whether or not they are predominantly co-operators or mainly cheats? Which begs the question as to how and why overt cheaters win? Reading this book helps with that, or at least puts you on the right road for working it out for yourself.

Jonathan Cowie

 


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