Bad vs Good genes

Each generation is a filter, a sieve: good genes tend to fall through the sieve into the next generation; bad genes tend to end up in bodies that die young or without reproducing.
- Richard Dawkins, River out of Eden.

While nothing is wrong with the analogy by the great man, and most of use agree one hundred persent with the statement, I want to argue it is more correct to put "bad" and ”good" in inverted comma's, beter more, to banish the use of the words from all scientific discussion on the subject.

This is an example of entrapment into sapiens-centricbehaviour we so most often exhibit. We just cannot but see the universe from a human point of view. We fail to do our deductions like a universal observer. Stand apart from the human race and observe humans as the caged, earth bound, animal which we are. Is it not time to move our entire corpus of higher learning into the realm of the universal observer and “show our true color”?

The terms bad and good are firstly humanistic in nature and defined in human terms and from a human point of view. Yes it helps us express our thoughts to a human audience (after all, they are the only ones that can understand us), but to the greater population of living organisms it makes no sense.

Secondly it is deterministic. It is as though being human makes you lord of the universe and god to determine the direction that things should happen. Hereby lays the danger. By using the terms good vs bad, we presuppose the outcomes. Our "bad" is seen as an outcome to a current process which is not good for humans, at this time,  implying death for the organism. Our “good” is seen in the light of that same current process: survival.

Nope: We cannot predict the outcome of change. The change due to the current process cannot be foreseen in the future. The outcome of change is not predictable.

See this maxim in these terms too: a single mutation, thus change, in the chromosomal make up of an organism can have far reaching consequences – forever. For as long as that organism live and that change are carried forward in the genome structure, its effect may interact with the future environment or future populations. A good or bad change (gene) will forever be judged against future conditions.

In other words, when a new cell is created and there is change (which is always the case) we cannot say what will happen. Apart from intra- to inter-cellular effects on the organism like lethal combinations, sick organisms (producing something to little of this, too much of that) , etc there can be environmental changes or even extraterrestrial effects that impact over the lifetime of the organisms, but importantly have an effect on ALL future generations. All these effects are relative to the the moment in time of the newly created the cell. The full ranges of future effects are therefore random and unpredictable. The outcomes are a blurred reality that cannot subscribe to empirical rules.


An example: The creation of a cell that predisposes the organism to produce to little or too much insulin. We know insulin is provided within the body in a constant proportion to remove excess glucose from the blood, which otherwise would be toxic.  Except in the presence of metabolic disorder when the control mechanisms making insulin in the pancreas fail or is modified. Normally such an organism is destined to die naturally due to this malfunction.

A few hundred years ago the individual will probably die before he could have reproduced. If he does reproduce, that altered controlling gene (making the preproinsulin precursor) probably becomes hidden in the population of which the individual is a member. Today with the advances in medical science it really does not matter. If treatment is available, he'll go on to reproduce and spread the gene. However good or bad that gene is.

 That raises the question whether the epidemic increase in diabetic individuals are due to (a) a more susceptible population, (b) their ingestion of a diet of more sugars, (c) beter diagnostic testing, or (d) more readily available screening. The second option, that of environmental acquired characteristic smacks of Lysenkoism** , but I don’t know the facts to comment further. I’m digressing...

While it can be termed a defective or "bad" gene initially, that will not survive the "culling sieve" , development of other capacities can leave individuals with a productive life to serve the the future population. "Bad" now becomes "so what". What did that "bad" gene bring to the table.

We simply cannot judge a gene on its current performance. Even future effects. No. By then future generations would be the composite effects of many genes and environmental impacts like volcanoes and meteor strikes.

Another example: How did we mammals keep on living without the crucial benefit of the gene making vitamin C? We eat animals or plants that had vitamin C and were none the wiser. So a functional gene turning into a non-functional gene happened without anyone blinked an eye. A seemingly bad move, which only look effect millions of years later when progress forced us to live off poor vitamin- C deficient diets. Yet it did not prevent us discovering the modern world. We learned how to solve the shortage. Was it good or bad?

It is deterministic to classify a gene bad or good without seeing ALL its future effects. And in evolutionary science that can be a long, long time. Even forever, with the benefit of hindsight. The only thing we can say for sure is that our existence at present is the result of our past. Tomorrow cockroaches sucking our bones dry might claim the same.

It is the nature evolution. As humans and scientists we seek cause and effect. Countless cases of cause and effect. He has long nose because of this; He has a short nose because of that. There is an explanation for every trait for every living thing has. This leads to the erroneous idea that form follows use while we know use follows a change in form - now or sometime in the future generations - for benefit or detriment of the individual.  We also do not try to understand the "negative" cases and the significant contribution it brings to evolution. Negative evolution or de-evolution if you wish.

We still want to use terms like bad or good outcomes and it remains a handy analogy. We may want to use the terms to illustrate processes in evolution, but we should urge people not to think like that. Bad can turn out to be good or non-consequential. It is deterministic thought. It is sapiens-centric reality. It smacks of a deity at work.


Servaas de Kock
2020-04-22 (updated)


* Homo-centric: I coin this word from want of another, but perhaps sapiens-centric is a better word. Our worldview is completely inward to our own existence. Our own species Homo sapiens absorbs all thought and consideration. We believe we are the lords of the universe and we don’t even give a cockroach a chance. A fly is just an irritation. A bug on the windscreen to sing about. This narrow vision obstruct those in the fields of evolutionary science from thinking “clearly”. Junjiro Takakusu (1866-1945) may have used the word “homo-centrally” referring to a soul centered on human beings, but being a Buddhist his view may have been much more idiocentric.

** Lysenkoism. Lysenko was the director of the Soviet Union's Lenin All-Union Academy of Agricultural Sciences. Lysenkoism began in the late 1920s and formally ended in 1964. School of thought built on theories of the heritability of acquired characteristics. In a nutshell environmental conditions lead form lead genetics. It departs from accepted evolutionary theory and Mendelian inheritance. Lysenko named it "Michurinism". It the main reason for failing crops of the new USSR.

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