1995 RiverOutofEdenADarwinianViewofL

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Subject Headings: God's Utility Function, Evolutionary Biology.

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1996

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Book Overview

How did the replication bomb we call ”life” begin and where in the world, or rather, in the universe, is it heading? Writing with characteristic wit and an ability to clarify complex phenomena (the New York Times described his style as ”the sort of science writing that makes the reader feel like a genius”), Richard Dawkins confronts this ancient mystery.

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I now want to introduce two technical terms, “reverse engineering” and “utility function.” In this section, I am influenced by Daniel Dennett’s superb book Darwin’s Dangerous Idea. Reverse engineering is a technique of reasoning that works like this. You are an engineer, confronted with an artifact you have found and don’t understand. You make the working assumption that it was designed for some purpose. You dissect and analyze the object with a view to working out what problem it would be good at solving: “If I had wanted to make a machine to do so-and-so, would I have made it like this? Or is the object better explained as a machine designed to do such-and-such ? ” The slide rule, talisman until recently of the honorable profession of engineer, is in the electronic age as obsolete as any Bronze Age relic. An archaeologist of the future, finding a slide rule and wondering about it, might note that it is handy for drawing straight lines or for buttering bread. But to assume that either of these was its original purpose violates the economy assumption. A mere straight-edge or butter knife would not have needed a sliding member in the middle of the rule. Moreover, if you examine the spacing of the graticules you find precise logarithmic scales, too meticulously disposed to be accidental. It would dawn on the archaeologist that, in an age before electronic calculators, this pattern would constitute an ingenious trick for rapid multiplication and division. The mystery of the slide rule would be solved by reverse engineering, employing the assumption of intelligent and economical design.

Utility function” is a technical term not of engineers but of economists. It means “that which is maximized.” Economic planners and social engineers are rather like architects and real engineers in that they strive to maximize something. Utilitarians strive to maximize “the greatest happiness for the greatest number” (a phrase that sounds more intelligent than it is, by the way). Under this umbrella, the utilitarian may give long-term stability more or less priority at the expense of short-term happiness, and utilitarians differ over whether they measure “happiness” by monetary wealth, job satisfaction, cultural fulfillment or [[personal re[lationship]]s. Others avowedly maximize their own happiness at the expense of the common welfare, and they may dignify their egoism by a philosophy that states that general happiness will be maximized if one takes care of oneself. By watching the behavior of individuals throughout their lives, you should be able to reverse-engineer their utility functions. If you reverse-engineer the behavior of a country’s government, you may conclude that what is being maximized is employment and universal welfare. For another country, the utility function may turn out to be the continued power of the president, or the wealth of a particular ruling family, the size of the sultan’s harem, the stability of the Middle East or maintaining the price of oil. The point is that more than one utility function can be imagined. It isn’t always obvious what individuals, or firms, or governments are striving to maximize. But it is probably safe to assume that they are maximizing something. This is because Homo sapiens is a deeply purpose-ridden species. The principle holds good even if the utility function turns out to be a weighted sum or some other complicated function of many inputs.

Let us return to living bodies and try to extract their utility function. There could be many but, revealingly, it will eventually turn out that they all reduce to one. A good way to dramatize our task is to imagine that living creatures were made by a Divine Engineer and try to work out, by reverse engineering, what the Engineer was trying to maximize: What was God’s Utility Function?

Cheetahs give every indication of being superbly designed for something, and it should be easy enough to reverse-engineer them and work out their utility function. They appear to be well designed to kill antelopes. The teeth, claws, eyes, nose, leg muscles, backbone and brain of a cheetah are all precisely what we should expect if God’s purpose in designing cheetahs was to maximize deaths among antelopes. Conversely, if we reverse-engineer an antelope we find equally impressive evidence of design for precisely the opposite end: the survival of antelopes and starvation among cheetahs. It is as though cheetahs had been designed by one deity and antelopes by a rival deity. Alternatively, if there is only one Creator who made the tiger and the lamb, the cheetah and the gazelle, what is He playing at? Is He a sadist who enjoys spectator blood sports? Is He trying to avoid overpopulation in the mammals of Africa? Is He maneuvering to maximize David Attenborough’s television ratings? These are all intelligible utility functions that might have turned out to be true. In fact, of course, they are all completely wrong. We now understand the single Utility Function of life in great detail, and it is nothing like any of those.

Chapter 1 will have prepared the reader for the view that the true utility function of life, that which is being maximized in the natural world, is DNA survival. But DNA is not floating free; it is locked up in living bodies and it has to make the most of the levers of power at its disposal. DNA sequences that find themselves in cheetah bodies maximize their survival by causing those bodies to kill gazelles. Sequences that find themselves in gazelle bodies maximize their survival by promoting opposite ends. But it is DNA survival that is being maximized in both cases. In this chapter, I am going to do a reverse-engineering job on a number of practical examples and show how everything makes sense once you assume that DNA survival is what is being maximized.

The sex ratio — the proportion of males to females — in wild populations is usually 50: 50. This seems to make no economic sense in those many species in which a minority of males has an unfair monopoly of the females: the harem system. In one well-studied population of elephant seals, 4 percent of the males accounted for 88 percent of all the copulations. Never mind that God’s Utility Function in this case seems so unfair for the bachelor majority. What is worse, a cost-cutting, efficiency-minded deity would be bound to spot that the deprived 96 percent are consuming half the population’s food resources (actually more than half, because adult male elephant seals are much bigger than females). The surplus bachelors do nothing except wait for an opportunity to displace one of the lucky 4 percent of harem masters. How can the existence of these unconscionable bachelor herds possibly be justified? Any utility function that paid even a little attention to the economic efficiency of the community would dispense with the bachelors. Instead, there would be just enough males born to fertilize the females. This apparent anomaly, again, is explained with elegant simplicity once you understand the true Darwinian Utility Function: maximizing DNA survival.

I’ll go into the example of the sex ratio in a little detail, because its utility function lends itself subtly to an economic treatment. Charles Darwin confessed himself baffled: “I formerly thought that when a tendency to produce the two sexes in equal numbers was advantageous to the species, it would follow from natural selection, but I now see that the whole problem is so intricate that it is safer to leave its solution...

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References

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 AuthorvolumeDate ValuetitletypejournaltitleUrldoinoteyear
1995 RiverOutofEdenADarwinianViewofLRichard DawkinsRiver Out of Eden: A Darwinian View of Life1995
AuthorRichard Dawkins +
titleRiver Out of Eden: A Darwinian View of Life +
year1995 +