FREE hit counter and Internet traffic statistics from

Amused Muse

Inspiring dissent and debate and the love of dissonance

Thursday, August 17, 2006

The Extended Phenotype

It's not easy to find this book, but I managed without resorting to Amazon. However, the material isn't as difficult as this befuddled humanities nerd initially feared, although it helps to take notes. Also, instead of plowing through one chapter at a time before re-reading, after my usual habit, I now ensure that I understand each paragraph before proceding to the next. Thus, I have read sections of this book three or four times, and I'm only on chapter three.

I know, I know--many of you probably breezed through the work. But I'm largely self-taught from having read Gould, and this stuff is new to me. In addition, the question of the definition of "adaptation" is a complex one, and until recently I was still unclear about the difference between genetic drift and natural selection. There is a lot that I never learned at all.

Gould was my guide while I was young, the only atheist I knew (until a niece "came out;" several others since have) in a Christian, and largely creationist, environment. I owe much to Gould's and Sagan's writing, but it is Dawkins who requires patience of me. Compared to my journey through The Extended Phenotype I practically inhaled The Selfish Gene, and that book required re-readings as well.

So far, here is what I have absorbed (Dr. Dawkins, if you're reading this, jump in at any time and correct me!):

-There is survival value in the "packaging of life into discrete units" called "vehicles" or organisms.

-We can speak of "adaptations as being 'for the benefit of' something, but that something is best not seen as the individual organism" but the "active, germ-line replicator" which are not selected directly, but by proxy.

-A behavior pattern "can be treated like an anatomical organ."

-A species or "group" is not the unit of selection, and gene selectionism is not genetic determinism.

Regarding the defining of what constitutes an adaptation, Dawkins first takes on the concept of extreme adapationism and identifies three proposed constrants on "perfection" (or optimal function) that he finds less persuasive:

-Neutral mutations, which are changes in polypeptide structure having no effect on enzymatic activity of the protein, and thus having no phenotypic effect at all.
(Biochemical controversy: Do all gene substitutions have phenotypic effects?)
(Adaptationist controversy: Is this phenothypic effect the result of natural selection?)
Though it is possible to a phenotypic effect to be selectively neutral, beware human subjectivity in these judgements. Genetic drift plus natural selection may result in more optimal function than just the effects of natural selection alone.

-Allometry, which is the disproportionate growth of a characteristic (such as a large head in small humans and in large ants).

-Pleiotropy, which is the possession by one gene of more than one phenotypic effect.

Damn, but this is fun. I used to read about quantum mechanics for fun; this stuff is even better. The only thing that spoils it is the fact that I have so many books to get through before September, because I buy books the way most women buy clothes, and because grad school! is practically barking! down! my snorkel! and I won't have time for pleasurable reading, hanging around archaeological sites, or the writing of the continuing adventures of my anti-creationist female android.



Blogger Unknown said...

grad school! is practically barking! down! my snorkel!

Yeah, it has a tendency to do that. In fact, sometimes it seems that that's all it's really good for.

I've got the Gould Book of Life on my coffee table, but I haven't had the inclination to do anything more than skim it and look at the pictures. Too busy reading hoity-toity literature stuff.

August 18, 2006 12:44 AM  
Blogger Kristine said...

I'm so hoity-toity I make myself sick. Who reads Joseph Conrad? I do. I'm a Lord Jim evangelist. Now, how many girls love that book? (Although if I ever read "Heart of Darkness" again I'm going to barf--even an English geek like me can O.D. after having that shoved at me one too many times in class.)

I recommend Gould's The Panda's Thumb--classic, although I have finally admitted that he was wrong about his objections to Dawkins' gene selectionism.

August 18, 2006 9:09 AM  
Blogger Unknown said...


In the last two or three weeks, I finally read Brave New World and The Bell Jar. I'm in the middle of Kazuo Ishiguro's new one right now, and I've got One Hundred Years of Solitude and Love in the Time of Cholera on deck.

Never read any Conrad, though.

August 18, 2006 2:12 PM  
Blogger Kristine said...

What? No Conrad? We might right this wrong! ;-)

Lord Jim was one of the most incredible books I ever read. I am a big Nabokov fan, too: Lolita, naturally, and Despair, and I just finished The Defense. People cringe when I say this, but I also recommend Deliverance by James Dickey. Like Lord Jim, it's beautifully written, even at the really scary part.

August 18, 2006 4:17 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Somewhere Dawkins said that The Extended Phenotype was his best book, so you've made a good choice of the second of his to read.


August 19, 2006 10:31 AM  
Blogger Rev. BigDumbChimp said...

I'm ashamed to admit I've never picked up any Dawkins. I'm so knee deep in network security books and software manuals that other than cookbooks I rarely get to read anything for pleasure.

August 19, 2006 2:04 PM  
Blogger Kristine said...

It was inevitable... I still have some trouble truly understanding how Dawkins' thesis works, given that there is rarely a one-to-one correspondence between genes and phenotypic effects (which is why Gould pooh-poohed The Selfish Gene), and when I started reading Gould again, I started getting confused about what Dawkins was saying.

Dawkins himself says, at the end of the 1989 edition of Gene, "An uneasy tension disturbs the heart of the selfish gene theory. It is the tension between the gene and the individual body as fundamental agent of life... How shall we resolve this paradox of the two ways of looking at life? My own attempt to do so is spelled out in The Extended Phenotype...I'm almost rather you stopped reading now and switched to [that]!"

So I did!

August 19, 2006 2:07 PM  
Blogger Alon Levy said...

Pardon my ignorance, Kristine, but which subject are you going to study in grad school? For some reason I thought given previous posts that it was anthropology, but now you say it's just a hobby, so I don't know.

August 23, 2006 12:07 AM  
Blogger Kristine said...

Please don’t feel bad—it’s pretty easy to get confused by how I scatter my energies. I’m actually going to grad school for Library and Information Science, since I have a degree in English Lit and never wanted to teach. In other words, I hope to be a librarian, although I’m interested in Information Systems design and have some programming under my belt.

Mostly I’ve been a bohemian. I regret not pursuing science sometimes, but perhaps I can talk my way into a science/technical library. After that, I do have the distant dream of pursuing biology or geology, or both.

August 23, 2006 10:29 AM  
Blogger The Science Pundit said...

I like all of Dawkins' books (he's my favorite non-fiction author). I'm almost finished The Ancestor's Tale, just a few microbes to go. The books I found most influential (to my way of thinking) were:

1. The Selfish Gene: After reading it, I was first able to look at evolution from a "gene's eye" point of view. After years of only thinking about evolution in "survival of the fittest" terms, this really broadened my outlook.

2. River out of Eden: The "flowing gene pool" metaphor really opened my eyes as to how sexual reproduction allows genes (a.k.a. alleles/Mendelian traits) to compete on their own in a population of myriad genes.

As for Conrad, I've always liked Heart of Darkness. If you want a good satirical take on it, try to find Carl Hiaasen's (my favorite fiction author) Tart of Darkness (Hiaasen's teen novel and movie Hoot also draws heavily from HoD). He originally wrote it for the 2003 Sports Illustrated Swimsuit issue. It's quite good.

ps -- If, when you met Dawkins, there's a moment of silence where you don't know what to say (like THAT'S likely), could you please ask him this question from me? He seems to be a specialist in behavioral zoology, but most of the exciting research today is happening in Evo-Devo. (to be fair, he does cover the topic in some of his books--The Ancestor's Tale has a whole chapter on Hox genes. But it always seems like it's being explained by an outsider.) My question would be: Has his interest shifted? and/or If he had to do it over, would he go into Evo-Devo?


August 24, 2006 7:02 PM  
Blogger Kristine said...

Javier, that's an interesting question. I'll be glad to ask that for you. Actually, I can be kind of a shy dork in person, and I hope I don't get the sudden urge to "look for my contact lenses" under the table. But I guess Dawkins is rather shy, too, and about as awkward with small talk as I am. (And it'll be hard to look for those contacts for 10 days straight on a boat.) Get me started on politics, religion, or science, and I'm fine.

The Selfish Gene was a revelation to me.

Dawkins started out as an ethologist (one who studies animal behavior) and cites a lot of his own papers in Phenotype. I'm tempted to read them now, too. I don't know enough about the different specializations in Biology to say this with confidence, but I think that the type of writing he does now, while not a departure, is outside the zoology orbit. I just bought a book written by his first wife, Marian Stamp Dawkins, also an ethologist, on animal consciousness.

However, I'm not going on this trip until next May! Do you really want to wait that long? Dawkins has an e-mail address. I have it, and have been trying to cook up an intelligent question of my own to ask. Don't get me wrong, I'm glad to ask him for you, if you want to wait until May.

I'll check out Tart of Darkness. Thanks. (Ironic, I used to subscribe to Sports Illustrated--freaked my boyfriend out.)

August 24, 2006 9:10 PM  
Blogger Unknown said...

I loved the extended phenotype. It's a cracking read!

March 27, 2007 6:26 PM  
Blogger Kristine said...

Thanks for visiting, Louie.

I hope that I am doing this work justice. At some point, it seems absurd to try to summarize Dawkins. He states what he needs to say with a clarity and an economy that I would wish to possess myself.

March 27, 2007 8:51 PM  
Blogger Trip Advisor said...

i hate this man Joseph Conrad

October 18, 2010 12:00 PM  
Blogger Kristine said...

You hate him, or his writing? Why?

October 18, 2010 12:46 PM  
Anonymous ipad3keyboard said...

I didn't understand anything here but I can still write my comments. My iPad keyboard website is the best one, dear friends.

October 08, 2012 1:36 PM  

Post a Comment

<< Home