The Selfish Gene

Richard Dawkins mentioned his concern about people’s misjudgement of the book because of its title. Unfortunately, I was one such plonker. This book sat on my bookshelf for many years. I did not want to touch it because I shallowly inferred from the title that the book is about finding justification in biology for selfishness and moral degradation (if I may, as a far-fetched extension). Reading it might shatter my strongly held view that we human should promote altruism and not be selfish. I opened it one day recently, not remembering when and why exactly. It has proved to be a fascinating read and has demonstrated my pre-assumption to be completely wrong. Dawkins mentioned in the book that, retrospectively speaking, he should have named the book The Immortal Gene instead. I would have benefited from this book many years earlier if that were the title. The fault is all mine though. I learned the lesson to not make the verdict based on the title alone.

A few thoughts occupied my mind while reading this book. There is no answer applicable to us as a group. I think each individual would have one’s own opinion. Also I would like to point out that I am not a biologist at all, merely one who is interested in the subject.

We are the manifestation of our genes to certain extent. I understand gene survival theory as that we maximise the chance of prolonging the existence of any given gene by producing and bringing up offsprings, or helping to increase the chance of survival of that gene as carried by our family members. Last year, when my father was in a coma and in imminent danger for a lengthy period, I, against all my scientific and atheist mind, was praying madly with uttermost sincerity that God would let me give up 30 years of my lifespan in exchange for 30 more years for him, or an even better deal if God is cruel and unjust, 30 years only for 10 years. It was not an attempt to preserve my genes, because it does not propagate back to prior generations at certain ages. It was not altruism either. Did I want him to live because I could not cope with the possibility of losing him? Or, did I want him to live because I truly think he could enjoy many more years of life that would be more relaxing and peaceful than one at working age, despite the prospect of being severely disabled? Looking back, I dismissed the second question fiercely and wanted father to be with us regardless of the medical conditions. I could not cope with the future of living in endless regrets that I have hardly looked after him. Damn me that I have not taken him travel around the world as I wished! Curse me that I have not done X, Y, Z for him! A very long list of unfulfilled wishes. To cope with the fear of not having a chance to give back, I had a belief that he must live. That was a strong and very selfish belief. On one hand, I find this book very convincing. On the other hand, we are so miniscule in the biology evolution, our thoughts and behaviors are greatly influenced by other factors besides the genes. This kind of non-gene-survival related influence appeared to be more dominating than the survival theory in the relatively constrained timeframe.

I am particularly drawn to Dawkins’ meme theory and more keen to find out more about further research on memes. Meme is the name given by Dawkins for a new kind of replicator. “It conveys the idea of a cultural transmission, or, a unit of imitation. Examples of memes are tunes, ideas, catch-phrases, clothes fashions, ways of making pots or of building arches. Just as genes propagate themselves in the gene pool by leaping from body to body via sperms or eggs, so memes propagate themselves in the meme pool by leaping from brain to brain via a process which, in the broad sense, can be called imitation.”

The following paragraph from the book gives us great hope of the legacy we could create in our very trivial and limited lifetime in the long evolution river:

When we die there are two things we can leave behind us: genes and memes. We were built as gene machines, created to pass on our genes. But that aspect of us will be forgotten in three generations. Your child, even your grandchild, may bear a resemblance to you, perhaps in facial features, in a talent for music, in the colour of her hair. But as each generation passes, the contribution of your genes is halved. It does not take long to reach negligible proportions. Our genes may be immortal but the collection of genes that is any one of us is bound to crumble away. Elizabeth II is a direct descendant of William the Conqueror. Yet it is quite probable that she bears not a single one of the old king’s genes. We should not seek immortality in reproduction. But if you contribute to the world’s culture, if you have a good idea, compose a tune, invent a sparking plug, write a poem, it may live on, intact, long after your genes have dissolved in the common pool. Socrates may or may not have a gene or two alive in the world today, as G. C. Williams has remarked, but who cares? The meme complexes of Socrates, Leonardo, Copernicus and Marconi are still going strong.

The end of the first edition was very upbeat and positive: We are built as gene machines and cultured as meme machines, but we have the power to turn against our creators. We, alone on earth, can rebel against the tyranny of the selfish replicators.

It is a book well worth reading. Do not let the title stop you.

Never Give In! – Winston Churchill’s Greatest Speeches

I grew up in awe of Winston Churchill, for his second to none wartime leadership during WWII, his mastery of writing, oratory and painting, and for his character, including his flaws. It would not be an exaggeration to state that most of us today across many countries owe our sheer existence to Churchill and the victory of WWII.

Some years ago, I went to visit Churchill’s birthplace Blenheim Palace and his family home from 1922 till end of his life Chartwell House. There was a small museum in the Palace dedicated to Winston Churchill then, giving us a glimpse of his early years. Chartwell revealed significantly more of Churchill in my opinion. Chartwell is also more pleasant to visit, to appreciate Churchill’s paintings and literature work, to soak in the history surrounding the Churchill family, as there are much fewer tourists than Blenheim Palace. Churchill’s painting studio with many of his paintings on the walls is also uniquely located in Chartwell. Churchill famously said a day away from Chartwell is a day wasted. I left Chartwell with a few thoughts in mind. First, if we let each individual develop his/her true talent to the fullest and tolerate his/her flaws, we as a group would be much better off than other scenarios, for example, pushing everyone to achieve the highest scores at school and becoming uniform in our pursuits. Second, we are truly only limited by our limited thoughts. If Churchill thought that “I am a good writer and that is enough for me as professional. One cannot possibly be both a great writer and a statesman, or to paint as well”, we either would have very different world history, or, not have his volumes on A History of the English-Speaking Peoples, many great speeches and other writings. We are blessed that he did not think that way. Nor should anyone have one’s thoughts jail oneself.

Over two years ago I was listening to an episode of the BBC Radio 4 Great Lives program, Churchill was reported saying that this is what we fought for after receiving the news that he had lost the 1945 election. Those simple words inspired great admiration from me. To me it says much about Churchill’s vision for his countrymen versus his personal ambition.

Churchill was a great orator. He gave many magnificent speeches during the war time. The National Churchill Museum makes a list of them available online. In the limited space and time, I share excerpts from a few with you, particularly Churchill’s three famous ones around the Battle of France in 1940. May I alert you that I found tears swelling in my eyes every time I read these out loud or hear them quoted on the radios.

Churchill’s first radio broadcast as Prime Minister on May 10, 1940

Having received His Majesty’s commission I have formed an administration of men and women of every party and of almost every point of view. We have differed and quarreled in the past, but now one bond unites us all: to wage war until victory is won, and never to surrender ourselves to servitude and shame, whatever the cost and the agony may be.

Excerpt from Churchill’s first speech as Prime Minister to the House of Commons on May 13, 1940, also known as the “blood, toil, tears and sweat” speech:

That this House welcomes the formation of a Government representing the united and inflexible resolve of the nation to prosecute the war with Germany to a victorious conclusion…

I hope that any of my friends and colleagues, or former colleagues, who are affected by the political reconstruction, will make allowance, all allowance, for any lack of ceremony with which it has been necessary to act. I would say to the House, as I said to those who have joined this Government: “I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears and sweat.”

We have before us an ordeal of the most grievous kind. We have before us many, many long months of struggle and of suffering. You ask, what is our policy? I can say: It is to wage war, by sea, land and air, with all our might and with all the strength that God can give us; to wage war against a monstrous tyranny, never surpassed in the dark, lamentable catalogue of human crime. That is our policy. You ask, what is our aim? I can answer in one word: It is victory, victory at all costs, victory in spite of all terror, victory, however long and hard the road may be; for without victory, there is no survival. Let that be realised; no survival for the British Empire, no survival for all that the British Empire has stood for, no survival for the urge and impulse of the ages, that mankind will move forward towards its goal. But I take up my task with buoyancy and hope. I feel sure that our cause will not be suffered to fail among men. At this time I feel entitled to claim the aid of all, and I say, “Come then, let us go forward together with our united strength.”

Excerpt from Churchill’s speech to the House of Common on 4 June, 1940:

Even though large tracts of Europe and many old and famous States have fallen or may fall into the grip of the Gestapo and all the odious apparatus of Nazi rule, we shall not flag or fail.

We shall go on to the end, we shall fight in France, we shall fight on the seas and oceans, we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air, we shall defend our Island, whatever the cost may be, we shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender, and even if, which I do not for a moment believe, this Island or a large part of it were subjugated and starving, then our Empire beyond the seas, armed and guarded by the British Fleet, would carry on the struggle, until, in God’s good time, the New World, with all its power and might, steps forth to the rescue and the liberation of the old.

Excerpt from Churchill’s speech to the Parliament on 18 June 1940, known as the “This was Their Finest Hour” speech:

If we are now called upon to endure what they have been suffering, we shall emulate their courage, and if final victory rewards our toils they shall share the gains, aye, and freedom shall be restored to all. We abate nothing of our just demands; not one jot or tittle do we recede. Czechs, Poles, Norwegians, Dutch, Belgians have joined their causes to our own. All these shall be restored.

….

I expect that the Battle of Britain is about to begin. Upon this battle depends the survival of Christian civilization. Upon it depends our own British life, and the long continuity of our institutions and our Empire. The whole fury and might of the enemy must very soon be turned on us.

Hitler knows that he will have to break us in this Island or lose the war. If we can stand up to him, all Europe may be free and the life of the world may move forward into broad, sunlit uplands. But if we fail, then the whole world, including the United States, including all that we have known and cared for, will sink into the abyss of a new Dark Age made more sinister, and perhaps more protracted, by the lights of perverted science.

Let us therefore brace ourselves to our duties, and so bear ourselves that if the British Empire and its Commonwealth last for a thousand years, men will still say, ‘This was their finest hour.’

English language is not only marvellously beautiful, but also immensely powerful. Churchill showed us that. I, among many, hold the belief that Churchill’s mastery of oratory lead us to win the war. I conclude this post with one last quote from Churchill. He wrote at the age of 22:

Of all the talents bestowed upon men, none is so precious as the gift of oratory. He who enjoys it wields a power more durable than that of a great king. He is an independent force in the world. Abandoned by his party, betrayed by his friends, stripped of his offices, whoever can command this power is still formidable.

Capitalism and Freedom

Milton Friedman’s Capitalism and Freedom was my companion during my trip to Australia recently. This book would challenge your capability to focus, if you read it in public spaces such as airports and planes like I did of some chapters. What impresses me most besides its content is its delivery, the meticulously articulated logic reasoning. Regardless whether you agree with the author’s verdicts, you can touch and feel the logical threads leading to them. I am not an economist nor a politician, but economics always fascinates me. Politics, exactly the opposite. This book broadens my view on the inseparability and strong inter-influence between economic freedom and political freedom. Later Milton Friedman added civil freedom to this dichotomy, in light of Hong Kong’s return to China from British sovereignty in 1997 and its subsequent development. In the book, Friedman also credited this instance for persuading him that: while economic freedom is a necessary condition for civil and political freedom, political freedom, desirable though it may be, is not a necessary condition for economic and civil freedom.

Describing what this book is about, Friedman wrote: its major theme is the role of competitive capitalism – the organization of the bulk of economic activity through private enterprise operating in a free market – as a system of economic freedom and a necessary condition for political freedom. Its minor theme is the role that government should play in a society dedicated to freedom and relying primarily on the market to organize economic activity.

Friedman wrote the following on the role of books like this one: First, to provide subject matter for bull sessions….The only person who can truly persuade you is yourself. You must turn the issues over in your mind at leisure, consider the many arguments, let them simmer, and after a long time turn your preferences into convictions. Second,…to keep options open until circumstances make change necessary. There is enormous inertia – a tyranny of the status quo – in private and especially governmental arrangements. Only a crisis – actual or perceived – produces real change. When that crisis occurs, the actions that are taken depend on the ideas that are lying around. That, I believe, is our basic function: to develop alternatives to existing policies, to keep them alive and available until the politically impossible becomes politically inevitable. Both arguments are convincing to me.

To summarize my overall understanding upon reading this book: increasing the economy freedom and decreasing the governmental intervenes in an overly governed state is the direction for further prosperity. Many policies do not deliver the outcome that aligns with our intentions when creating those policies at the first place, for example, minimum wage. A social environment that promotes diversity is far more advantageous than the ones not. Purely my extended understanding of the messages: while in doubt, it is better to rely on the free market mechanism than political interference in the long run.

A few more discussions from the book that I quote here and I think more people would benefit from reading, even if not reading the entire book:

The great advances of civilisation, whether in architecture or painting, in science or literature, in industry or agriculture, have never come from centralized government….no one of these opened new frontiers in human knowledge and understanding, in literature, in technical possibilities, or in the relief of human misery in response to governmental directives. Their achievements were the product of individual genius, of strongly held minority views, of a social climate permitting variety and diversity.

A common objection to totalitarian societies is that they regard the end as justifying the means. Taken literally, this objection is clearly illogical. If the end does not justify the means, what does? But this easy answer does not dispose of the objection; it simply shows that the objection is not well put. To deny that the end justifies the means is indirectly to assert that the end in question is not the ultimate end, that the ultimate end is itself the use of the proper means. Desirable or not, any end that can be attained only by the use of bad means must give way to the more basic end of the use of acceptable means.

Fundamental differences in basic values can seldom if ever be resolved at the ballot box; ultimately they can only be decided, though not resolved, by conflict…The widespread use of the market reduces the strain on the social fabric by rendering conformity unnecessary with respect to any activities it encompasses. The wider the range of activities covered by the market, the fewer are the issues on which explicitly political decisions are required and hence on which it is necessary to achieve agreement. In turn, the fewer the issues on which agreement is necessary, the greater is the likelihood of getting agreement while maintaining a free society.

A businessman or an entrepreneur who expresses preferences in his business activities that are not related to productive efficiency is at a disadvantage compared to other individuals who do not. Such an individual is in effect imposing higher costs on himself than are other individuals who do not have such preference. Hence, in a free market, they will tend to drive him out. This same phenomenon is of much wider scope. It is often taken for granted that the person who discriminate against others because of their race, religion, color, or whatever, incurs no costs by doing so but simply imposes costs on others. This view is on a par with the very similar fallacy that a country does not hurt itself by imposing tariffs on the products of other countries. Both are equally wrong. The man who objects to buying from or working alongside a Negro, for example, thereby limits his range of choice. He will generally have to pay a higher price for what he buys or receive a lower return for his work. Or, put the other way, those of us who regard color of skin or religion as irrelevant can buy some things more cheaply as a result.

The more capitalistic a country is, the smaller the fraction of income paid for the use of what is generally regarded as capital, and the larger the fraction paid for human services…The great achievement of capitalism has not been the accumulation of poverty, it has been the opportunities it has offered to men and women to extend and develop and improve their capacities.

Finally, I uphold my decision of not writing about China. But that is not to say I have no passion for my motherland. To the contrary, I eagerly wish that China progresses towards the right directions in all the economic, civil and political arenas. I part you with a passage in the preface written by Friedman in 2002:  

The introduction of market reforms by Deng Xiaoping in the late seventies, in effect privatizing agriculture, dramatically increased output and led to the introduction of additional market elements into a communist command society. The limited increase in economic freedom had changed the face of China, strikingly confirming our faith in the power of free markets. China is still very far from being a free society, but there is no doubt that the residents of China are freer and more prosperous than they were under Mao – freer in every dimension except the political. And there are even the first small signs of some increase in political reform, manifested in the election of some officials in a growing number of villages. China has far to go, but it has been moving in the right direction.

 

Jane Eyre

It is dark outside. A cool breeze through the window feels very pleasant. Here I am with Jane Eyre, a quiet, plain, poor governess with great strength, rock-hard discipline, strong will, and determination of following her own mind. She is more beautiful than any conventional beauties. It is my firm belief that a life without a strong will is not worth living.

Charlotte Brontë published Jane Eyre in 1847 using the pen name “Currer Bell”. The novel begins when Jane Eyre was 10 years old, living with her uncle’s family after losing both of her parents as an infant. Jane Eyre was abused by her cousins and her aunt during that period. She was then sent to Lowood school, an institution for poor girls, some time after the death of her uncle. It was a harsh and oppressive place. At Lowood school, Jane developed a friendship with Helen Burns, who sadly died of tuberculosis, known as consumption at the time. Helen, to me, symbolizes a way of thinking and resigning to life, perhaps more typical in a female than male. Her conversations with Jane revealed a great amount of her character and philosophy. Jane later became a governess at Thornfield Hall, owned by Mr. Rochester, teaching a young French girl Adèle Varens. The rest of the story followed the central characters Jane and Mr. Rochester, with three newly gained cousins of Jane’s, the death of her aunt, a Miss Ingram, Mrs Fairfax, the haunting wife of Mr. Rochester and others. I should not spoil the ending for you, if you have not read Jane Eyre before.

I first read Jane Eyre (translated version) when I was a young girl myself in a boarding school. It lent me great strength and help me tough up. The boarding school I attended had very bad living conditions but was not oppressive. In recent years, I listened to BBC radio’s adaptation of Jane Eyre a couple of times. As an adult female, I appreciate the portrait of the protagonist Jane Eyre more fully: her passion, strong will, an acute sense of conscience and freedom, her independence, and her quiet yet formidable strength.

Brontë wrote dialogues and first-person narratives meticulously well. Both are very challenging to accomplish. To me, there is much to be learned from the character Jane Eyre. Some of my favorite passages are quoted below.

“No sight so sad as that of a naughty child,” he began, “especially a naughty little girl. Do you know where the wicked go after death?”

“They go to hell,” was my ready and orthodox answer.

“And what is hell? Can you tell me that?”

“A pit full of fire.”

“And should you like to fall into that pit, and to be burning there for ever?”

“No, sir.”

“What must you do to avoid it?”

I deliberated a moment: my answer, when it did come was objectionable: “I must keep in good health and not die.”

Life appears to me too short to be spent in nursing animosity or registering wrongs. We are, and must be, one and all, burdened with faults in this world: but the time will soon come when, I trust, we shall put them off in putting off our corruptible bodies; when debasement and sin will fall from us with this cumbrous frame of flesh, and only the spark of the spirit will remain, – the impalpable principle of light and thought, pure as when it left the Creator to inspire the creature: whence it came it will return; perhaps again to be communicated to some being higher than man – perhaps to pass through gradations of glory, from the pale human soul to brighten to the seraph!…with this creed revenge never worries my heart, degradation never too deeply disgusts me, injustice never crushes me too low: I live in calm, looking to the end.

Do you think I am an automaton? — a machine without feelings? and can bear to have my morsel of bread snatched from my lips, and my drop of living water dashed from my cup? Do you think, because I am poor, obscure, plain, and little, I am soulless and heartless? You think wrong! — I have as much soul as you — and full as much heart! And if God had gifted me with some beauty and much wealth, I should have made it as hard for you to leave me, as it is now for me to leave you. I am not talking to you now through the medium of custom, conventionalities, nor even of mortal flesh: it is my spirit that addresses your spirit; just as if both had passed through the grave, and we stood at God’s feet, equal — as we are!

I sometimes have a queer feeling with regard to you – especially when you are near me, as now: it is as if I had a string somewhere under my left ribs, tightly and inextricably knotted to a similar string situated in the corresponding quarter of your little frame. And if that boisterous channel, and two hundred miles or so of land some broad between us, I am afraid that cord of communion will be snapt; and then I’ve a nervous notion I should take to bleeding inwardly. As for you, – you’d forget me.

I care for myself. The more solitary, the more friendless, the more unsustained I am, the more I will respect myself. I will keep the law given by God; sanctioned by man. I will hold to the principles received by me when I was sane, and not mad – as I am now. Laws and principles are not for the times when there is no temptation: they are for such moments as this, when body and soul rise in mutiny against their rigor; stringent are they; inviolate they shall be. If at my individual convenience I might break them, what would be their worth? They have a worth – so I have always believed; and if I cannot believe it now, it is because I am insane – quite insane: with my veins running fire, and my heart beating faster than I can count its throbs. Preconceived opinions, foregone determinations, are all I have at this hour to stand by: there I plant my foot.

I am no bird; and no net ensnares me; I am a free human being with an independent will, which I now exert to leave you.

I am not an angel,’ I asserted; ‘and I will not be one till I die: I will be myself. Mr. Rochester, you must neither expect nor exact anything celestial of me – for you will not get it, any more than I shall get it of you: which I do not at all anticipate.

Prejudices, it is well known, are most difficult to eradicate from the heart whose soil has never been loosened or fertilised by education: they grow there, firm as weeds among stones.

It is in vain to say human beings ought to be satisfied with tranquillity: they must have action; and they will make it if they cannot find it. Millions are condemned to a stiller doom than mine, and millions are in silent revolt against their lot. Nobody knows how many rebellions besides political rebellions ferment in the masses of life which people earth. Women are supposed to be very calm generally: but women feel just as men feel; they need exercise for their faculties, and a field for their efforts, as much as their brothers do; they suffer from too rigid a restraint, to absolute a stagnation, precisely as men would suffer; and it is narrow-minded in their more privileged fellow-creatures to say that they ought to confine themselves to making puddings and knitting stockings, to playing on the piano and embroidering bags. It is thoughtless to condemn them, or laugh at them, if they seek to do more or learn more than custom has pronounced necessary for their sex.

Approaching 5am now. My animal friends start to wake up and sing in chorus what a glorious morning will come. I wish any of them could make me a cup of strongly-desired tea.