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No. 114: Nov-Dec 1997

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Gene Wars

In past issues, we have mentioned:

Sperm wars. Where an animal's sperm are polymorphic; some of which attack alien sperm, some dash directly to the eggs, etc. (SF#78)

Selfish DNA. Where animals are merely mechanisms by which DNA perpetuates itself and expands its domain. In other words, DNA calls the shots -- not us! (SF#11)

Now we learn about "gene wars." As is well known, genes are thought to control much of what goes on in a living organism. But are they only carriers of hereditary information? Not according to a long, very technical paper by L.D. Hurst et al. It seems that, like selfish DNA, genes have their own agendas. The insidiousness of this is seen in the first sentence of the paper's abstract:

"Self-promoting elements (also called ultraselfish genes, selfish genes, or selfish genetic elements) are vertically transmitted genetic entities that manipulate their "host" [as in "us'] so as to promote their own spread, usually at a cost to other genes within the genome."

You may not sense it, but your genes are struggling with each other, and you and/or your progeny will carry out the dictates of the victors of the "gene wars."

(Hurst, Laurence D., et al; "Genetic Conflicts," Quarterly Review of Biology, 71:317, 1996.)

Comment. Given the power that these "selfish genetic elements" can exert on our bodies, it is but a short step to imagining that they can also direct the course of evolution in ways favorable to their agendas.

In this interpretation, humans have evolved and are conscious and intelligent because these things are favorable to those genes that have conquered in the "gene wars." Natural selection seems to work at many levels in biology!

From Science Frontiers #114, NOV-DEC 1997. 1997-2000 William R. Corliss

Science Frontiers Sourcebook Project Reviewed in:


  • "A sourcebook of unexplained phenomena is therefore a valuable addition to a collection of scientific literature. William R. Corliss has provided this in the past with his source books of scientific anomalies in several subjects, and now he has provided it for astronomy. He has done an excellent job of collecting and editing a large amount of material, taken in part from scientific journals and in part from scientific reporting in the popular or semi-scientific press." -- "The Mysterious Universe: A Handbook of Astronomical Anomalies", reviwed by Thomas Gold, Cornell University, in Icarus, vol.41, 1980

  • "An interesting, systematic presentation of unusual weather [..] This book is recommended for a general audience" --"Corliss, William R., Tornados, Dark Days, Anomalous Precipitation, and Related Weather Phenomena, Sourcebook Project, 1983.", revieweed in Choice, September 1983
  • "..the science is necessarily somewhat speculative, but Corliss's symthesis is based on reputable sources." -- "Corliss, William R. (Compiler). Lightning, Auroras, Nocturnal Lights, and Related Luminous Phenomena" reviwed by Joseph M. Moran, Univ. of Wisconsin in Science Books and Films, Sep/Oct 1983

  • "Before opening the book, I set certain standards that a volume which treads into dangerous grounds grounds like this must meet. The author scrupulously met, or even exceeded those standards. Each phenomenon is exhaustively documented, with references to scientific journals [..] and extensive quotations" -- "Book Review: The moon and planets: a catalog of astronomical anomalies", The Sourcebook Project, 1985., Corliss, W. R., Journal of the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada, Vol. 81, no. 1 (1987), p. 24., 02/1987