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River Out of Eden by Richard Dawkins

This book was recommended by Ray Dalio. I didn't find it a great read but there were a couple of parts I found interesting and useful for life. One is in the first paragraph below which discusses how mother nature doesn't have feelings and is "pitilessly indifferent." Another interesting part was how honey bees communicate with each other by dancing to show where food is located. The overall idea of the book is that genes flow through time like a river and genes are information.


This sounds savagely cruel but, as we shall see, nature is not cruel, only pitilessly indifferent. This is one of the hardest lessons for humans to learn. We cannot admit that things might be neither good nor evil, neither cruel nor kind, but simply callous — indifferent to all suffering, lacking all purpose. We humans have purpose on the brain. We find it hard to look at anything without wondering what it is “for”, what the motive for it is, or the purpose behind it. When the obsession with purpose becomes a pathological it is called paranoia — reading malevolent purpose into what is actually random bad luck. The desire to see purpose everywhere is a natural one in an animal that lives surrounded by machines, works of art, tools and other design artifacts; an animal, moreover, who’s walking thoughts are dominated by its own personal goals. A car, a tin opener, a screwdriver and a pitchfork all legitimately warrant the “What is it for?” question. Our pagan forebears would have asked the same question about thunder, eclipses, rocks and strains. Today we pride ourselves on having shaken off such primitive animism. If a rock in a stream happens to serve as a convenient stepping stone, we regard its usefulness as an accidental bonus, not a true purpose. But the old temptation comes back with a vengeance when tragedy strikes — indeed, the very word strikes is an animistic echo: “ why, oh why, did the cancer/earthquake/hurricane have to strike my child?

Honey bees tell each other the whereabouts of flowers by means of a carefully coded dance. If the food is very close to the hive, they do the “round dance”. This just excites other bees, and they rush out and search in the vicinity of the hive. Not particularly remarkable. But very remarkable is what happens when the food is further away from the hive. The forger who has discovered the food performs the so-called waggle dance, and its form and timing tell the other bees both the compass direction and the distance from the hive of the food. The waggle dance is performed inside the hive on the vertical surface of the comb. It is dark in the hive, so the waggle dance is not seen by the other bees. It is felt by them, and also heard, for the dancing bee accompanies her performance with little rhythmic piping noises. The dance has the form of a figure 8, with a straight run in the middle. It is the direction of the straight run that, in the form of a cunning code, tells the direction of the food….

By watching the behavior of individuals throughout their lives, you should be able to reverse-engineer the 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 might 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’s probably safe to assume that they are maximizing something. This is because Homo Sapiens is a deeply purpose written 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

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.

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