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Pabitra Mukhopadhyay

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Goodbye Mr. Darwin and the selfish gene?

Jaroslav Flegr, a self-described “sloppy dresser,” the 53-year-old Czech scientist has the contemplative air of someone habitually lost in thought, and his still-youthful, square-jawed face is framed by frizzy red hair that encircles his head like a ring of fire. He is trying to change the way we think about Darwinian Evolution.

He suspected that Toxoplasma Gondii, an obligate, intracellular, parasitic protozoan that causes the disease toxoplasmosis, and with which he is infected is changing his behavior subtly so that his ‘selfish’ genes are more or less now slave to those of the genes of the parasite. If what he thinks is true, Jaroslav is under more the selective pressure of the parasite than his own genes.

For fact, parasites inducing behavioral changes in hosts have been reported by many scientists. Toxoplasmosis is one of the most prevalent infection among humans. If you have affinity for cats, you are likely infected.

Jaroslav has come up with the idea of frozen evolution, which suggests that new adaptations by accumulation of random mutations happen only when their members are genetically uniform, i.e., only after a portion of the population of the original species has split off, balanced on the edge of extinction for several generations, and then undergone rapid expansion. After a short period of time,polymorphism accumulates in the gene pool due to frequency-dependent selection; and thus, in each generation, new mutations occur in the presence of different alleles and therefore change their selection coefficients from generation to generation. The species ceases to behave in an evolutionarily plastic manner and exists in this state until such changes accumulate in the environment that the species becomes extinct.

When you are a host, it is unknown in which direction your evolutionary future lies – survival or extinction.

So is it goodbye to Mr. Darwin or his celebrity proponent Dr. Richard Dawkins?

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    Dec 19 2013: Pabitra,

    I wanted to thank you for another perplexing problem. I will add it to my collection. I downloaded Flegr's book and will read it when I have time. It has valuable insight not only on evolution and biology, but on science in general.

    This question seems to belong to a huge class of paradoxes connected with Russell's paradox http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/russell-paradox/. The paradox considers sets which do not contain themselves. If we consider a set of all such sets, we come to a contradiction when we try to decide whether such set contains itself. The "Barber's paradox" is of the same nature. Most paradoxes dealing with omnipotence and omniscience are of the same nature. The controversy of whether a fetus is a part of mother's body or a separate legal entity is another example. Controversies around "common good" vs. "individual good" seem to belong to the same category. "Where did the universe come from?" - another example. They are impossible to answer by logic.

    Is the parasite a part of our body or a part of the environment? But, even deeper than that, is our own body a part of its own environment? The answer seems to be "yes". Then, the distinction between the body and environment seems to disappear. Perhaps, this distinction makes sense in some contexts, but not in others.

    So, without going into details, it seems to me that your question does not have an answer. But, as usual, it's a great pleasure to think about it - just to realize how limited is our language and ability to understand things and "dissolve" these limits of our understanding (another paradox).
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      Dec 20 2013: Arkady,
      Paradoxes are beacons standing on their heads trying to attract our attention towards the way we reason.
    • Dec 20 2013: Arkady,

      Rather than get entwined into a paradoxical self-negating stand I prefer to follow a simpler way.
      The statement "there are no absolute truths" creates a paradox
      The statement "there are absolute truths" doesn't create a paradox
      Notice the self-validating point in the last statement.

      i find curious how relativists resort to absolutes rather than simply resort to relatives... To me an absolutists can always be both an absolutists and a relativists at the same time by choice (which sort of makes the distinction between being a relativists and an absolutists quite irrelevant). Note that the relativists can only accomplish such a feat in the particular case when what they had chosen as a relative truth happens to correspond to the absolute truth... Personally I rather take the stand where I can always be both rather than the stand where I can only be both in one particular case. The stand where what be be what be is much simpler than the stand where what isn't is what is and what is is and what isn't. Sure one could work in either one so long one kept track of the appropriate distinctions its just much simpler to work in a singularity where one win-or-wins than a confusing duality where one loses when one wins and wins when one loses (and ends up always loosing).

      As you said "Perhaps, this distinction makes sense in some contexts, but not in others". Careful with the ways we reason... it may be dew to the 'subtle influences of parasites' (biological ideological and others).
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        Dec 20 2013: According to this article, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Self-refuting_idea, self-refuting ideas can be of two types: a self-consistent tautology (e.g. "this statement is true") or a self-contradiction (e.g. "this statement is false"). "This statement is true" is true or false, depending on what you believe about it. If you believe, it's true, it is so. If you believe it's false, it also confirms that belief without contradiction. It's interesting to observe that this self-consistency is absolute.

        "This statement is false", on the other hand, contradicts itself. As we go through logical steps trying to find out if it's true or false, it switches from true to false in every step: "if it's true, then it's false, then it's true, etc." In digital circuits, an equivalent of such statement is called a "ring oscillator" - a circuit that picks up noise and starts oscillating between logical high and low.

        Statements relative to ourselves are absolute. Your right hand is always on your right side, no matter where you face. The right hand of another person is also on your right if you face the same direction. But if you stand against each other, the other person's right hand will be on your left. This is how it is with moral statements. They are absolute for a given person and same for people with common interests, but turn into opposites when two people oppose each other. So, yes, things can be absolute and relative at the same time. Absolutism is relative (things can be absolute in certain contexts) and relativism is absolute ("everything is relative" or "nothing can be absolute in all contexts").

        It's a convoluted subject. The wikipedia article gives a good, although incomplete, overview of the issues involved. There is no way to coherently explain this issue because language is logical, and this issue deals with the limits of logic. But it's possible to understand this issue enough to recognize questions without answers.
        • Dec 20 2013: Arkady,

          I like what you said about " It's interesting to observe that this self-consistency is absolute".

          "This statement is true" is true or false, depending on whether the statement happens to be true or false... what one believes about it takes us to a whole different domain... In a way one stand can give each what they want while still giving them the same thing. Take the sustainable-desirable-congruent with life ways, it gives each what they want while still giving them the same thing (sustainable-desirable-congruent with life ways). Ending up in a place with only good; on the one hand is a reward to those who desire good and and on he other hand its a punishment for those who desire bad. Likewise 'may God give you abundantly of what you desire' can be a blessing or a curse!

          As you pointed certain ways lead into an oscillating back and forth rather than into a definitive position. BTW moral statements are absolute... those who say that good is bad and bad is good find it bad ... In other words it turns into opposite by those who oppose the good. I am glad that you conceded to the fact that things can be absolute and relative at the same time. I do see that you then when into the convoluted subject of 'Absolutism is relative and relativism is absolute' rather than into the straightforward notion where 'Absolutism is absolute and relativism is relative'...

          There be ways to coherently explain these issues using language and logic, independent of the fact that this issue may deals with the limits of logic, but even-though it's possible to understand this issue some choose to think its impossible and choose not to do what be required to understand it... sort of creating a self fulfilling self-consistent prophecy... in a way its a bit 'esoteric' those who know know and needn't be told and those who don't know while they may be told will not understand it... they could get it, they just choose not to get it...:-)
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        Dec 21 2013: What makes sense doesn't require an explanation.
        • Dec 21 2013: Often I read someone state "that doesn't make sense" when the truth of the matter be "someone can't make sense of that" while "somebody can make sense of that" ... in other words what be be what be and weather some individual can make sense of it or not is a whole different matter... Often individuals project their notions and thoughts unto reality and then claim reality is as they think and conceive it... when the truth of the matter be that what be be what be... and what one thinks of it be what one thinks of it ... sometimes there being a correspondence between what one thinks to be and what happens to be... I would rather stay away from getting too deep into this conversational rabbits hole... I am sure you and others can do a wonderful job... I was sort of drawn into this because of the mention of paradox and the work I have done related to transcending dualistic notions... keep in mind that when someone who is wrong tells somebody who is right that "somebody is wrong" they are somewhat validating that someone is wrong and somebody is right. If someone who is wrong where to say "somebody is right" we would have to figure out if its because someone recognized what is right or because somebody is wrong... as you mentioned previously 'It's a convoluted subject'. I like to say that one can twists the twisted straight ... of course if one makes just the appropriate and specific twists required... as I just said a couple of sentences back " I am sure you and others can do a wonderful job..." I hope that you and others actually do a wonderful job!
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      Dec 21 2013: Arkady, the philosophical contemplation as to whether or not a parasite is part of us is of not much practical relevance if as a result of this parasite invading your body, you are getting sick.
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        Dec 21 2013: Provided always how you define sickness (the semantical scope of the word included). When a virus gets to someone's brain, live their merrily without making one ill (meaning no obvious reason for a medical treatment) and subtly influences one's behaviors like dress sense, personality and mental capabilities, one borders on the doubtful boundary between sickness and health.
        I never know whether the cat loving driver running the bus I am in is Toxo positive but it can make the difference between life and death of a lot of people.
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          Dec 21 2013: Pabitra, in general you don't know anything at all about your bus driver. He could as well be a lunatic, alcoholic or whatever else one could dream up, without being toxo positive.
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        Dec 21 2013: Note that the parasite does not harm you. It causes you to harm yourself. The philosophical question is whether we can willfully resist this influence of the parasite or are we doomed to do what the parasite causes us to do. How much can we resist the influence of the environment?
        • Dec 21 2013: Consider that 'the parasite' may be biological, ideological , sociological and even energetically in form (and a couple of other alternatives)... to what extent the host is responsible for what they do under the influence of such stuff? the notion that the parasite does not harm you while it does causes you to choose to harm yourself could involve a bit of play of words... Who is responsible for 'the seduction': the seduced, the seducer, the circumstances around the event,the spirit of seduction that possessed each of the previous stakeholders? Does acting under the influence of... being possessed take away the individual responsibility? As you mention "The philosophical question is whether we can willfully resist this influence of the parasite or are we doomed to do what the parasite causes us to do. How much can we resist the influence of the environment"?

          To what extent does the parasite actually not harm you? To what extent does the parasite seduce you to harm yourself?
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          Dec 21 2013: It depends what you consider "harm". If the parasite changes something in my neural structure, then I would consider that very much a harm.
          The parasite doesn't cause, for example, schizophrenia, but changes something in the brain that eventually can lead to schizophrenia (and other problems).
          Not sure how you would be able to resist whatever the parasite causes, but if as a result you get schizophrenia you can get treatment for that.
          Resisting also seems difficult because in order to resist you first need to know that you got an infection, which most likely isn't the case.
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        Dec 21 2013: We have many parasites in our body without which we cannot survive, such as acidophilus bacteria. They also affect our digestion and neural system. Why do you think, it's "your" neural structure, anyway? Aren't you just an "environment" for the parasite, it's "habitat"? Why can we change our own habitat for our own benefit, but when a parasite does so, we consider it "harmful"? Aren't humans often acting as parasites in the ecosystem of the Earth?

        I don't expect answers to these questions. I'm just offering a perspective.
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          Dec 21 2013: We have a lot of micro organisms in and on our body but not parasites. Those are different.
          Btw, L. Acidophilus is not a parasite. A parasite is any organism living on/in its host and deriving nutrients at the host's expense.
          In any case, I don't enjoy parasites using my body as their playground. Do you ?

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