The Selfish Gene turns 40

via Prof Sugata Mitra

Richard Dawkins biologist, athiest
Richard Dawkins today: he has regretted the title of his book, since many failed to see ‘selfish’ was being used metaphorically. Photograph: Murdo Macleod for the Observer

In 1976 Richard Dawkins’s study of evolutionary theory became the first popular science bestseller. How do its ideas stand up today?

It’s 40 years since Richard Dawkins suggested, in the opening words of The Selfish Gene, that, were an alien to visit Earth, the question it would pose to judge our intellectual maturity was: “Have they discovered evolution yet?” We had, of course, by the grace of Charles Darwin and a century of evolutionary biologists who had been trying to figure out how natural selection actually worked. In 1976, The Selfish Gene became the first real blockbuster popular science book, a poetic mark in the sand to the public and scientists alike: this idea had to enter our thinking, our research and our culture.

The Selfish Gene - illustrated by Desmond Morris.
The original book cover, illustrated by Desmond Morris.

The idea was this: genes strive for immortality, and individuals, families, and species are merely vehicles in that quest. The behaviour of all living things is in service of their genes hence, metaphorically, they are selfish. Before this, it had been proposed that natural selection was honing the behaviour of living things to promote the continuance through time of the individual creature, or family, or group or species. But in fact, Dawkins said, it was the gene itself that was trying to survive, and it just so happened that the best way for it to survive was in concert with other genes in the impermanent husk of an individual.

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South Africa testing anti-HIV vaccine

by Katharine Child

Researchers are not expecting the vaccine to offer 100% protection from HIV. A similar trial of the vaccine in Thailand resulted in various degrees of protection.

The only HIV vaccine that currently has the potential to be licensed and used for treatment is being tested in South Africa.

Scientists will know in May if they can test it on 7000 people, said investigator Professor Glenda Gray, president of the SA Medical Research Council.

The vaccine – the only one shown to be reasonably effective against HIV after 30 years of research – is being tested on 100 people in this country. It is designed to activate the immune system to fight the virus.

The results of the test will be known in May. If the vaccine proves to be effective, regulators will give the go-ahead for a large phase-three trial involving about 7000 subjects. If that trial is successful the drug can be licensed and sold.

Researchers are not expecting the vaccine to offer 100% protection from HIV. A similar trial of the vaccine in Thailand resulted in varying degrees of protection.

South African scientists have modified the vaccine to make it more potent and trial participants will get an extra injection in the hope that its effects will last longer, said Professor Gray.

“I wish we had done this vaccine trial in South Africa nine years ago, when it went to Thailand.”

This is just one of a range of HIV trials in South Africa.

Next month researchers will give 1700 women in sub-Saharan Africa a drip containing antibodies against HIV. Scientists want to know if giving antibodies regularly confers protection against HIV.

Only a small percentage of patients create this antibody, which protects against multiple strains of HIV. The trial participants will be given a drip once every two months for nearly two years. South African women have been recruited.

source: Times Live