Selfish genes, ultraselfish genes and the Eurozone

Originally published: July 2015

Europe has somewhat of a history of conflict, although nowadays it’s more of a diplomatic nature rather than the insatiable marauding of a cartoonish Austrian.  Currently the titans of Europe are embroiled in the widely reported Greek economic crisis.  Put simply, Greece is tired of ‘The Man’, who is actually a German woman, telling their government how to run their economy in exchange for financial support.  Unfortunately for those countries that do use the Euro, the Greeks do mind, which is why they’ve vetoed the proposal and the Eurozone has been left to ponder its future in the way only a currency can.  But the Eurozone isn’t as complicated as it seems (it definitely is but roll with me on this one), and so imagine the Eurozone like one big wild animal.

Like any animal, the Eurozone beast is made up and controlled by its genes, which are represented by the countries that use the Euro.  In order for an animal to live a successful life, normally one that involves not dying and having lots of sex, all of its genes need to pull together to ensure that the animal is able to do all of these things.

Traditionally, scientists believed that natural selection achieved this by acting on the animals themselves; animals that were weak, lazy, or all in all just a bit rubbish died out whilst those that weren’t survived.  However, following the release of his 1976 book “The Selfish Gene”, Richard Dawkins changed the way biologists thought about natural selection.  Instead of acting on the animal itself, Dawkins suggested that natural selection actually acted on the genes.  In simple terms, genes that helped the animal to survive and reproduce were favoured by natural selection for that very reason, because they were more likely to be passed down through reproduction.  And this is why Dawkins refers to genes as selfish, whilst they provide characteristics and behaviours that help an animal to survive, they do so only on the condition that their own legacy is ensured.  As the old saying goes, you scratch my back, I’ll provide all of the genetic make up for yours.  For all genes therefore, the animal that they find themselves in is merely a means of selfish transport to the next generation, and like any mode of transportation, it’s better if your vessel doesn’t crash and burn along the way.

So, in order for all of the selfish genes/countries of the Eurozone to succeed, they need to team up to ensure the survival of the Eurozone on the whole.  In doing so, each member state can selfishly ensure its own future and not wind up in the bin like Yugoslavia.  However, Greece doesn’t appear to be playing ball, and by putting its own survival above that of the Eurozone it changes from being a selfish gene to an ultraselfish gene.

Ultraselfish genes are an interesting phenomenon; these genes are lone rangers that have developed the ability to increase their proportion in the next generation singlehandedly, without any concern for natural selection or boosting an animal’s chance of reproducing. Every gene exists in 2 versions, one from the mother and one from the father, and when animals create sperm or egg cells they split their DNA in half so that each sperm or egg gets 1 version of the gene.  Usually this is done randomly, so in all the thousands of sperm and egg cells there’s a 50/50 chance that it’ll have 1 version of the gene or the other.  However, ultraselfish genes are able to change this probability in their favour.

Scientists have studied several genes that are capable of this underhandedness; however the way that each gene does so is not always the same.  For example, the ‘sd’ gene found in the fruitfly, Drosophila melanogaster, is able to cheat during the creation of sperm, so that any male fly that has 1 version of the ultraselfish ‘sd’ gene ends up with it in 100% of the sperm.  It does this by recognising its own proteins.  If the wrong protein from a different gene is detected, then the recognition part of the gene changes the DNA and stops it from entering the sperm cell.  In this way, only sperms that carry the ‘sd’ gene are formed.

Some ultraselfish genes are even more extreme however.  The ‘medea’ gene is found in the flour beetle, Tribolium castaneum, and is rather appropriately named after Medea from Greek mythology, a woman who killed her own children after her husband Jason (of ‘Argonauts’ fame) left her to play the field.  This is a wonderful example of the scientific naming of things, as the gene works in much the same way.  The ‘medea’ gene is made up of a toxin and an antidote, and any mother that carries a copy of the gene produces a toxin that attacks her own eggs.  The toxic offensive results in the deaths of any fertilised eggs that failed to inherit the ‘medea’ gene from either the mother or father with its life-giving antidote.  ‘Medea’ therefore isn’t able to manipulate the probability of it being passed down, but instead ensures no offspring can be born without it, so the end result is much the same.  This sacrifice of many of the flour beetle’s babies is substantial however, as it greatly reduces the number of offspring she leaves, which is seriously bad news for her and the rest of her genes.

So, for most genes the name of the game is natural selection, by improving the animal or plant that they find themselves in they’re able to help themselves by being passed down to the next generation.  For other genes however, by manipulating the rules and cheating the system they can help themselves without helping an animal survive at all, and can even hinder them in the process.  But does Greece deserve the title of ultraselfish?  For genes these derogatory terms of ‘selfish’ and ‘ultraselfish’ are fine, but for countries and groups of people they seem a bit harsh.  At the end of the day, genes and countries are out for their own survival, whether that’s by banding together in an intercontinental currency or risking it all for the good of its people.


Dawkins, R. (2006). The selfish gene (No. 199). Oxford university press.

Larracuente, A. M., & Presgraves, D. C. (2012). The selfish Segregation Distorter gene complex of Drosophila melanogaster. Genetics192(1), 33-53.

Beeman, R. W., Friesen, K. S., & Denell, R. E. (1992). Maternal-effect selfish genes in flour beetles. Science256(5053), 89-92.

Image rights:

Eric Day, Virginia Tech, Blacksburg, Va [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons







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