The Cooperative Gene by Mark Ridley
How Mendel's Demon Explains the Evolution of Complex Beings

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Why isn't all life pond-scum? Why are there multimillion-celled, long-lived monsters like us, built from tens of thousands of cooperating genes? Mark Ridley presents a new explanation of how complex large life forms like ourselves came to exist, showing that the answer to the greatest mystery of evolution for modern science is not the selfish gene; it is the cooperative gene.

In this thought-provoking book, Ridley breaks down how two major biological hurdles had to be overcome in order to allow living complexity to evolve: the proliferation of genes and gene-selfishness. Because complex life has more genes than simple life, the increase in gene numbers poses a particular problem for complex beings. The more genes, the more chance for copying error; it is far easier to make a mistake copying the Bible than it is copying an advertising slogan. To add to the difficulty, Darwin's concept of natural selection encourages genes that look out for themselves, selfish genes that could easily evolve to sabotage the development of complex life forms. By retracing the history of life on our planet -- from the initial wobbly, replicating molecules, through microbes, worms, and flies, and on to humans -- Ridley reveals how life evolved as a series of steps to manage error and to coerce genes to cooperate within each body. Like a benign and unseen hand -- what Ridley calls "Mendel's Demon" -- the combination of these strategies enacts Austrian monk Gregor Mendel's fundamental laws of inheritance. This demon offers startling new perspectives on issues from curing AIDS, the origins of sex and gender, and cloning, to the genetics of angels. Indeed, if we are ever to understand the biology of other planets, we will need more than Darwin; we will need to understand how Mendel's Demon made the cooperative gene into the fundamental element of life.

What does the cooperative gene tell us about our future? With genetic technology burgeoning around the world, we must ask whether life will evolve to be even more complex than we already are. Human beings, Ridley concludes, may be near the limit of the possible, at least for earthly genetic mechanisms. But in the future, new genetic and reproductive biosystems could allow our descendants to increase their gene numbers and therefore their complexity. This process, he speculates, could lead to the evolution of life forms far stranger and more interesting than anything humanly discovered or imagined so far.

Written with uncommon energy, force, and clarity, The Cooperative Gene is essential reading for anyone wishing to see behind the headlines of our genetic age. It is an eye-opening invitation to the biotech adventure humanity has already embarked upon.


About Mark Ridley

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Mark Ridley pursues his research in the Department of Zoology at the University of Oxford. Formerly an assistant professor at Emory University in Atlanta, Ridley has also served as a research fellow at St. Catherine's College, Cambridge, and at Linacre, Oriel, and New Colleges in Oxford, all in England. His previous publications include The Problems of Evolution, Animal Behavior, and the highly acclaimed student textbook Evolution. Ridley frequently contributes to The New York Times, The Sunday Times, Nature, New Scientist, and The Times Literary Supplement. He lives in Oxford, England.
Published June 11, 2001 by Free Press. 336 pages
Genres: Nature & Wildlife, Science & Math. Non-fiction

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Ridley gives a detailed explanation of these processes in evolutionary terms, focusing on the exchange of genetic material and on dirty tricks certain genes play—and why, despite their selfishness, such “assassin” genes do not dominate the gene pool.

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Publishers Weekly

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The field of genetics rarely makes for easy reading, but Ridley's anecdotal approach lightens the load, At times his writing conveys a sense of awe at the vast complexity of the universe, eleva

May 28 2001 | Read Full Review of The Cooperative Gene: How Men...

The New York Times

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If a particular new gene causes individuals to propagate (on average) more children, then with each generation greater proportions of the population will carry the new gene until eventually it is found in all individuals.

Jul 08 2001 | Read Full Review of The Cooperative Gene: How Men...

Publishers Weekly

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As Ridley, a biologist at Oxford University and a regular contributor to Scientific American, Nature and the New York Times, shows, both kinds of error threaten the existence of complex life, and sex provides the solution, by concentrating errors in particular offspring and leaving others virtu...

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