Genomic Conflict


Twentieth Annual Darwin College Lecture Series 2005


Lecture 2   :   28 January

David Haig




Genomic Conflict and the Divided Self, David Haig

We often have the subjective experience of struggling with ourselves, of a conflict between powerful internal voices in which neither side yields nor gives up the debate. These internal conflicts often seem maladaptive; consuming time, energy, and repose. If we are the adaptive products of natural selection, why should our minds work in this way? Three broad classes of explanation suggest themselves. One might argue that internal conflicts are in some sense illusory; that the 'contending parties' have the same ultimate ends; and that natural selection has simply adopted an adversarial system as the best mechanism of arriving at useful truths. One might argue that internal conflicts arise from constraints on the perfection of adaptation; that evolved mechanisms work well on average but occasionally malfunction. An analogy would be to the 'system conflicts' that occasionally cause my computer to crash: multiple functional programs are running simultaneously and occasionally make contradictory or ambiguous demands on the operating system; neither programmers nor natural selection have been able to eliminate all opportunities for malfunction. Finally, one might argue that internal conflicts are 'real' and reflect a disagreement over ultimate ends between different agents that contribute to mental activity. Such conflicts could include conflicts between different genetic agents within the genome, conflicts between memes and genes, and conflicts among different memes.



DAVID HAIG is professor in the Department of Organismic and Evolutionary Biology at Harvard, and author of Genomic Imprinting and Kinship. He is an evolutionary geneticist/theorist interested in conflicts and conflict resolution within the genome, with a particular interest in genomic imprinting and relations between parents and offspring.. He was born in Canberra, did undergraduate and work at Macquarie University in Sydney. His doctoral research was a theoretical investigation of the evolution of plant cycles. This work led to an interest in genetic conflicts within the genome and to a theory for the evolution of genomic imprinting in terms of the conflicting interests of maternally and paternally derived genes. After his PhD, David received an Endeavour Fellowship from the Royal Society to work in Oxford where he further developed his ideas on genomic imprinting and developed an interest in the evolution of maternal-fetal relations during human pregnancy. From Oxford, he moved to Harvard, where he was nominated for the Harvard Society of Fellows. At Harvard he continues his interest in conflicts within the genome. 

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