The extended phenotype


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Richard Dawkins introduced a revolutionary idea in his book The Extended Phenotype (it is by no means new; it was published in 1982, and the concept already appears in The Selfish Gene in 1976).

He explains how genes not only create our body but also influences our behaviour in a more determined way that could be imagined. The behaviour predefined in the genes is what he calls the extended phenotype (the phenotype being the physical expression of genes, or its observable characteristics).

Matt Ridley summarises and illustrates the notion eloquently in his book The Agile Gene (also published as Nature via Nurture) :

Matt Ridley said:
The gene specifies how development occurs, and that in turn specifies how behaviour occurs. The spooky truth is dawning on scientists that they can regard behaviour as just an extreme form of development. The nest of a bird is just as much a product of its genes as its wings are. In my garden and all over Britain song thrushes line their nests with mud, blackbirds with grass, robins with hair, and chaffinches with feathers, generation after generation, because nest building is an expression of genes. Richard Dawkins coined the phrase "extended phenotype" for this idea.

If the look of a bird's nest is determined by the bird's genes, it would make sense that the same be true, at least to some extent, for human architectural and artistic styles. The main difference between birds and humans is that we can learn from others. This would seem to be a good argument enough against an innate artistic sense. Yet, some people naturally prefer classical architecture since the very childhood, while others have an innate attraction for modern architecture.

Learning has permitted humans to improve their artistic styles over the ages. But the direction a particular culture is heading is relatively constant. The Chinese have built intrinsically Chinese roofs and statues for over two millennia. Europeans have built classical columns and friezes since the Antiquity. Indians have always had a predisposition for intricately carved sculptures, while the Japanese have always favoured simplicity and sobriety.

Although people are influenced by other cultures, sometimes import foreign styles as a form of exoticism, and experiment with new styles, there is a long-term trend attached to each civilization. This could also be why new artistic styles appear most regularly in cosmopolitan cities (think of New York, for instance) or countries where different populations mixed (the USA being the best example). Size and wealth isn't all that matters. Paris and Tokyo are much less cosmopolitan than New York, and their artists also tend to remain more along the classical lines of their respective culture.

The environment plays a part too. You cannot build marble columns where no marble is available. But whatever the construction material available, there is evidence of deep-rooted inter-ethnic differences in the way we perceive the world and express ourselves artistically. Try giving pencils to small children from Japan, India, Egypt, Norway and Congo and ask them to draw a pig (which maybe they will never have drawn before). The result is that the pig will look quite different in each ethnic group, although a pig looks pretty much the same everywhere, unlike, say, a house. You cannot impute those differences to nurture in small children that have never learn to draw a pig before. This is also a form of extended phenotype.

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