Adversarial Journalism and The Selfish Gene

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I have been asked to respond to an article by David Dobbs called ‘Die, selfish gene, die’[1]. It’s a fluent piece of writing featuring some interesting biological observations, but it’s fatally marred: infected by an all-too-common journalistic tendency, the adversarial urge to (presumably) boost circulation and harvest clicks by pretending to be controversial. You have a topic X, which you laudably want to pass on to your readers. But it’s not enough that X is interesting in its own right; you have to adversarialise it: yell that X is revolutionary, new, paradigm-shifting, dramatically overthrowing some Y.

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[1] http://aeon.co/magazine/nature-and-cosmos/why-its-time-to-lay-the-selfish-gene-to-rest/

I had almost finished writing this reply when Jerry Coyne – my goto guru on population genetics since the death of John Maynard Smith – posted his own much more thorough retort to Dobbs. I thought about abandoning my own effort, but was reluctant to throw away my more personal response to Dobbs’ traducing of my earlier work. Even if you don’t have time to read my article, however, do please read Jerry’s: http://whyevolutionistrue.wordpress.com/2013/12/05/david-dobbs-mucks-up-evolution-part-i/ This is Part 1. Part 2 has yet to appear, and I look forward to it.



The Y in Dobbs’ article is my book, The Selfish Gene, and his main X is the important but far from new point that genes are not always expressed in the same way. He calls it phenotypic plasticity.  Locusts are transformed grasshoppers: same genes, differently expressed. A caterpillar and the butterfly it morphs into have exactly the same genome, expressed in different ways.  An animal is the way it is, not just because of the genes it possesses but because the context in which a gene sits affects how – and indeed whether – it is expressed. Dobbs makes some sensible points about all this, but there’s not a single one of them that I wouldn’t be happy to make myself – and in most cases did make, either in The Selfish Gene itself or in my other books. But his headline conclusion, namely that recent findings negate the thesis of The Selfish Gene, is not just untrue but deeply and perversely untrue.

 

The Selfish Gene has a lot to say about the social insects, laying particular stress on the fact that the difference between a queen and a sterile worker is non-genetic. Indeed, it has got to be non-genetic. If a gene were unconditionally “for” sterility it couldn’t be favoured by natural selection. It has to be conditionally expressed, conditional upon the environment. The difference between a massive-jawed soldier ant and the tiny minor worker riding shotgun on its head, is nongenetic too. As far as its genes are concerned, any female ant could have become any caste of worker or a queen. Genes express themselves differently when switched, by environmental triggers, into different embryological pathways. It’s a special case of another idea that received prominence in The Selfish Gene, the “conditional strategy” concept of John Maynard Smith.

 

This is just an extension of a deep principle of embryonic differentiation.  Muscle cell, liver cell, nerve cell . . . all contain the same genes, the diploid genotype of the organism. The differences between them arise ultimately because different genes are expressed – turned on or off by the characteristic chemical environments in the three types of cell.  The Selfish Gene is a book about evolution not embryology, but these facts about embryology, known to everybody who has ever taken an elementary biology course, obviously lurk behind that book, and I discussed them explicitly in other books such as The Ancestor’s Tale (2004) and The Greatest Show on Earth (2009).

 

As I explained in those two books, and elsewhere, the difference between species has more to do with which genes are expressed and when, than with the repertoire of protein-encoding genes that they possess. I likened that repertoire to the “toolbox” of built-in subroutines which a computer (in those days I happened to be familiar with the Mac: my details may now be out of date) makes permanently available to programmers. Here’s how I put it in 2004:

The Mac has a toolbox of routines stored in ROM (Read Only Memory) or in System files permanently loaded at start-up time. There are thousands of these toolbox routines, each one doing a particular operation, which is likely to be needed, over and over again, in slightly different ways, in different programs. For example the toolbox routine called ObscureCursor hides the cursor from the screen until the next time the mouse is moved. Unseen to you, the Obscure- Cursor ‘gene’ is called every time you start typing and the mouse cursor vanishes. Toolbox routines lie behind the familiar features shared by all programs on the Mac (and their imitated equivalents on Windows machines): pulldown menus, scrollbars, shrinkable windows that you can drag around the screen with the mouse, and many others.

The reason all Mac programs have the same ‘look and feel’ (that very similarity famously became the subject of litigation) is precisely that all Mac programs, whether written by Apple, or by Microsoft, or by anybody else, call the same toolbox routines. If you are a programmer who wishes to move a whole region of the screen in some direction, say following a mouse drag, you would be wasting your time if you didn’t invoke the ScrollRect toolbox routine. Or if you want to place a check mark by a pulldown menu item, you would be mad to write your own code to do it. Just write a call of CheckItem into your program, and the job is done for you. If you look at the text of a Mac program, whoever wrote it, in whatever programming language and for whatever purpose, the main thing you’ll notice is that it consists largely of invocations of familiar, built-in toolbox routines. The same repertoire of routines is available to all programmers. Different programs string calls of these routines together in different combinations and sequences.

 

The genome, sitting in the nucleus of every cell, is the toolbox of DNA routines available for performing standard biochemical functions. The nucleus of a cell is like the ROM of a Mac. Different cells, for example liver cells, bone cells and muscle cells, string ‘calls’ of these routines together in different orders and combinations when performing particular cell functions including growing, dividing, or secreting hormones. Mouse bone cells are more similar to human bone cells than they are to mouse liver cells — they perform very similar operations and need to call the same repertoire of toolbox routines in order to do so. This is the kind of reason why all mammal genomes are approximately the same size as each other — they all need the same toolbox.

 

Nevertheless, mouse bone cells do behave differently from human bone cells; and this too will be reflected in different calls to the toolbox in the nucleus. The toolbox itself is not identical in mouse and man, but it might as well be identical without in principle jeopardizing the main differences between the two species. For the purpose of building mice differently from humans, what matters is differences in the calling of toolbox routines, more than differences in the tool- box routines themselves.

 

Does Dobbs, then, really expect me to be surprised to learn from him that:

  This means that we are human, rather than wormlike, flylike, chickenlike, feline, bovine, or excessively simian, less because we carry different genes from those other species than because our cells read differently.

Does Dobbs really think the existence of genes controlling the expression of other genes is either a surprise to me or remotely discomfiting to the theory of the selfish gene? Genes controlling other genes are exactly the kind of genes I have in mind when I speak of  “selfish genes” as the “immortal replicators”, the “units of natural selection”.

 

In 1982 in The Extended Phenotype I used the evolution of homosexuality as an example to stress the universal importance of differential gene expression and why we must never forget it. Here’s the relevant paragraph, but I have said the same thing in different ways in many other places.

Time and again, I have gone out of my way to emphasise the cautious hesitation with which we should adopt linguistic conventions such as “gene for . . .”  some phenotypic characteristic. Time and again I have explained that there is no deterministic, one-to-one, atomistic causal relationship between a gene and an object of phenotype. These were not grudging admissions but enthusiastic emphases.

 

I have actually gone further than Dobbs in stressing the importance of environmental context as a modifier of gene expression.  The chapter called ‘The Selfish Cooperator’ in my 1998 book Unweaving the Rainbow is devoted to the idea that a gene must not be seen in isolation, but as surrounded by an environment consisting of the other genes in the gene pool. The other genes matter because they are the genes with which it repeatedly shares bodies; they are the companions through evolutionary time, with whom it participates in the repeated shuffling deals of sexual reproduction. Thus the gene pool of a species becomes a cartel of mutually cooperative, mutually supportive genes. A gene transported into a different “climate” or “context” of other genes can have a completely different expression, and would be subject to completely different selection pressures. The Selfish Cooperator could indeed have been a good title for my original 1976 book. In the 2006 Thirtieth Anniversary Edition I mused on the way the original title had been misunderstood and continued . . .

 

Another good alternative to The Selfish Gene would have been The Cooperative Gene. It sounds paradoxically opposite, but a central part of the book argues for a form of cooperation among self-interested genes. This emphatically does not mean that groups of genes prosper at the expense of their members, or at the expense of other groups. Rather, each gene is seen as pursuing its own self-interested agenda against the background of the other genes in the gene pool—the set of candidates for sexual shuffling within a species. Those other genes are part of the environment in which each gene survives, in the same way as the weather, predators and prey, supporting vegetation and soil bacteria are parts of the environment. From each gene’s point of view, the ‘background’ genes are those with which it shares bodies in its journey down the generations. In the short term, that means the other members of the genome. In the long term, it means the other genes in the gene pool of the species. Natural selection therefore sees to it that gangs of mutually compatible—which is almost to say cooperating— genes are favoured in the presence of each other. At no time does this evolution of the ‘cooperative gene’ violate the fundamental principle of the selfish gene. Chapter 5 develops the idea, using the analogy of a rowing crew, and Chapter 13 takes it further.

 

The other main idea that Dobbs thinks is inimical to The Selfish Gene is “genetic accommodation.” It’s an interesting notion, one that I’ve often promoted under its earlier name of the Baldwin Effect. I don’t need to spell it out here because there really is no disagreement: it is wholly compatible with The Selfish Gene. That book might have been improved if I had given it prominence, as Mary Jane West-Eberhard did in her remarkably thorough and scholarly Developmental Plasticity and Evolution (2003).  But the fact that I didn’t go out of my way to stress it doesn’t even begin to mean that it is incompatible with the central thesis of The Selfish Gene. I can think of no reason why Dobbs should suggest such a thing, other than a journalistic desire to fabricate controversy where none exists. Which pretty much sums up his whole article.

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Afterthought. After this was written, Steven Pinker sent an email commenting on Jerry Coyne’s article on the same theme. Steve said

"Brilliant! This seems to be a congenital problem with science journalists — they think that it's a profound and revolutionary discovery that genes are regulated, not stopping to think that the alternative would consist of every cell in the body synthesizing all 21,000 proteins around the clock. Part of the blame goes to molecular biologists, who hijacked the term "gene" for protein-coding sequences, confusing everyone.”

 

Written By: Richard Dawkins
continue to source article at

59 COMMENTS

  1. From the article: “These days, Dawkins makes the news so often for buffoonery that some might wonder how he ever became so celebrated.”

    I hate this kind of journalism. It’s just vile. I don’t agree with everything Prof. Dawkins says and I think a couple of statements in the past few years should have been run by someone with an eye for PR. I know even that sounds terrible to some but if Richard is going to swim in the cesspool (if he’s going to make himself more than an intellectual but a kind of celebrity — which I think is fine btw we need more scientist celebrities) he should learn the rules and learn the idiotic things that will needlessly offend a lot of idiots.

    But to just make that statement as if it’s a statement of fact, not “Dawkins said X which is wrong for the following reasons” to just assert he’s been doing “buffonery” in the news (which will unfortunately be believed by a lot of gullible buffoons) is contemptible.

    • In reply to #2 by Red Dog:

      But to just make that statement as if it’s a statement of fact, not “Dawkins said X which is wrong for the following reasons” to just assert he’s been doing “buffonery” in the news (which will unfortunately be believed by a lot of gullible buffoons) is contemptible.

      Once again the expression of the psychological projection by a journalistic buffoon appears in print!

      • In reply to #3 by Alan4discussion:

        In reply to #2 by Red Dog:

        But to just make that statement as if it’s a statement of fact, not “Dawkins said X which is wrong for the following reasons” to just assert he’s been doing “buffonery” in the news (which will unfortunately be believed by a lot of gullible buffoons) is contemptible.

        Once…

        Oh, but it was okay when they were lapdogs for Dawkins?

    • In reply to #2 by Red Dog:

      From the article: “These days, Dawkins makes the news so often for buffoonery

      Sadly, twitter it seems can make a twit out of anyone. I don’t think the twitter account was a good career move.

      I read the article and Dobbs’ blog with its combination of defence and backpedalling. It all seemed beside the point. Apart from trying to stir a non-existent controversy, I truly didn’t get what – if anything – he was trying to say. Do you think he’s even read The Selfish Gene?

      • In reply to #5 by OHooligan:

        I don’t think the twitter account was a good career move.

        I advised against it when we had a discussion thread about starting it. Famous writers, engaged in subjects that take years of study to understand properly, are easy targets for short unsubstantiated (cheap) shots because of lack of room to defend (unless you are Sam Clemens or Oscar Wilde). My position is that anyone with a reputation to uphold should not be on Twitter, and any such person who feels that public contact requires it, should hire a professional public relations firm to take care of it (but before you sign, read the contract about what you can’t sue them for when it all goes wrong, then re-think the whole idea).

    • Under no circumstances should PR ever come into Science. PR distorts the facts to appease the easily offended. If one distorts the facts it simply is not Science anymore. Remember that “The truth sometimes hurts” messing up the truth doesn’t cure it!
      In reply to #2 by Red Dog:

      From the article: “These days, Dawkins makes the news so often for buffoonery that some might wonder how he ever became so celebrated.”

      I hate this kind of journalism. It’s just vile. I don’t agree with everything Prof. Dawkins says and I think a couple of statements in the past few years should ha…

      • In reply to #18 by Bigglesthefrog:

        Under no circumstances should PR ever come into Science. PR distorts the facts to appease the easily offended. If one distorts the facts it simply is not Science anymore. Remember that “The truth sometimes hurts” messing up the truth doesn’t cure it!
        In reply to #2 by Red Dog:

        From the article: “Th…

        And peer review is doing such a terrific job, isn’t it?

    • In reply to #2 by Red Dog:

      From the article: “These days, Dawkins makes the news so often for buffoonery that some might wonder how he ever became so celebrated.”

      I hate this kind of journalism. It’s just vile. I don’t agree with everything Prof. Dawkins says and I think a couple of statements in the past few years should ha…

      Well, aren’t you special? I guess science ends with Dawkins. You agree with “everything” he says. Case closed.

    • In reply to #2 by Red Dog:

      From the article: “These days, Dawkins makes the news so often for buffoonery that some might wonder how he ever became so celebrated.”

      I hate this kind of journalism. It’s just vile. I don’t agree with everything Prof. Dawkins says and I think a couple of statements in the past few years should ha…you have no clue how smart this man is. He knows more about biology than you could ever grasp on you lifetime, you dolt

  2. From Dr. Pinker:

    … Part of the blame goes to molecular biologists, who hijacked the term “gene” for protein-coding sequences, confusing everyone.

    And those writers who misquoted them as saying that everything that did not so code was “junk.” The Creationists have thrown this back at us, ever after, as “See, science was wrong!”

  3. … but it’s fatally marred: infected by an all-too-common journalistic tendency, the adversarial urge to (presumably) boost circulation and harvest clicks by pretending to be controversial.

    Yes, those writers who are less interested in presenting thoughts that hold water, than boil it.

  4. I phoned Richard Dawkins to see what he thought of all this. Did genes follow rather than lead? I asked him specifically about whether processes such as gene accommodation might lead instead. Then he did something so slick and wonderful I didn’t quite realise what he’d done till after we hung up: he dismissed genetic accommodation… by accommodating it. Specifically, he said that genetic accommodation doesn’t really change anything, because since the gene ends up locking in the change and carrying it forward, it all comes back to the gene anyway.

    ‘This doesn’t modify the gene-centric model at all,’ he said. ‘The gene-centric model is all about the gene being the unit in the hierarchy of life that is selected. That remains the gene.’

    ‘He’s backfilling,’ said West-Eberhard. ‘He and others have long been arguing for the primacy of an individual gene that creates a trait that either survives or doesn’t.’

    And then neither Dobbs nor West-Eberhard offer ANY counterargument to Dawkins elegant statement. It is only genes that actually ratchet forward, for future generations, the acquired traits. Why is the story told this gene-centric way? Because the ratchet is the thing. The ratchet is why we are not sponges.

    Terrible article, full of what I loathe most….imputed, malicious motives. Cheap, shoddy, crass.

    Jerry Coyne with just one barrel blasts it squarely. A second barrel may be cruel but it will be fair.

      • In reply to #15 by Quine:

        In reply to #10 by phil rimmer:

        A second barrel may be cruel but it will be fair..

        Coyne could easily nail his head to the floor (or coffee table, as needed).

        Good old Dinsy Coyne. That other Piranha brother, Doug Pinker also rather neatly screwed Dobbs’s pelvis to a cake stand I thought.

        • In reply to #16 by phil rimmer:

          In reply to #15 by Quine:

          In reply to #10 by phil rimmer:

          A second barrel may be cruel but it will be fair..

          Coyne could easily nail his head to the floor (or coffee table, as needed).

          Good old Dinsy Coyne. That other Piranha brother, Doug Pinker also rather neatly screwed Dobbs’s pelvis to a c…

          For those who have no clue what Phil is going on about, here’s the reference. I was quite impressed that all I had to type into Google to find it was, “ethel th” and the rest was auto-filled.

          • In reply to #19 by Quine:

            In reply to #16 by phil rimmer:

            Ta! I wish I could always have someone to explain what I’m on about!

            BTW I noticed the record was somewhat different to the TV show

    • In reply to #10 by phil rimmer:

      I phoned Richard Dawkins to see what he thought of all this. Did genes follow rather than lead? I asked him specifically about whether processes such as gene accommodation might lead instead. Then he did something so slick and wonderful I didn’t quite realise what he’d done till after we hung up: he…

      This is just BS. Dawkins lacks intellectual honesty. Science moves on. There are many geneticists who think Dawkins has overstated the case. Dawkins has become a blowfish. He hasn’t published anything of real interest in years. I can read the sports page if I want to observe the behavior of homers. This has nothing to do with creationism or Dawkins, fan folk.

  5. I think Richard is right to exercise his free speech on Twitter by posting comments there. He is setting a good example by speaking regardless of whether he’s well-received or not. That’s the way it used to be, and it’s a healthier way to be.

    When did we become so averse to controversy?

    Why not let it rip (libel excepted); and do not appease the moaners who claim to be offended. Flying horses anyone? Not today thank you.

  6. The article by Dobbs does seem to be an attempt to generate some kind of heated argument on the strength of a misreading of the Selfish Gene.

    After the corrective texts from Coyne, Dawkins and Pinker, all that remains of the Dobbs piece is ashes.

  7. I note my comment on the Aeon site appears to have been pulled. It argued that evolving to better evolve was an entirely familiar concept. Evolving gene accommodation to provide an extended tolerance of a novel environmental niche for long enough until a ratcheted and stable capacity to accommodate it (through a suitable mutation) has been managed, is as valid an achievement for a self serving gene as any other.

    (Incidentally, various other mechanisms exist, for instance, through an evolutionary change to mutation rates.)

  8. Only marginally on topic: anyone know if grasshoppers-that-can-become-locusts are evolved from grasshoppers-that-cant-become-locusts, or if it is the other way round? Like flightless birds, have some grasshoppers lost the ability?

    • In reply to #14 by OHooligan:

      Only marginally on topic: anyone know if grasshoppers-that-can-become-locusts are evolved from grasshoppers-that-cant-become-locusts, or if it is the other way round? Like flightless birds, have some grasshoppers lost the ability?

      There are a couple of theories, it seems. I like this latest one best. Pressured by population density into cannibalism the transition to gregarious swarm animal stems the self destructive behaviour. Having your back legs rubbed often seems to release serotonin which Jekyl and Hydes them into their new state. I would imagine that the species was once flying and elects the lower energy use state of dispensing with wings when unneeded.

      Looking up Grasshopper flagged up SpaceX. It made me think when our population density gets much more and we get tempted to eat the poor, if we too might exhibit behavioural phase polyphenism. We might turn into space locusts.

  9. Several have raised , here and else where, the question about improved PR and the “misunderstandings” – and subsequent diversionary peripheral arguments ( “buffoonery”, racist, etc… charges) arising out some of RD’s often pungent off the cuff tweets and remarks. We must recognize that RD has by now become an influential icon, which in a way goes beyond his own personal character . Without constraining in any way his freedom of expression, IMO two things could be done : 1. have his tweets vetted by staff for possible unnecessary “offensiveness”; 2. Have some arguments/statements which are valid , but off putting to many ( e.g. Muslims having few Nobel prizes, the probability that Obama/Kennedy are/were atheists,…) either left unsaid, of if necessary, made by staff/associates, but not by RD himself.

  10. It was interesting to learn from Dobbs that Hamilton was a “funny statistician with a shaggy haircut.” I see that Jerry Coyne has challenged the “statistician” part. In the little Hamilton I have read (or seen quoted) I don’t think Hamilton was funny at all. Am I wrong? I must admit though that in the pictures I have seen his haircut was indeed scraggy. However, I don’t understand how this particular “feature” ( was it permanent throughout his life?) is relevant to assessing his role in evolutionary biology.

  11. I think Richard Dawkins has the last word, his scholar clarity is still awe inspiring. His reply is already a classic: One can quickly and clearly appreciate the methodological thought process of a trained scientist.

    • In reply to #23 by vanalex:

      I think Richard Dawkins has the last word, his scholar clarity is still awe inspiring. His reply is already a classic: One can quickly and clearly appreciate the methodological thought process of a trained scientist.

      Not only is Richard Dawkins clearly much more intelligent than Dobbs, he is more gracious and forgiving, much to the chagrin of the religious.

      • In reply to #25 by Jared:

        In reply to #23 by vanalex:

        I think Richard Dawkins has the last word, his scholar clarity is still awe inspiring. His reply is already a classic: One can quickly and clearly appreciate the methodological thought process of a trained scientist.

        Not only is Richard Dawkins clearly much more intelli…

        You are clearly an idiot if you think this is about religion rather than science. You object to what Dobbs’s reports, then address your comments to the scientists who think Dawkins should get back to science and skip the non-scientific posturing that sells his book.

    • In reply to #23 by vanalex:

      I think Richard Dawkins has the last word, his scholar clarity is still awe inspiring. His reply is already a classic: One can quickly and clearly appreciate the methodological thought process of a trained scientist.

      “Awe inspiring,” “classic,” “trained scientist” = homer

  12. I’ve recently read an article in which a few Harvard professors also claimed the Selfish Gene idea was flawed. While I possess no academic background in biology, I must say that their arguments against it didn’t convince me at all, if simply because they didn’t offer an alternative, they just bashed the Selfish Gene notion based on the idea that it wouldn’t explain altruism in insects. Well, what would then? I actually am interested in knowing. Also, it’s probably biased on my part, but the artice I’ve read mentioned at some point that one of those Harvard professors was a catholic. I immediately became suspicious simply because of that.

  13. “Another way to put it: Mendel stumbled over the wrong chunk of gold.”

    Could someone help me with this statement. How possibly could Mendel have come upon the idea of gene modification before coming up with the idea of a gene?
    In general I think that all though the article made some interesting points on grass hoppers and locusts it was hardly worth responding to. In a sense it reminds of the book “Darwin’s Watch” written by Terry Pratchett, Ian Stewart and Jack Cohen, Which seems to misunderstand SG in a similar way, but with even more scientific inaccuracies.

    • In reply to #35 by david.halliwell.904:

      “Another way to put it: Mendel stumbled over the wrong chunk of gold.”

      Could someone help me with this statement. How possibly could Mendel have come upon the idea of gene modification before coming up with the idea of a gene?
      In general I think that all though the article made some interesting poi…

      I don’t know much about genetics but I’ll take a stab at answering anyway. I think what it means is that he discovered the mathematical model that describes how inheritance works in organisms. You can do that without knowing what the specific physical thing that controls inheritance is. It turned out to be genes and other people figured that out but what Mendel did was to set them on the right search path, saying “here is the way inheritance works, we need to find what in biology makes this happen but when we do here is how it will work”

      I think it’s not that uncommon a phenomenon. Copernicus for example defined the correct model for the solar system without having a clue what gravity was. Chomsky and other linguists have defined very rigorous models that describe mathematical properties for the language function that humans have even though how that function is implemented in our brains is not even close to being understood yet.

      It’s actually kind of interesting how much in a formal mathematical sense we can say about languages in general (and that means computer as well as human languages) even though we still barely have a clue the details of language understanding in a physical brain.

  14. In reply to Red Dog.

    Perhaps my point was not clear enough. Dobbs suggested that Mandel had stumbled on the wrong chunk of gold, i.e. Mendellian inheritance. This in fact was an important discovery, because it showed for the first time that inheritance was particulate, and therefore provided a unit for natural selection to act on. However it had to be proposed before gene modification could. In a similar way for example Newtonian physics had to be proposed before Einsteinian physics could. So the statement by Dobbs that Mendel stumbled on the wrong chunk of gold does not, to a layman seem to make much sense.

  15. It is all very well Mr Dawkins and his acolytes taking pot shots at Mr Dobbs but it is not just him making these and other criticisms of the gene-centric view of evolution. The article list numerous eminent scientists who make similar points.

    In his last paragraph Richard Dawkins almost implies he and Mary Jane West-Eberhard are on exactly the same page but as I understand it she stresses much more the greater role for environmental factors and gene expression as against gene mutations than he does in relation to evolution.

    It may be that the differences are not as great as the article implies but it does not mean that there is not a difference at all, at least in emphasis.

    • In reply to #38 by davidpercival:

      It is all very well Mr Dawkins and his acolytes taking pot shots at Mr Dobbs but it is not just him making these and other criticisms of the gene-centric view of evolution. The article list numerous eminent scientists who make similar points.

      In his last paragraph Richard Dawkins almost implies he…

      I think you are missing the point here. The science that was originally reported on is good science and Dawkins doesn’t disagree with it. I’m sure he would have issues with specific parts of the work because this is new research but he isn’t saying that the main idea or approach is flawed. What he takes issue with, and I totally agree with him on this is the way the research is presented. Rather than “here is new information about how genes work” it’s presented as if it somehow revolutionizes or invalidates the reigning neodarwinian theory of genes which it absolutely doesn’t.

      It’s a common theme in science reporting I think for two reasons: 1) Sensationalism. This is nothing new really. “If it bleeds it leads” and that also applies to stories about science, looking for metaphorical blood in the sense of attacking leading paradigms or thinkers and 2) A general mistrust of science. This is new and a lot more of a concern. Within the US (and what happens here tends to make it’s way to the rest of the world) there is a dedicated effort to discredit science and the scientific method. For lots of reasons. The scientific method yields all sorts of inconvenient truths that people would rather not know about. Climate change, gun violence, and evolution over creationism are three examples.

    • In reply to #38 by davidpercival:

      It is all very well Mr Dawkins and his acolytes taking pot shots at Mr Dobbs but it is not just him making these and other criticisms of the gene-centric view of evolution. The article list numerous eminent scientists who make similar points.

      “.

      Red Dog in # 39 has aptly reformulated once more the main point at issue.

      Of all people, RD can be the least accused of being “defensive” and protecting his turf. As evidence, I would recommend the reading the endnotes of the 2006 edition of the Selfish Gene ,( 60+ pages), where he has absolutely no problem admitting that new evidence etc…has caused him to change his mind or have second thoughts, that “this was wrong”, etc.. It is obvious that since 2006 there has been many “developments” which would require updating, new emphasis, corrections etc..
      ..

  16. I’m the author of the article under discussion. I’ve posted a revision of ‘Die, Selfish Gene, Die’ that seeks to clarify some issues and answer some of the critiques. I also put up a post at my blog providing some context about the revision (including its take-home) and links to resources, including a highlighted version that make it easier to spot the added and altered passages.

    • In reply to #41 by David_Dobbs:

      This is still, as Pinker points out, mostly a semantic issue. You have in no way proved that the primary requirement of any successful replicator (and the replicator alone) is anything other than it must be self-serving. Evolving to evolve better is entirely self serving. The cog/gene, as your metaphor has it, is indeed the core of it, as you say, because it is the thing that ratchets the gross changes. Self-serving DNA is the first big shock to those who have a folk perception of evolution. It is the most important idea to grasp. The evolved tricks of broadening tolerance to niches etc. before a substantive change can be made to secure the habitat etc., don’t change a thing and more importantly such mechanisms were probably not in place earlier in evolution.

      And still nowhere is there an explanation of why replicators do not serve themselves, only that there is self-serving replicator help for their self serving. And still nowhere proof that this huge insight into “what is served” obstructs the burgeoning analysis of the exciting fine detail. Not a single scientist has been misled.

    • In reply to #41 by David_Dobbs:

      I’m the author of the article under discussion. I’ve posted a revision of ‘Die, Selfish Gene, Die’ that seeks to clarify some issues and answer some of the critiques. I also put up a post at my blog providing some context about the revision (including its take-home) and links to resources, including…

      Congratulations Mr Dobbs on your article which I found erudite and balanced. I think you will have difficulty getting a fair hearing from most of the posters on this site, however, as anyone who questions neo Darwinism is as welcome as a Protestant at the Court of Phillip II in these circles. Keep up the good work. I will be checking out your blog.

      • In reply to #45 by davidpercival:

        In reply to #41 by David_Dobbs:

        In the continued absence of your namesake back here, perhaps you understand his argument well enough to explain how genes may have any long term viability if they are not essentially self serving?

        And why is DD’s complaint of reduced visibility for the latest work on gene expression, not primarily against the oppressive ubiquity of Natural Selection as the fundamental explanatory characteristic of evolution, which feature is also modified by gene expression? (Accommodation reduces what might have been the primary selection pressure.)

        Natural selection occurs (quite rightly) in far more popular accounts of evolution than say the selfish gene concept, but, that word “selfish” is perhaps something of a magnet for the socially anxious.

        • If you click on his blog below you can ask him yourself directly

          In reply to #47 by phil rimmer:

          In reply to #45 by davidpercival:

          In reply to #41 by David_Dobbs:

          In the continued absence of your namesake back here, perhaps you understand his argument well enough to explain how genes may have any long term viability if they are not essentially self serving?

          And why is DD’s complaint of reduc…

          • In keeping with site policy we have removed the link to the blog, but Mr Dobbs is of course welcome to argue the points on this thread if he wishes.

            The mods

            In reply to #48 by davidpercival:

            If you click on his blog below you can ask him yourself directly

            In reply to #47 by phil rimmer:

            In reply to #45 by davidpercival:

            In reply to #41 by David_Dobbs:

            In the continued absence of your namesake back here, perhaps you understand his argument well enough to explain how genes may have an…

          • In reply to #48 by davidpercival:

            In reply to #49 by Moderator:

            Mr Dobbs is of course welcome to argue the points on this thread if he wishes.

            Indeed.

            Having brought the controversy to RD (the man) and some attempted mitigation to RD (the website) it would be the better place to argue his case. He will, of course, be reading this thread having posted already.

  17. I was curious what the outside world might actually understand the Dawkins’ position on “genes just code for proteins” to be.

    Wiki on genes

    Richard Dawkins’ books The Selfish Gene (1976) and The Extended Phenotype (1982) defended the idea that the gene is the only replicator in living systems. This means that only genes transmit their structure largely intact and are potentially immortal in the form of copies. So, genes should be the unit of selection. In The Selfish Gene Dawkins attempts to redefine the word ‘gene’ to mean “an inheritable unit” instead of the generally accepted definition of “a section of DNA coding for a particular protein”.

  18. In reply to #45 by davidpercival:

    Congratulations Mr Dobbs on your article which I found erudite and balanced. I think you will have difficulty getting a fair hearing from most of the posters on this site..

    One very much appreciate and welcomes contrary views in a website devoted to science and reason. However , this conversation is taking a an unfortunate and unproductive ad hominem tone. This was definitely started by Dobbs using unacceptable language in a scientific discussion ( buffoonery of RD, shaggy hair of Hamilton, …) , which indeed makes it difficult for him to get a fair hearing in any forum. But, assuming, as Dobbs claims ( but as others deny), that the Selfish Gene ideas (1976) are “dead”, misleading , wrong, old-hat.. whatever,… the important substantive point to note is that there is NOW general substantive agreement between all concerned (RD, Dobbs, West- Eberhard, etc…) on the issues.

  19. This is more a question. I was able to anticipate many of the refutations Professors Dawkins and Coyne came up with and am completely convinced that they’ve got it right on all counts, but as an educationist the field of epigenetics is one that I obviously am and need to be interested in. My question is whether quantitative differences in a particular trait might have epigenetic explanations. Although I have read all of RD’s books (not his papers however), I cannot recall if he has ever had anything to say about Neural Darwinism (a la Edelman). It seems clear enough that gene expression is genetically controlled even though particular environmental conditions must be met. To cut to the chase, I have speculated that differences in IQ are more epigenetic than genetic and that the achievement of certain neurological networks of connectivity during the formative years are more crucial vis-a-vis an adult’s IQ than what s/he inherited from her/his parents.

  20. Dawkins, you are the man. I’ve read Dennett, Harris and Hitch. You are the one that will change the average idiots mind. You need to be more Hitch…R.I.P. Hitch. Dawkins… never stop. I love the selfish gene, the god deiusion, and the greatest show on earth. My point is, I want to rid this world of 2000 year old bullshit. Dawk. See ya. Good night. Death to religion!

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