Exhilarating, combative narrative of gene’s-eye view of life

Author and Observer writer Robert McCrum loves a good list. Thus he has crafted a definitive selection of essential works of non-fiction, classic titles he believes have had a decisive influence on the shaping of our imagination — economically, socially, culturally and politically. The countdown starts here.

His No 10 choice is The Selfish Gene, Richard Dawkins’ intoxicating renewal of evolutionary theory that coined the idea of the meme and paved the way for his later, more polemical, works.

What is man, and what are we for? Remarkably, it was not until Charles Darwin published On the Origin of Species in 1859 that anyone, in our history, had thought methodically to address the reason for our existence.

Darwin’s answer to this simple question was to show that every earthly species – chimps or humans, lizards or fungus – had evolved over about three billion years by the process known as natural selection.

But then, after the furious controversy surrounding that publication, Darwin’s celebrated theory fell into neglect and misuse. A hundred years later, in the heady, innovative atmosphere of the 1960s, a new generation of young and ambitious evolutionary biologists found themselves confronted with a rare opportunity: the rediscovery and renewal of evolutionary theory.


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22 COMMENTS

  1. @OP – Darwin’s celebrated theory fell into neglect and misuse. A hundred years later, in the heady, innovative atmosphere of the 1960s, a new generation of young and ambitious evolutionary biologists found themselves confronted with a rare opportunity: the rediscovery and renewal of evolutionary theory.

    Really?? Darwin’s celebrated theory fell into neglect and misuse. . . . . . A hundred years later,

    In which backwater of the world did this happen??

    http://rsnr.royalsocietypublishing.org/content/64/1/5

  2. BTW,
    A very nice review. I read the Selfish Gene a few times and recommend it highly. It is an explosive idea and it’s enthusiasm is contagious.

    However, I regard Richard’s masterpiece to be “The Ancestor’s Tale” where biology lesson after Biology lesson are seamlessly woven into the Evolution narrative. It could easily supplant the Biology text in my classes and, if I could get board approval, I’d do just that.

  3. I’m in the process re-reading the 30th-anniversary edition of The Selfish Gene, which is meticulously updated.

    I’ve just finished reading The Brain that Changes Itself by Norman Droidge; it has endorsements from Oliver Sacks and V S Ramachandran, which speaks volumes.

    I’ve been away for a while, and it’s nice to be back, so, happy new year everyone.

  4. Really?? Darwin’s celebrated theory fell into neglect and misuse. . .
    . . . A hundred years later, In which backwater of the world did this
    happen??

    Not being a scholar myself, however I´m somewhat familiar with Teresa Avelar a scholar and sometimes attended some of her lectures open to public and broad audience and have in my shefs three books of Teresa Avelar, one is all about Darwinian theory acceptance, and it it seems it was more complex than it seems as far as natural selection was not immediately accepted as evolution was, the author mentions France as a special case in omiting Darwin.

    This study about Darwinism in Zoology Portuguse scholar textbooks mentions the situation of Portugal and mentions France, Spain and England for instances.
    Well, as I´ve said I am not na expert on the subject, but perhaps I ´ll concede the point to the author and lament the texto was not clear perhaps because the author thinks is not being controversial at all.

  5. @OP – But then, after the furious controversy surrounding that publication, Darwin’s celebrated theory fell into neglect and misuse. A hundred years later, in the heady, innovative atmosphere of the 1960s, a new generation of young and ambitious evolutionary biologists found themselves confronted with a rare opportunity: the rediscovery and renewal of evolutionary theory.

    This is clearly mistaken as far as scientists go, and even as far as popular English science publications go! –
    As this quote from a book I inherited from my father shows!

    It was supposed by Lamark, the great French zoologist.. . . . .
    It seemed therefore natural to think that changes produced in this way should be handed on to the future to future generations . . . . . . .

    But facts take no account of what we human beings think or desire; and with the establishment of the pure line idea, and the discovery that the hereditary constitution consisted of defined units of of living substance arranged in a definite way along the chromosomes, the matter took on a different aspect. In the first place it was definitely shown that many acquired characters were not inherited. . . . . . . . .

    In the past, Evolution seems to have depended mainly on the random occurrence of all sorts of mutations and the selection and survival of such organisms as possessed mutations which were favourable in the struggle for existence.

    Ch. “HEREDITY II – Page 32 – Essays in Popular Science – Julian Huxley,
    Professor of Zoology, University of London (King’s College)
    First published SEPTEMBER 1926, Reprinted 1933,
    Printed by Penguin Books Ltd. and
    Published in Pelican Books (Paperback price 6d) 1937.

  6. Quoting the book I´ve put in link before, it seems immediately afer the publication of The Origin of Species in 1859, the theory of evolution was generally and rapidily accepted in the scientific community (excepting France) so that 10 to 15 years after the publication, those who did not accept it were named “living fossil”, as Louis Agassiz was, nevertheless his own son e best students accepted it….
    But concerning natural selection it seems that even Thomas Huxley had put some reserve.

  7. Darwin’s celebrated theory fell into neglect and misuse

    Forgot to make a more literal quote, in the middle of what I´ve quoted in the previous comment, being more literal this time it says, and I´ve omitted:”(…) was rapidly accepted within the scientific community, running biology´s practise ever since.”

  8. A hundred years later, in the heady, innovative atmosphere of the
    1960s, a new generation of young and ambitious evolutionary biologists
    found themselves confronted with a rare opportunity: the rediscovery
    and renewal of evolutionary theory.

    “(…) it was necessary more than one hundred years after the publication of natural selection for someone make a serious attempt to solve the problem of cooperation between living organisms in some species(…) beside the great mess that has been done attempting to explain cooperation, including by biologists…”

    (my free translation)

    Then the book explains Hamilton´s attempt… and Hamilton´s perspective on natural selection at level of the gene… and goes then to the publication of The Selfish Gene, explaing that Science historians are working on this kind of “revolution”.

    I ´m glad I aquired this book, it seems useful for a lay person as me, it has made the subject more clear to me.

  9. @OP – Darwin’s celebrated theory fell into neglect and misuse.

    Darwin’s theory “never fell into neglect”, but it did suffer from pseudo-scientific misuse by the NAZIs and social Dawinists.

    A hundred years later, in the heady, innovative atmosphere of the 1960s,- a new generation of young and ambitious evolutionary biologists found themselves confronted with a rare opportunity: the rediscovery and renewal of evolutionary theory.

    The author misunderstands the issues, and conflates the underlying basic neo-Darwinian evolutionary theory, with the 1960s expansion of environmental studies in ecology, and the wider integrated studies of environments, which crossed the scientific subject boundaries in biology, palaeontology, ecology, agriculture, geology, meteorology, oceanography and climatology, to take an overview of the global big picture.

    Basic local environmental conditions in habitats, of latitude, altitude, slope, aspect, climate belts, and seasonal variations, have always been noted by field biologists when describing species. – Arm-chair “scientists” and “museum specimen collection label stickers” (such as critics of Darwin), – not so much!

  10. The author misunderstands the issues, and conflates the underlying
    basic neo-Darwinian evolutionary theory, with the 1960s expansion of
    environmental studies in ecology,

    Possibly, the author is not a biologist and even biologists made (make actually) a mess it seems with darwinian theory of natural selection when stating a romantic idea that organisms of a species live for the sake of their group ??’ (the book mentions)

  11. maria melo #13
    Jan 14, 2017 at 5:17 pm

    But concerning natural selection it seems that even Thomas Huxley had put some reserve.

    The mechanisms of natural selection in millions of individual genera and species, are diverse and complex. There is no “one size fits all”!

    The BASIC principle of common descent by passing on genes with mutant variations to subsequent generations, is much simpler to understand than the complexity of multi-species interactions ecosystems!

  12. reply to Allan4discussion previous comment:

    Well, I feel in a way glad that even being a complex subject for a lay person as me you´ve tried to explain in a short sentence.

    (Once I´ve asked a former professor of mine an “internet question” and she replied that this kind of talk is unuseful-she meant she knew so much as a scholar that it was in a wa.y unuseful to explain in a brief talk- just gave me a brief clue however).
    Yes of course, it´s too much for a lay person to learn in one day I guess.
    Well I don´t give up the internet (begun love it in a certain way after a Sociology professor prsented it in a seducing way to his students).

  13. Alan4discussion #16
    Jan 17, 2017 at 8:41 am

    the 1960s expansion of environmental studies in ecology, and the wider integrated studies of environments, which crossed the scientific subject boundaries in biology, palaeontology, ecology, agriculture, geology, meteorology, oceanography and climatology, to take an overview of the global big picture.

    By the !970s and 1980s, the New-Age environmental movement tried to personify this in versions of the Gaia Hypothesis.

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gaia_(mythology)#Modern_ecological_theory

  14. I find it amusing that this gene based view is so controversial. It seems obvious to me that if you accept evolution then every change that we see at the level of the organism must necessarily be based on coding at the level of the gene. It seems the barrier Dawkins smashed through here was one of a human centric mindset.

    The academic disagreements were real, Gould and Dawkins, for example. I heard Dawkins in a panel debate with Carl Sagans ex wife Lynn Margulis and some other evolutionary biologists who believed that the type of genetic sharing that occurs at the level of bacteria (non-sexual cross transfer of genetic material) was happening at the level of much higher organisms and that this was driving evolution. It was fascinating that when Richard pointed out (I thought reasonably) that any genes being transfered must first exist and their mutation therefore the true driver of evolution (even if there was significantly more cross transfer between species than previously thought, Lynn was arguing that it was happing much more in higher organisms which was disputed also) was a knockdown argument that did not seem to deter those scientists who disagreed (I’m paraphrasing here and it’s been some years so my memory may not be perfect).

    A similar argument seems to happen with epigenetics, again turning genes on and off can obviously effect the outward expression of genes in the organism but without changes (mutations) to the base genes epigenetics has nothing to work on (and the fact that epigenetic changes do not seem to be permanent). As yet I’ve not heard a good argument against the selfish gene way of looking at things and thus I just see it as how evolution works. I don’t get the objections to it, its just evolution. Richard I think with the selfish gene did a damn good job of clarifying the theory of evolution and shaking off quite a bit of dross clinging on around the edges.

  15. Reckless Monkey #21
    Jan 18, 2017 at 4:20 pm

    As yet I’ve not heard a good argument against the selfish gene way of looking at things and thus I just see it as how evolution works. I don’t get the objections to it, its just evolution.

    I think where the OP article falls down, is in conflating arguments about the details of genetics and evolution, with the fundamental principles of Darwin.

    The point I made earlier, is that it also conflates the 1960s expansion of understanding of the ecological links in the local and global environment, with the basic evolutionary biology.

    That’s why I introduced the concepts of the Gaia Hypothesis.

    The scientific aspects of the Gaia Hypothesis, are valid, but not DIRECTLY related to a dominance of biological evolution although it is certainly an interactive part of it.

    Gaia is about the co-evolution of the biology, the geology, and the astronomical inputs to the planet. – From the time of evolution of an oxygen atmosphere affecting the nature of the oceans and the sedimentary rocks or earlier.
    In the discussion on asteroid mining I pointed out that while iron in meteorites and some asteroids is a metal alloy, on Earth – since the evolution of the oxygen atmosphere, it has been “iron ore” which is in fact the rust deposits laid down on the sea-bed when the iron dissolved in the early oceans oxidised in areas where stromatolites released concentrated oxygen into the previous anoxic atmosphere.
    Coal measures, peat deposits, chalks limestones and numerous other geological features of our planet, are the result of the chemical and physical interactions of life and non-living materials.

    The awareness of the joining up of previously compartmentalised science subjects, became much more widespread from the 1960s onward.

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