The “selfish gene” redux: Aeon magazine collects opinion on the metaphor

March 12, 2014 • 7:14 am

Last December, David Dobbs published a jeremiad in Aeon magazine called “Die, selfish gene, die”.  And I criticized it in two posts (here and here), while Richard Dawkins, who of course coined the term “selfish gene,” and Steven Pinker also took issue with it. I’ll summarize Dobb’s original thesis by quoting my initial post on it:

At any rate, Dobb’s goal is several fold. First, he wants to claim that the metaphor of the selfish gene is wrong.  Second, he wants to show that it’s wrong because new understanding of gene regulation—how genes turn on and off during development—render the selfish gene metaphor passé.  Finally, he claims that a new theory, that of “genetic accommodation,” relegates much of conventional evolutionary theory to the dustbin, for the new theory deposes the centrality of the gene in favor of the centrality of the environment and its non-genetic effects on development.

I won’t reprise my criticisms, except to say that the metaphor of genes acting as if they are “selfish” when subject to natural selection remains perfectly good, whether or not those genes (or any bit of DNA) are part of the genome that makes proteins, regulates other genes, or comprises any bit of DNA that has the ability to get itself replicated more often than its competitors. Second, gene regulation doesn’t do anything to invalidate the “selfish gene” metaphor, for even regulatory genes, if they’re subject to adaptive evolution, behave “selfishly.” Finally, Dobb’s theory of genetic accommodation was incoherent, and, even when construed more coherently as the notion of “genetic assimilation,” is a phenomenon that appears to be very rare in nature—certainly not common enough to make the idea of genes as “selfish” entities passé.

Now, after I thought the dust had settled, Aeon apparently thinks the controversy is worth reviving, and is milking it for web hits by asking five people, Robert Sapolsky, Laura Hercher, Karen James, John Dupré, and David Dobbs himself, to weigh in on the issue: “Dead or alive? Is it time to kill off the idea of the ‘selfish gene’?”

It’s a remarkably unenlightening read—by and large a waste of space—though a few contributors make some good points, and Karen James’s take is well worth reading. I’ll just reprise each person’s main reactions to the question:

Robert Sapolsky, a neuroscientist at Stanford. Sapolsky emphasizes our new knowledge of gene regulation, arguing that perhaps a lot of what we once thought of as “junk” DNA actually has a function in regulating genes. (He does, however, seem to buy into the ENCODE Projects deeply criticized conclusion that a substantial fraction of noncoding DNA has a regulatory function. We don’t really know that yet.) But Sapolsky does narrow in on the huge flaw in Dobb’s argument:

What this implies is that the evolution of genes – selection for changes in the DNA sequences of particular genes – isn’t as important as the extreme gene-centric view suggests. But that doesn’t decrease the importance of the evolution of the genome, the collection of all the DNA (coding for genes, regulatory elements, and whatever other functions haven’t been discovered yet). Why? Because, as noted above, regulatory elements such as promoters are also made of DNA sequences. When there’s a mutational change in the DNA sequence coding for a gene, and that new variant gets selected for, evolution happens. But critically, when there’s a mutational change in the DNA sequence coding for a regulatory element, and that new variant is selected for, evolution also happens. And that can matter – just think of those formerly polygamous mountain voles. By now, it is clear that the evolution of regulatory elements is at least as important as that of the genes themselves.

Dobbs’s point, however, was not to show that we know a lot about how genes are regulated, which would have been fine for a general essay in, say, Scientific American. No, Dobbs wanted to make a big splash by showing that gene regulation and the notion of genetic accommodationism invalidated the idea of the selfish gene. And Sapolsky shows why that’s wrong, for all adaptive changes in the genome, be they in regulatory or coding elements, involve natural selection. And natural selection is precisely what the idea of the “selfish gene” is meant to encapsulate. (And did so brilliantly, in my view). But Sapolsky wants to be a nice guy and not be too hard on Dobbs, even though the paragraph above makes hash of Dobbs’s thesis. Sapolsky ends with a kumbaya moment:

It ultimately makes no sense to ask what a gene does, only what it does in a particular environment; remember what turns grasshoppers into locusts. It is the triumph of context. In proclaiming the importance of gene regulation, Dobbs is de facto proclaiming the genome as more a collaborator with the environment than as the Holy Grail.

Yes, but so what? As we’ve known for over a century (indeed, since Darwin’s time if you count his ignorance of how heredity works), genes have a survival value only in a particular environment. Finches with heavy beaks are advantageous in environments with large seeds, but those beaks are a handicap when seeds are small.  Clearly natural selection involves the interaction of genetic variation with an environment, be that environment internal or external.  That is old news. Dobbs defends himself later by saying that this stuff, and new findings about gene regulation, may be old news to scientists, but not to the public. Fine. Then let Dobbs write an essay on those new findings. That is not the essay he wrote, for he wanted to make a big splash by overturning the “selfish gene” notion, and did so by dragging in questionable concepts like epigenetics and “genetic accommodation.”

Laura Hercher, an instructor in genetic counseling at Sarah Lawrence college in New York.  Hercher’s point seems to be that, as a genetic counselor, she sees that there is no one-to-one relationship between gene and phenotype; things are complex. (Well sometimes they’re not that complex: if you have the gene for Huntington’s chorea or achondroplastic dwarfism, you’re going to show the symptoms.)  Like Sapolsky, she lauds Dobbs for emphasizing gene-environment interaction, while largely ignoring his attempt to overturn the selfish gene metaphor. Insofar as she addresses that metaphor, she thinks, mistakenly, that Dawkins equated selfish genes with genetic determinism. Did she read his book? For Dawkins explicitly addresses, and denies, such a connection. Hercher’s essay doesn’t add much to the discussion:

But this emphasis on controversy within the evo-devo universe has obscured what I would consider to be Dobbs’s most significant argument: there is a pressing need to create a language in which to discuss the complex relationship between genes and traits, which is accessible to the non-scientist.

. . . Stories are important to writers. Many of us love the story of The Selfish Gene, which might explain some of the drama in response to Dobbs’s article. But stories are also important to all people as a method of coping, of making predictions about the world, of understanding things that are complicated and frightening. David Dobbs is right that when it comes to genetics in 2014, we need a better story to tell – a less selfish, more inclusive metaphor to offer the wider world.

Really? Do we really need more inclusive metaphors? And why? Did Hercher even read the book, which explains how “selfish genes” can lead to the evolution of cooperation? Does she know that Dawkins considered calling the book The Cooperative Gene instead?

Karen James, a staff scientist at Mount Desert Island Biological Laboratory in Maine. In her essay, “Let’s keep the ‘selfish gene’ lightbulb switched on’,” James shows herself to be the only commenter who seems to understand what Dobbs was getting at, and criticizes it appropriately.  She says it all in these excerpts:

Gene expression is important; indeed it is one of the most-studied processes in modern genetics. But it’s not at all clear that gene expression (whether generating environmentally responsive variation within the same species or codified variation among different species) represents an overthrow of the gene-centric view, on which The Selfish Gene rests.

. . .There are some notable exceptions, including cultural transmission of knowledge and behaviour (a concept that Dawkins explores in the final chapter of The Selfish Gene, in which he coins the word ‘meme’), epigenetic changes such as methylation, and epistasis (complex, gene-gene interactions). My major disagreement with Dobbs is not with these, but with the exception that he focuses on at greatest length: genetic assimilation.

Dobbs defines genetic assimilation as ‘an adaptive trait … originally developed through gene expression alone … made more permanent in … descendants by a new gene’. But ‘gene expression alone’ is misleading; gene expression is itself controlled by genes and how they interpret the environment. While it’s true that this interpretation can further modify the organism’s (and the gene’s) environment, and new genetic variations will now be selected in that modified environment, I don’t see this as evidence against the gene-centric view of evolution. I see it as an extension.

. . .In fairness, Dobbs does acknowledge that genetic assimilation is not the norm, nor ‘that it widely replaces conventional gene-driven evolution.’ But if it’s not common, and if it doesn’t replace gene-centric evolution, surely it cannot be a significant threat to the selfish gene.

How does this all connect to a larger view of evolutionary change? Considering the elements of evolution by natural selection – heritability, variation, and differential survival – it becomes clear that rewriting the genome really is the only way to evolve. Heritability is a must for evolution and, with a few exceptions, the aspects of organisms that are stably inherited through the generations are their genes. There are other mechanisms of evolution besides natural selection, such as genetic drift, but those still require heritability.

The answer to Dobbs’s question ‘Why bother rewriting the genome to evolve?’ then is ‘Because there is no other way’. The interactions among genes, and between them and the environment, are indeed far more sophisticated and ramified than what we learnt in high school, but evolution is, and indeed must be, gene-centric.

That summarizes, in just a few short paragraphs, why Dobbs’s article was not only misguided, but misleading. I still maintain that it was, in toto, damaging to the public understanding of science.

John Dupré, a British philosopher of science and director of the Centre for the Study of Life Sciences at Exeter University. Dupré notes that evolution can occur without genetic change (although many of us define “evolution” as a change in the frequencies of different gene forms), and his example is a good one: cultural inheritance, not just in humans but in some nest-parasitic birds like the indigobirds of Africa.

Indigobirds lay their eggs in nests of other species, and are thus freed from babysitting, since the male and female of the “host” species, unable to recognize the alien chick, do all the tending, allowing the parasitic birds to have more offspring. (You can have a lot more chicks if you can farm out their care to others.)

Parasites maintain their fidelity to nests because the fledgling parasitic male chicks learn the song of their foster father, while the parasitic female chicks learn the nest and appearance of their foster parents, and also learn to recognize the calls of their foster father.  This keeps the system stable,so that a parasitic female will infest the nest of the same species as did its parents: she will mate with her own male, who emits the recognized call of her foster father, and lays her eggs in the nest of the species of her foster parents.

Occasionally, though, a female makes a mistake and lays an egg in the nest of a different host species. That can trigger a “speciation event,” because such mistakes are rare, and the new parasitic chicks, imprinted on a different host, go on to parasitize the nest of the new species. Parasitic birds infesting the nests of different species, then, can be considered different species themselves, because they don’t mate with each other. As Allen Orr and I discuss in our book “Speciation,” this one of the few forms of nongenetic speciation, effected by a form of cultural inheritance based on imprinting. But even that involves subsequent genetic evolution, because the parasitic chicks go on to evolve markings in their mouths that resemble the markings of the chicks of their foster parents, so as to deceive those parents into feeding the alien parasite birds.

But this nongenetic and cultural form of evolution is rare (most species, and all plants, lack cultural inheritance), and is certainly no reason to overturn the notion of adaptation and speciation based on changes in genes themselves. (We shouldn’t forget, too, that that imprinting of parasitic chicks is the result of natural selection on “selfish genes” to mate properly and maintain nest fidelity.)

Dobbs also brings up genetic assimilation, which is a scenario too complex to explain here (read the Wikipedia article on it). He claims that this also acts to invalidate the selfish gene metaphor.

He’s wrong on two counts: natural selection on genes is still involved in this phenomenon, making the “selfish gene” metaphor still relevant; and examples of adaptations in nature involving genetic assimilation are almost nonexistent. When I wrote my original critique of Dobbs, I didn’t know of any, but now there’s one plausible example involving the reduction of eyes in cave fish. (I give the reference below.)  Still, that is only one example out of gazillions of adaptations whose evolutionary basis we understand, and which didn’t involve genetic assimilation.

As for epigenetics, I still know of no examples of adaptations in nature that involved a change in the DNA produced by solely the environment, and which then became inherited in a stable way over many generations. While epigenetics is important, the epigenetic changes involved in evolution have involved modifications of DNA coded by the DNA itself, bringing this evolutionary phenomenon into the bailiwick of “selfish genes.”

David Dobbs, science writer. Dobbs kicked off the whole controversy with his article, but his response to the kerfuffle is lame. It is, in fact, all about tone: we’ve been nasty, and we’ve misunderstood him.  There is not a single attempt to address the scientific criticisms that many of us, including Pinker, Dawkins and me, aimed at his article.  He claims, in fact, that our criticisms were designed to stifle discussion! But if that was the case, Aeon wouldn’t have run a second piece continuing that discussion! Dobbs’s beef:

My feelings here matter little. What does matter is the effect such attacks have on others looking on, and on open discussions about genetics and evolution at a time when genetics has plentiful reason to regroup and reconsider instead of defend and attack. Such hostility seems designed to quell rather than enrich discussion; to freeze rather than advance understanding; above all, to silence. It worked. While evolutionary researchers who objected to my article rightly felt free to speak up, few scholars who agreed with me felt similarly comfortable. Although many expressed agreement privately, almost no one did so in the open. I can’t blame them; who wants to leap into a bloody shark pool?

Pardon my French, but that’s hogwash. I don’t believe there’s a secret group of evolutionists who are afraid to openly agree with Dobbs. Maybe there are a few such pusillanimous people, but “many”? Of course we’ll never know, for Dobbs can’t name them. They’re scared!

Dobbs goes on to talk about how his intent was to create a multilayered story, and to bring new developments to the eyes of the public. That’s all fine by me, but that wasn’t his sole intent, as is palpably clear to anyone who read his original article.  Stung by the criticisms, he retreats to an almost theological stance: the scientific criticisms we raised are ignored, and we should be very concerned with the meaning of the stories:

Dawkins, responding to my article, asked: ‘Does Dobbs really expect me to be surprised [by the power of gene expression]?’

I do not. I was not writing for Dawkins. I was writing, as Dawkins himself writes, for a general audience, and for the same reasons Dawkins does: to share the wonders of genes and evolution with people who might not know of them; to put those wonders into context in a way that might generate new understanding; to share and make memorable not a brand-new fact or finding but a fresh reframing of the story of how evolution works. Like the ideas Dawkins described in The Selfish Gene, the ideas I wrote about had been discussed by scientists for years or decades but had reached few outside academe. And as Dawkins had done originally, I argued that a different characterisation of the gene’s role in evolution – in my case, one emphasizing the gene’s sociability rather than its selfishness – could tell a story about evolution that was still accurate but more layered, exciting, and consistent with recent research.

. . . In the century since it was named, ‘the gene’ has been a thing vague, variable, and often abstract. Is it wise to insist that something so slippery and mutable, so variously conceived, is not just ‘potentially immortal’, as Williams proposed, but literally immortal? Science does not advance by insisting that certain of its stories are immortal. It moves by allowing stories to evolve. And sometimes by letting them die.

There are a lot of new and exciting findings in evolutionary genetics, and plenty of room for responsible journalists like Carl Zimmer or Ed Yong to convey them to the public. But notice that neither Zimmer nor Yong ever resort to hype—to the “Dawkins/Darwin was wrong” trope that sells magazines and brings blog clicks. Dobbs thought he could gain attention by using new findings in genetics to go after a famous man who coined a famous and useful metaphor. It didn’t work, for nothing in science has happened to make that metaphor passé. I hope Dobbs has learned his lesson. Let the science sell itself: you needn’t use it to claim that scientific paradigms are flawed. The “X was wrong” hype may bring attention, but unless it’s supported by solid science, it won’t move people like me, and in the end will only confuse and mislead the public who, claims Dobbs, was the target of his article.

I think the figure below is a readers’ poll, though I’m not sure. I wouldn’t really go by the opinions of nonscientists, many of whom haven’t read Dawkins’s book and aren’t acquainted with evolutionary genetics. Indeed, that’s the case for many scientists as well, so this whole poll seems pretty useless.

Screen shot 2014-03-12 at 8.53.13 AM


Rohner, N., D. F. Jarosz, J. E. Kowalko, M. Yoshizawa, W. R. Jeffery, R. L. Borowsky, S. Lindquist, and C. J. Tabin. 2013. Cryptic Variation in Morphological Evolution: HSP90 as a Capacitor for Loss of Eyes in Cavefish. 10.1126/science.1240276. Science 342:1372-1375.

48 thoughts on “The “selfish gene” redux: Aeon magazine collects opinion on the metaphor

  1. I’ve greatly enjoyed Sapolsky’s books, and even if his response to Dobbs is tepid, I’d recommend them. Lots of good stuff about studying social stress in apes. (Hint: try and avoid it. It lowers your life span.)

    The indigobirds example is cool. Thanks for summarizing it (and writing about it in your upcoming book).

    As for the survey…yeah, I agree the “scientist/not a scientist” categorization is a very poor proxy for trying to distinguish those who read and understood the book from those who didn’t. “I read it/didn’t read it” doesn’t capture it completely either, but probably would have been a better proxy measure.

  2. I’d like to see a version of that poll with headings like “I am a biologist” or “I am an evolutionary biologist”. That would make more sense.

  3. The poll should not be divided between scientist and non-scientist; but between “I have read the book” and “I just read the title”.

    1. Even better, most physicists have little conception of what a gene is. In addition to your criteria, it should also distinguish “I am a scientist in the biological sciences”, “I am not a scientist in the biological sciences”.

      1. To be honest many biologists are pretty fuzzy on that question also. Conflicting meanings about what is meant by ‘gene’, particularly between molecular and evolutionary biology, lies at the root of much of this. The misunderstanding goes back several decades to when the concept of genes as protein-coding sequence of DNA nucleobases was introduced. This is a much more restrictive (and, it turns out, inadequate) definition compared to the more abstract idea embodied in the Modern Synthesis of evolutionary genetics.

        1. I think it’s more of a conflict between biochemists and geneticists than molecular and evolutionary biology. Molecular biologists in general are very aware of the importance of non-coding elements, such as transcription factor binding sites – even more so in the modern age of ncRNA etc. But then, I am molecular evolutionary geneticist, so I obviously wouldn’t want any of those groups being wrong!

          1. Certainly molecular biologists are aware of importance of non-coding information. But the fact that they call such regions ‘intergenic’ reveals their limited definition of a gene, which they then carry with them when reading e.g. Dawkins talking about selfish genes. (Note that even in 1976 Dawkins merely defined genes quite abstractly as inherited pieces of chromosome.)

            The confusion about ‘epigenetic’ phenomena suffers from the same issue. Waddington originally coined it in reference to what was then understood by ‘genetic’, but later mol biologists re-interpreted it as meaning any modifications to the DNA molecule other than nucleotide sequence changes. I suspect these would happily have been included in ‘genetic’ prior to the 1960s.

  4. Seems to me that once you realize that it’s only the genes that actually descend (with modification), the concept of the selfish gene falls out as an inevitable corollary. That was Richard’s contribution: pointing out that it’s not the evolution of species or even organisms at work, but the evolution of genomes, and the organisms are just the mechanisms the genes use to perpetuate themselves.

    I’d also add that objections to the basic tune of “genes can’t think / act / whatever” are based on the same type of Aristotelian / Platonic mindset that requires an agent for every act. However it is that the genes do what they do, they clearly do it, the actions clearly happen, the genes are clearly responsible, and so on; arguments to the contrary are rendered irrelevant by the facts on the ground. You can either accept the facts and adjust your understanding accordingly, or you can remain philosophically pure and disconnected from reality — as usual.



    1. Hi, Ben–
      I agree with you, but I also think the value of Dawkins’s book was that he makes us realize that even saying “the organisms are just the mechanisms the genes use to perpetuate themselves” gives too much agency to genes (obviously also the problem with “selfish”). I know you know this, and it’s hard to get around the English language on this topic (maybe because we’ve had the rule about passive verbs drilled into us?). But to me the book’s revelation was that I finally gained a deep gut understanding that what persists persists (for now) because it has persisted, not because it “wants” to persist. Given that most of us see ourselves and most of the rest of the world in terms of agency, I think this is a hard concept for many of us to take on, and few of us would have done so without Dawkins’s clear exposition.

      1. I think the point that I’d make is one that Richard would likely agree with: just as design does not need an intelligent designer, agency does not need an intelligent agent. I think it’s as reasonable to describe the genes as the agents as it is to describe the result of that agency as a design. So long as it’s made clear up front that this does not in any way imply or indicate any sort of conscious agency at work, especially any type of dualism — any more than Newtonian inertia implies a Prime Mover shepherding the planets in their orbits — then we should be just fine. The planets really are moving and the genes really are acting and reacting, but there aren’t any puppet strings nor puppeteers.



        1. I agree that it’s very reasonable. I think for many people who (unlike us) don’t spend a lot of time thinking about the subject, active verbs subliminally indicate a kind of intelligence or will. As I think you agree, that was the brilliance of the book: Dawkins walked my mind up to and through my previously unrecognized objections to some of the most basic concepts behind the theory. I know a number of other non-scientists who had the same experience. That may not have been a problem for you; it’s an interesting question to me why–even among atheists–the passiveness of the process is a harder idea for some to take on than for others.

          1. I remember struggling mightily with this basic class of ideas many years ago, but, once you make it through the first couple, the rest become easy; not long after that, it becomes more natural to think this way.

            …at least, that’s how it was for me….


    2. Well said. Agency is often imported where it does not belong. Genes are ultimately playing one game: chemistry and physics. But as, you say, they modify and descend. And they do so on time scales dictated largely by their capability (or limitations) of carrying information, much greater information than what most other chemical or physical combinations can solicit. And I think the concept selfish and/or cooperative is inevitable when describing this phenomena.

  5. I’d like to see the poll results split by “I [am / am not] a social justice warrior.” For it seems many who dislike Dawkins’ science also dislike his politics — Dawkins’ alleged racism (sic) against moslems, for example. Among them: Pigliucci; that tentacle guy; Dobbs himself (esp. see the first version of Dobbs’ article.)

    This desperate attempt to cobble together a ‘new, extended model’ to replace neo-darwinism seems a flank attack vs. evolutionary psychology. For, were behaviors in humans influenced even in part by genetics, then the PoMo maxim behind much social justice activism — that everything is just a social construct — would be false. Hence their desire to sweep the selfish gene under the rug of ‘black box plasticity.’

    It’s Lysenkoism.

    1. Interesting comment, Matt.

      Anyway, I used to enjoy reading “that tentacle guy” but I no longer trust his objectivity when evidence and new information that might conflict with his political agenda. That’s why I never cared for S. J. Gould either.

      On the other hand, I always trusted Carl Sagan to be objective about science that may have conflicted with his politics.

    2. “I’d like to see the poll results split by ‘I [am / am not] a social justice warrior.’ ”

      Im not sure what you mean or how you think such survey results would look. Dawkins himself rails constantly against social injustices like FGM.

      1. I’m guessing you’re not familiar with the pejorative “social justice warrior,” or the anti-science proclivities of those to whom it is applied.

  6. I wonder sometimes if people have read any other book by Dawkins on evolution, such as The Extended Phenotype. If he considers the beaver’s dam, and even the pond it creates, to be part of the beaver’s phenotype, he can hardly be accused of ignoring the environment!

    One of the points of The Selfish Gene was to recognize that evolution is not always for the better from our point of view. Bad things can also evolve. There is an element of “progressive” or “friendly” evolution in Dobbs that is at best naive, and certainly misleading.

    1. +1 to “Bad things [for us] can also evolve [within us]”

      Naturalistic fallacy (as in “This is natural, therefore good”) never fails to make me angry.

      1. That disturbs me too, when people think there can be no ‘misfortune’ in an evolved function. Sometimes what’s natural is just good enough, and/or full of compromises. Like my having to read this through glasses.

        1. Never mind departures from healthy youthful vision; our whole retinas are wired backwards. An intelligently-designed eye would much more closely resemble that of an octopus’s. For bonus points, vision would be spectrographic, not merely colorful….


          1. I know that some people can actually hear all the notes in a basic chord (3-4). I can definitely hear two out of 4-6 notes sometimes and do the rest FFT based on intuition, i.e., fill in the blanks. I would contend my ears-brain can do significantly better signal processing than my crap-ass eyes. Still, do not get me going on how crappy the human body is designed.

          2. As a professional musician, and a brass player to boot, I can reassure you that there’re an awful lot more notes audible in even just a diad than most people realize. They’re often called, “resultant tones,” and they’re what you listen for if you want to actually get anything in tune. Eventually it becomes instinctual, to the point that you can imagine them even when listening to waveforms in which they’re harder to hear.

            But, yeah. Put me in a room with another competent trumpet player, and the two of us can play just two notes that almost anybody will be able to hear as a full triad. Careful selection of pitches and careful attention on the part of the performers can expand that to four audible notes from two sounding notes, but it requires careful listening as well. You can imagine how quickly that effect can multiply with more than just two voices…but that’s also why it’s so easy to play out of tune. You see, you’ve got to get the resultant tones in tune with the other “regular” sounding voices…and the math can get insanely complicated damn quickly.

            It’s also possible to do the same sort of analysis on color, though of course it takes practice. A master painter should be able to mix various pigments together in order to get colors that all look the same…and then similarly still be able to tell them apart afterwards.

            …I think…I’m not quite at that level….


          3. I never thought too much about colors. But some people have a knack for selecting combinations that go really well, while others (cough, scientists ppt presentations, are god awful) can not understand how color can make a huge difference in presentation and how an audience learns not just from the content, but the structure and hierarchy of colors.

    2. Furthermore, and perhaps more to the point:

      If there is epigenetics, then there will also be Selfish Epigentics. If there is genetic accommodation, then there will also be Selfish Genetic Accommodation.

      Contrary to what they may think, Dobbs and kind do not get to escape the selfish aspect of genetics by shifting the focus away from genes.

  7. Science metaphors are like scientific theories-They are meant as workable approximations or descriptions of complex and observable processes. The ones that work at some practical level persist. When I read the The Selfish Gene (admittedly many years ago) the take away was to discard any notion of volition or planning from thinking about evolution. Persistence was the only measure of merit. I think that is still a useful sound byte regardless of the interplay of genes with higher levels of regulation-it’s still a natural and unguided process

  8. Being prompted by this posting, I went back to refresh my memory of what Dobbs had said. Yep, he writes well, and lends a credible tone to his message, but his message is simply wrong on basic molecular genetics.

  9. I read TSG about a decade ago and I found most of it quite unsurprising. Possibly this is due to my having learned what little I know of genetics from people who had previously read TSG, but the idea of assigning agency to a non-sentient object is not novel at all. A physics 101 teacher might well describe a round rock as “wanting” to roll downhill. Surely nobody takes this to imply the rock has self-awareness and/or actual desires. It is simply a shortcut to understanding natural processes, but maybe this serves as a Rorschach Test to determine how easily one might be seduced by religion. Perhaps some of us are more likely to ascribe intelligent agency to any old phenomenon they see and others of us are less likely. This might give some sort of insight into how some people cling to religion more tightly than others.

    1. One interesting example of unneeded agency is the idiom in English whereby we say “it is raining,” rather than the more common idiom in other languages, something like “rain is falling.” Why do we want something to be raining? What do we think it is?

  10. Well at least they did not ask Mary Midgley for an opinion.

    As for this:
    “Such hostility seems designed to quell rather than enrich discussion; to freeze rather than advance understanding; above all, to silence. It worked. While evolutionary researchers who objected to my article rightly felt free to speak up, few scholars who agreed with me felt similarly comfortable. Although many expressed agreement privately, almost no one did so in the open. I can’t blame them; who wants to leap into a bloody shark pool?”

    I wonder if he has considered the damage this will do to public understanding of science when creationists jump on this as evidence for their conspiracy theory of “Darwinists silencing opposing views”?

  11. Dobbs is in interesting company. David Bentley Hart spills quite a bit of ink in his “The Experience of God” fulminating against the notion of the “selfish gene” in the context of his interesting revisions to Darwinian evolution. For example, on page 259 of my hardbound version,

    “Consider, for example, the profoundly foolish metaphor of the “selfish gene” – foolish,that is, simply because a metaphor is only useful only when it elucidates its topic. This one does just the opposite: it actually obscures any clear picture of the genetic determination of organisms, and ultimately produces an alternate picture that cannot possibly be accurate.”

    …and on, and on, and on, for seven more pages of similar stuff, as well as additional honorable mentions in other parts of the book.

      1. That depends.

        Have you read it yet? No? Then of course! Yes? Sorry — that wasn’t the actual one you were supposed to read; try this other one instead.


        1. You got that right. If this guy is the best the Sophisticated Christians can come up with, I’d say they’re grasping at straws. He writes in the style of a high school prima donna who people have made such a fuss over she thinks she’s Meryl Streep.

  12. If anthropomorphism is the complaint here, wouldn’t it make more sense to first retire the silly metaphor that an idea that’s in active use (yet not alive!) can be “killed”?

  13. I don’t think I have ever met anyone who disagreed with “Selfish Gene” metaphor and went on to demonstrate that they understood what both “selfish” and “gene” mean in that context.

    The agency aspect of “selfish” confuses some people, it is true. (Why? Have they not even read the foreword to the book?!) But, I think misconceptions of what “gene” means might be even more damaging.

    Biochemists have done a good job of hijacking “gene” to mean a protein-coding stretch of DNA. In selfish gene terms, “gene” is simply a unit of heredity, i.e. any bit of DNA (of any length/location) that has some functional consequence in its genetic background. The “gene” concept is a fuzzy continuum of genetic information rather than an explicitly definable genetic element – as soon as you try to pin selfish genetics to only certain genetic elements, you will get in trouble.

  14. The ‘gene’ is an amorphous structure that has been redefined many times as we learn more about DNA function/regulation. Any acting geneticist/molecular biologist knows this, which is why I find Dobbs’ idea of a gene ridiculously reductionist and a cheap shot.

  15. I’m reminded whenever his subject of a part of Spinoza’s ‘Ethics’ where he said that things have a tendency to *persist* in and of themselves, which I find the best analogy to the behaviour of genes. Would we still be talking about this if Dawkins had written “The Persistent Gene”?

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *