Dead or Alive?

Is it time to kill off the idea of the ‘Selfish Gene’? We asked four experts to respond to our most controversial essay

by , , , and 6800 6,800 words
  • Read later or Kindle
    • KindleKindle
Photo by Nik Taylor/Getty

Photo by Nik Taylor/Getty

Robert Sapolsky is a primatologist, a professor at Stanford University & at Stanford School of Medicine. His latest book is Monkeyluv: And Other Essays on Our Lives as Animals (2005).

Laura Hercher is an instructor in ethics and social issues in genetic counselling at Sarah Lawrence College in New York and the author of the novel Anybody’s Miracle (2013).

Karen James is a staff scientist at Mount Desert Island Biological Laboratory in Maine, and co-founder and director of the UK-based charity The HMS Beagle Trust.

John Dupré is a British philosopher of science and director of the Centre for the Study of Life Sciences at Exeter University. His latest book is Processes of Life: Essays in the Philosophy of Biology (2012).

David Dobbs has written for The New York Times, National Geographic, NewYorker.com and Slate. His next book, working title The Orchid and the Dandelion, is due in 2015. He lives in Vermont.

I can vividly remember reading The Selfish Gene in my local library as a teenager: it was both a page-turner and something of a conversion experience. Richard Dawkins’s explanation of the unsparing reality of evolution blew like a cold, refreshing wind through everything I thought I knew about human nature, and is one of the great pieces of scientific writing from the last century. I was hardly surprised then, that David Dobbs’s essay ‘Die Selfish Gene’ provoked a fierce and prolonged debate when we published it in Aeon last December. But now it’s time to take stock: is the ‘selfish gene’ idea still a useful way to explain evolution? We invited four experts, and the writer himself, to respond to this question. And we invite you to join the conversation by taking our quick survey at the bottom of the page. What do you think: is it time to get rid of the ‘selfish gene’ or is it here to stay?

Brigid Hains, Editor

It makes no sense to ask what a particular gene does

Robert Sapolsky, neuroscientist

This is a time of feverish belief in the importance of genes, as an ever greater number of genomes are sequenced at ever faster rates. The premise of this excitement is that DNA is the centre of the universe of life, the Code of Codes, the holy grail, the source of information and commands that run every cell.

David Dobbs’s provocative and timely piece argues against the importance of the gears of evolution working through selection for genes. Instead, he emphasises the critical role of gene regulation. When, where and how much a gene is expressed – the crux of gene regulation – can be more important than the gene itself. Differences in gene regulation explain why your neurons and your big-toe cells can contain the same genes yet be so different. It explains how caterpillars turn into butterflies. And, sometimes, how one species can split into two. Therefore, Dobbs concludes, the traditional ‘gene-centric’ obsession with selection for genes, and of the hegemony of the selfish gene, should be scrapped.

Naturally, Dobbs is both right and wrong. To see why, it helps to translate this level of description into a more molecular one. How, on a simplified nuts and bolts level, does gene regulation actually work?

Each of our 20,000 or so genes specifies the construction of a specific protein; proteins shape the structure and function of cells, the communication between them, and their collectivity as organisms. Scientists once thought that, starting at the beginning of a chromosome, there’d be a stretch of DNA coding for gene A, which directed the construction of protein A. Immediately after that would be the DNA coding for gene B, specifying for protein B, followed by gene C, and so on.

But this turned out to be wrong. Between the stretches of DNA coding for two genes came a stretch of ‘non-coding’ DNA, once pejoratively called ‘junk DNA’, of no obvious use. Then came the astonishing discovery that approximately 95 per cent of DNA is non-coding. It can’t be that nearly all of DNA is junk; instead, much of that 95 per cent is the instruction manual for using genes. More specifically, these ‘regulatory elements’ are the on-off switches determining when and how much a particular gene is transcribed (ie, prodded into instigating the construction of its protein). Just before the start of the DNA coding for a gene is a stretch of regulatory DNA constituting that gene’s ‘promoter’. If a particular ‘transcription factor’ comes floating over from somewhere in the cell and binds to that promoter, this triggers transcription of that gene.

Thus, genes code for what protein is made; regulatory elements code for when/where/how much. Many genes can have the same promoter, and be regulated as a coordinated network; one gene can have multiple promoters, and be regulated as part of multiple networks. A wonderful example of the importance of regulatory elements concerns two species of voles and the gene coding for the receptor for a hormone called vasopressin. Mountain voles and prairie voles have identical DNA sequences for that gene. But they have different sequences for the promoter, and as a result, the receptor occurs in different parts of the brain in the two species. And this makes a big difference – it’s why mountain voles are polygamous and prairie voles are monogamous. If you do some molecular engineering wizardry and turn the promoter in a male mountain vole into the version in prairie voles, he becomes monogamous.

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. For example, a disproportionate percentage of the genomic differences between humans and chimps are in the sequences of regulatory elements, and in the genes that code for the transcription factors that activate regulatory elements.

So Dobbs is right in emphasising the importance of gene regulation, and therefore of evolution most consequentially working on the genome, rather than on genes per se. Hooray for gene regulation. But time to explore the implications of the molecular biology of such gene regulation. Recall Dobbs’s iconic example of gene regulation, the transformation of a grasshopper into a locust. What started that drama? Crowding and/or food shortage. Let’s restate that question and answer: what triggered the frenzy of transcription factors that caused that metamorphosis by regulating gene transcription in virtually every cell of that organism? The environment. Dobbs correctly de-emphasises genes as the Code of Code. But in doing so, he incorrectly turns the genome into that instead; he remains trapped in the gravitational pull of DNA, rather than recognising what regulates the gene regulators.

The environment can be the local cellular environment. Suppose oxygen radicals are accumulating in a cell, not a good thing. Scattered throughout the cell are copies of a class of sentinel transcription factors that are activated by oxygen radicals. Once activated, they head off to the DNA. There are a number of genes that code for antioxidants that mop up oxygen radicals, and just before the start of each is a promoter regulated by that transcription factor. So in this scenario, the genome inside this cell mobilises antioxidant defences in response to signals from the cellular environment.

The environment can be the environment of the body. Suppose a woman is secreting oestrogen from her ovaries during the latter half of her reproductive cycle. After coursing through the bloodstream, oestrogen will enter the uterine cells and bind to an oestrogen receptor. And this activated receptor now acts as… yes, a transcription factor. It binds to promoters ‘upstream’ of genes related to cell division. And as a result, new cells proliferate, the uterus thickens, preparing it for implantation of a fertilised egg. In this scenario, the genome inside this cell causes it to divide in response to a signal from a distant organ.

And the environment can be environment with a capital ‘E’, the outside world. Suppose a male antelope smells the pheromones of a threatening competitor. Through steps leading from the nose to the testes, he secretes testosterone. Which makes its way to a muscle cell, binds to a testosterone receptor, which acts as a transcription factor and activates genes related to cell growth, contributing to increased muscle mass. And thus in this scenario, the much-vaunted genome inside that cell is being regulated by some other guy’s pee.

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.

We need better genetic explanations for patients and parents

Laura Hercher, genetic counsellor

Genetics is new, but genetic determinism is old. The idea that you cannot escape your destiny lurks in ancient stories, making a monster of Oedipus and a fool of Macbeth. In the 16th century, the theologian John Calvin convinced multitudes that God had determined before birth who was to be damned, and who was to be saved. A secular, molecular Calvinism was neither invented nor endorsed by Richard Dawkins in The Selfish Gene. And yet the book – brilliant, subtle, even poetic – has persuaded many of its readers that the gene exists in isolation, the engineer of traits, constructing the organism as a mere vehicle to carry itself one step further through evolutionary time. Humans are ‘survival machines’, Dawkins wrote, ‘robot vehicles blindly programmed to preserve the selfish molecules known as genes’. Taken literally and reductively, it presents a caricature of genetic determinism: you, as the temporary manifestation of genes in search of their own immortality.

In ‘Die, Selfish Gene, Die’, David Dobbs takes aim not at the book, which he calls ‘one of the most thrilling stretches of explanatory writing ever penned’ – but at the story, the take-home message that ate all the other take-home messages. Dobbs’s argument is that gene-centric explanations aren’t wrong so much as incomplete – but incomplete in a way that fundamentally clouds our general understanding of how genetics works.

Much of the reaction to the essay has focussed on whether the critique of Dawkins was fair; how one defines a ‘gene’; and some spluttering about the incorrect characterisation of William Hamilton as a statistician. The science was ‘old news’, scoffed some reviewers, speaking on behalf of those for whom epigenetics and epistasis are familiar words. 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.

In retrospect, Mr Dobbs, you might have reconsidered the title.

Genes affect traits – not in simple ways, but in complicated ways. This complexity makes the science interesting, but it makes clinical practice very hard. As a genetic counsellor, I am often called upon to explain to worried patients and their family members concepts such as incomplete penetrance, which sounds like a sexual problem but actually denotes the likelihood that someone with a gene for a condition will remain unaffected. Or variable expressivity, which describes the range of outcomes associated with a given genetic disease.

It turns out to be very difficult to make predictions about the effect that a given gene variant will have on traits and behaviours. Even in those exceptional situations where there is a well-characterised relationship between the gene and the disease, my colleagues and I often have a hard time predicting who will get sick and how sick they will be. In the clinic, we call these genotype-phenotype correlations, and they are notoriously inexact. For example, the gene for cystic fibrosis (CF) was identified in 1989. We know how and why the changes in the gene create symptoms of the disease. Does that mean we can predict the course of the disease in individuals? No, it does not. Even siblings with CF can have very different outcomes. This is the frustrating reality for a couple with a foetus diagnosed prenatally. And these are the easy cases, the Mendelian diseases, the ones that pass down through families in predictable patterns of inheritance, like Gregor Mendel’s peas.

Complexity is very hard to communicate, in part because people are primed to believe that genes are powerful (which they are) and determinative (which they are not). It might not be news to geneticists or science writers or professors of evolutionary biology at Oxford that identical DNA can produce both grasshoppers and locusts. But the case for plasticity has not been made in a manner accessible to the general population. Shifting the popular emphasis from genes to gene expression, Dobbs suggests, will allow people to understand how environment and other mediators of gene expression affect the development of traits and behaviours at the same fundamental level as DNA sequence.

This is such an important discussion to have right now, as we embark on a grand experiment, using DNA to personalise treatment and prognosis, to predict who is at risk for heart disease, cancer, diabetes, mental illness, etc. What should you, as an individual, do with that information?

Understanding that your genes are not destiny is the difference between paralysis and empowerment. Understanding that environment has a hand in gene expression means that intervention is not just a fancy name for pills you take when you are already sick. Sometimes, as with Alzheimer’s disease, we in the genetics community have debated the ethics of informing people about their genetic risk factors, because it is hard to get comfortable with the idea of looking someone in the eye and telling them that this is likely their future, unless – unless! – you can also give them some hope. And slowly, we are getting to a point where we have some hope to give them – treatments, risk-reducing strategies, preventive measures.

In September last year, the National Institute of Health in the US announced a grant of $25 million to examine the impact of DNA sequencing in newborns. Some of those parents are going to get results that suggest that the little bundle they are bringing home from the hospital is at risk for cancer, heart disease, autism. How important is it for parents to understand the limitations of the test? We have a minute, two minutes, maybe a year, to think about that question before we start talking about pre-natal DNA sequencing.

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.

Let’s keep the ‘selfish gene’ lightbulb switched on

Karen James, biologist

I was an 18-year-old creationist when I first read The Selfish Gene by Richard Dawkins. A freshman, pre-vet major at Colorado State University, I found myself in Bernard Rollin’s honours biology course. As well as Dawkins’s book, he assigned Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (1962), James Watson’s The Double Helix (1968), and Farley Mowat’s Never Cry Wolf (1963).

All of those books were mind-expanding, but The Selfish Gene finally taught me evolution (my creationist high-school biology teacher had omitted the subject). The idea that my body is a vehicle for my genes was not only a personal and intellectual challenge, it was part of a larger ‘it’s not all about me’ revelation of the sort that happens to college students.

The Selfish Gene started me on a number of paths: away from creationism, away from teenage narcissism and towards biology as my chosen field. I lost interest in becoming a veterinarian, and decided that research in genetics, cell biology, and developmental biology was for me. So when David Dobbs’s essay, provocatively titled ‘Die, Selfish Gene, Die’ triggered an energetic debate, I found myself in the ‘both liked it and objected to it’ camp.

‘Die, Selfish Gene, Die’ is a splendidly written, carefully researched and constructed piece. As a scientist and an educator, I was delighted to read clean, compelling descriptions of complex processes such as environmentally responsive gene expression and epistasis, and to imagine others – especially students and non-scientists – reading them. On the other hand, as a geneticist who has done research in some of these areas, I also objected to the portrayal of The Selfish Gene book (and the selfish gene concept described therein) as outdated, wrong, and even harmful to scientific progress.

Dobbs begins his essay by telling the story of how grasshoppers morph into locusts and back again, not through a change in the grasshoppers’ genes, but in how those genes are read (gene expression). He cites other examples as well – such as honeybees becoming either workers, guards or scouts – and could have called on hundreds more if he had wanted. 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.

It’s important to realise that there are two quite distinct meanings of the ‘gene-centric view’. One is the view that the gene – not the cell, the organism, the group, or the species – is the unit of natural selection. This is the meaning that is typically used in discussions of evolution, especially where the selfish gene is concerned. Although it remains controversial – there is vigorous debate about whether and how selection acts at different levels of the hierarchy of life – it’s not the focus of Dobbs’s essay.

Dobbs defines the gene-centric view as ‘the one you learnt in high school … the one you hear or read of in almost every popular account of how genes create traits and drive evolution’, or, quoting the Berkeley geneticist Michael Eisen: ‘a gene changes, and therefore the organism changes’. In a blog post responding to Dobbs, Richard Dawkins describes this definition of the gene-centric view as a ‘deterministic, one-to-one, atomistic causal relationship between a gene and an object of phenotype … an extension of a deep principle of embryonic differentiation’.

I agree with Dobbs that this gene-centric view of development is commonly oversimplified. Genetics involves ‘more fluid, environmentally dependent factors such as gene expression and intra-genome complexity’, and we need to do a better job communicating this.

Even so, such complexity is still encoded in, and inherited through, genes (defined broadly as biologically relevant stretches of DNA). All of these variations, including those triggered by the organism’s environmental context, the cell’s cellular context, or the gene’s genomic context, are a function of genes. The ability of an individual organism or a species to change can come from changes in gene expression, but those changes are controlled by the products of other genes. Variation via gene expression is still gene-centric.

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.

This does not mean that the selfish gene is entirely safe from attack. Another important aspect of Dobbs’s argument is about metaphor and story, not just the technical account of genetics – in particular how metaphors and stories percolate into the public imagination. My sense is that the regulation of gene expression is indeed an under-communicated phenomenon. Supporting this argument, a commenter on the essay wrote:
As a complete layperson, [I thought:] Wow, evolution makes sense now! … I was taught that … genes randomly mutate and the most favourable carry on through survival and reproduction … To find out that evolution has … the mechanism that changes the locust and bees without changing the gene first, that just blew my mind! The whole thing … explains much better how such complexity and specialisation could arise, through interaction with the environment

If ‘Die, Selfish Gene, Die’ had this effect, then I am delighted.

Perhaps we do need a new meme that expresses the complexity of gene-gene and gene-environment interactions (and their role in evolution). The ideal metaphor would avoid the rhetorical pitfall of ‘selfish’ and include, or at least hint at, a greater complexity than is conveyed by ‘gene’. Dobbs suggests ‘the social genome’. Suggestions floated on Twitter include ‘DNA soirée’, ‘copy co-op’, ‘genome-environmental complex’, ‘thrifty genes’, and ‘the interactive genome’. Many of these seem to me to address only development, not evolution, or else fail to convey what I think of as the ‘lightbulb’ idea that we are vehicles for our genes. Those that refer to the ‘genome’ are problematic, as the genome is not inherited intact in sexually reproducing species. The heritable unit is the ‘haplotype’, a stretch of DNA much smaller than the genome that is statistically indivisible by genetic recombination, a process that occurs every generation. Unfortunately, ‘selfish haplotype’ is way too technical to become popular. My favourite by far is the ‘Allele Olympics’, suggested by the American science writer Emily Willingham on Twitter. ‘Some compete alone. Some in teams’ she elaborated. ‘And genome = national contingent eg Team USA,’ I added.

But is ‘the selfish gene’ really such a bad metaphor? We simply do not know what its real influence on lay audiences and students might be. Willingham posted a public question to her Facebook profile: ‘Non-scientist friends: have you heard of the selfish gene? What do you think that means? (no googling!)’ and the responses revealed ignorance and confusion about the concept rather than something akin to the gene-centric view (of development) that worries Dobbs (and me).

Some outstanding questions prompted by this discussion include: what contributes to the overuse of the ‘gene for x’ rhetoric, that is, the portrayal of genes acting in relative isolation to produce phenotypes? Is the selfish gene meme part of the problem and, if so, how? What other factors might contribute?

On my wish list for 2014 are answers to these questions and more, and further explorations of alternatives to the selfish gene that both highlight the complexity of gene-gene and gene-environment interactions while keeping the selfish gene ‘lightbulb’ switched on.

Why should evolution require something immortal at its heart?

John Dupré, philosopher of science

Should we bury the selfish gene metaphor? I believe we should. In his Aeon essay, David Dobbs surveys many of the recent developments in biology that have rightly been seen as putting pressure on this metaphor, but the effect is somewhat scattergun, and it is not easy to see where exactly the fatal damage has been done.

As Richard Dawkins and Jerry Coyne made clear in their responses to Dobbs’s essay, the existence and importance of many regulatory genes, even the realisation that most genes are regulatory, is not an immediate problem for the selfish gene theory. A regulatory gene can fit Dawkins’s account of selfishness just as well as a structural gene.

The so-called ‘Baldwin effect’, that is, the process by which genetic assimilation gradually takes over changes produced by phenotypic adaptation (such as the development of larger muscles from particular uses) is not a fatal problem for the selfish gene either. In fact, genetic assimilation can readily exemplify the thinking that all evolutionary processes must ultimately involve genetic change. What is more radical is the argument that evolutionary change can occur without genetic involvement at all. Here, I think, we glimpse the dogma at the heart of the gene selfishness metaphor that needs to be abandoned. This is a dogma about the nature of evolution itself.

All evolutionary processes consist of countless cycles of reproduction and development. Each individual cycle varies in generally minor ways, and some are more successful than others. These are selected, that is they are successful in passing on to new cycles those changes that are spun off in a process of reproduction. Selfish gene theory says that the only changes that satisfy this condition are changes in gene sequence but this is an article of faith that has outgrown its usefulness. Stronger leg muscles can be passed on if they are the result of different genes, but they might also be passed on if parents ‘train’ their offspring to chase faster prey. In both cases, there are traits that contribute to differential rates of reproductive success, but in only one case are they genetically encoded.

Coyne disagrees. Consider his response to Dobbs, in which he argues that:
‘All heritable differences between species, in fact, must reside in the DNA; we know of no cases in which they don’t. Where else could they be?’

This is a remarkably narrow view and, surely, false. In the human species, wealth and education, for instance, are highly heritable, but certainly not because of DNA. Dobbs’s pig-hunting predators pass on the developed leg muscles to their offspring by encouraging them to chase the juicy little pigs. These cases illustrate what is often broadly referred to as cultural inheritance.

The cultural inheritance of learnt behaviour is one alternative to genes as a basis for inheritance, but not the only one. Behavioural changes in a particular organism that are passed on to their offspring by other means can even initiate a process of speciation. African Indigobirds are brood parasites – like cuckoos, they lay their eggs in the nests of their host species. As the biologist Michael Sorenson of Boston University has shown, if a particular female lays her eggs in a nest belonging to a different host species, her offspring will grow up imprinted on that host species and even learn its songs. A process of sympatric speciation whereby two populations diverge, in spite of continuing to live in the same place, has been observed to have started with this behavioural change. The rosehip fruit fly lays eggs on a number of host plants: a change in the choice of host plant can cause far-reaching metabolic and behavioural changes in a population that are not necessarily accompanied by genetic changes, but are stabilised over time and can also represent the beginning of a speciation process.

It is becoming increasingly clear that some trans-generational epigenetic inheritance does occur. Experiments by the neurologist Michael Meaney and colleagues at McGill University in Montreal have shown that when mother rats lick their pups this produces epigenetic changes affecting gene expression in the brains of the pups, the upshot of which is that the pups develop into adults less susceptible to stress. One of the consequences of this for developing females is that they are more likely to lick their own pups properly, thus transmitting the behaviour across generations, without any genetic mechanism. The real relevance of the complexity of gene expression and regulation systems, as well as epigenetic inheritance, is that these provide multiple possible ways in which changes to the system might be stabilised without involving changes in DNA sequence.

These examples call into question a remarkable and insufficiently discussed idea in The Selfish Gene, the idea that DNA forms immortal coils. Dawkins argues that only genes replicate with sufficient fidelity to stabilise an evolutionary process. But why should evolution, a process of change, require something immortal at its heart? A more modest assumption is that without highly durable change, the lineage will revert to its previous state. But why should this be? Within an evolving lineage there are many possible sources of phenotypic variation and many sources of stabilisation.

The dogma of DNA as the only means of inheritance is reinforced by the idea of a genetic bottleneck. Many multicellular organisms pass through a single-celled stage in their life cycle, the zygote, or fertilised egg with a novel genome constructed from parts of those of its parents. No doubt this generation of new genomes is important for evolution. But of course there is much more to even the single cell than its genetic sequence. This exists in a massively complex chemical and structural environment, and the genome itself is shaped (literally and functionally) by epigenetic changes. Moreover, the bottleneck does not occur in all species. Many plants, for instance, reproduce vegetatively, and there is no conceptual reason why evolution should not take place within these vegetatively reproducing processes.

A far better way of understanding evolution is to see it as a sequence of life cycles. There is a common tendency of thought to see the world as composed of things, and therefore to see evolution as a sequence of subtly different things – genes, genomes, or organisms. But if we hold on to the life cycle perspective, keeping in mind that evolution is a process composed of processes, evolution should be seen as a series of perturbations and re-stabilisations of these processes, some of which lead to more robust and reproductively fecund parts of the process. From this perspective, it is easy to see that there can be many sources of perturbation and, provided there are effective stabilisations of these perturbed processes, they might all have evolutionary consequences. The importance of the complex systems of gene regulation and of the interaction of these with epigenetic effects is of providing biological systems with a diverse range of sources of both change and stability.

Science moves by allowing its stories to evolve

David Dobbs, science writer

In ‘Die, Selfish Gene, Die’, I argued that Richard Dawkins’s ‘selfish-gene’ model of evolution threatens to blind us to richer emerging views of genetics and evolution. The essay generated responses ranging from enthusiastic agreement to objections both civil and savage. I naturally drew pleasure from the excited agreement, which came from both laypeople and scientists. And I was truly heartened by the constructive criticism from scientists and others who took issue with the idea of retiring the selfish-gene meme. Their challenge expanded my thinking, helped me to improve the essay in a revised form, and, best of all, spurred a wide-ranging, open-minded discussion full of mutual inquiry, reconsideration, and great humour.

Alas, a more vitriolic line of objection also arose. I first ran into it in the form of a tweet from the Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker, describing me as ‘another confused journalist who hates genetic evolution but doesn’t understand it’. I remain puzzled that Pinker concluded I hate genetic evolution, whose wonders and riddles I have written about for several years.

In another tweet Pinker asked:
Why do sci journalists think it’s profound that genes are switched on/off? Do they think that all cells produce all proteins all the time?

Which leads me to ask:
Why does Steven Pinker think it’s shallow when science writers tell readers about things that scientists know but others do not?

As a writer and teacher, surely Pinker is in the business of sharing knowledge and ideas. Why should I not do the same? Gene expression might be old hat to scientists. But the power of this most essential biological dynamic strikes many other curious and intelligent people as something new and, as the responses to my essay made clear, deeply exciting. In his blog, population geneticist Jerry Coyne also accused me of trying to sell old things as new. And Dawkins, after graciously acknowledging that I ‘made scarcely a single point’ that he would not have been glad to make himself, rather less graciously accused me of writing about well-established facts, ideas, and dynamics as a way of ‘manufacturing controversy’.

It soon became apparent that some people are willing to defend the selfish gene idea as if guarding a holy kingdom. The rhetoric was astounding. Coyne averred that ‘if [Dobbs] were an honest man’, I would apologise for my story, ‘but we know that won’t happen!’ His followers accused me of bringing ‘other agendas’; of tabloid-style sensationalism, intentional distortion, and intellectual dishonesty; of being a journalistic buffoon; of being cheap, shoddy, and crass; of writing in the pay of creationists. One commenter said that rather than question him, I should behold Richard Dawkins and cower.

I suppose I can see how people might write such stuff if they’ve spent too much time defending science from attacks from creationists or others hostile to empirical endeavour. But it’s an odd way to respond to ideas submitted in good faith.

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?

On the upside, some people did object to this noise. Many, including people I’d never heard from before, wrote to me privately to say they thought the Pinker-Coyne-Dawkins response was sclerotic and counterproductive. And a few protested publicly. One commenter at my blog, a reader named Agga, expressed his dismay this way:
As a complete layperson, my interpretation of the Aeon article was this. Wow, evolution makes sense now! Before, as someone who has only taken high-school biology and an undergrad short module in heritability, I was taught that evolution worked in this manner: genes randomly mutate and the most favourable carry on through survival and reproduction.… This extremely simplified view is what is being taught, and what is implied from the common narrative of evolution. To find out that evolution has these mechanisms such as epigenetics and the mechanism that changes the locust and bees without changing the gene first, that just blew my mind! The whole thing is so much more intuitive; and explains much better how such complexity and specialisation could arise, through interaction with the environment in this way.

Agga also took issue with the complaint about gene expression being old hat:
[P]erhaps all you PhDs should remember that you do not know what the layman’s view is, what the common narrative or the [selfish gene] metaphor actually does, how it is interpreted. You don’t know this because you already know about the complexity. I never knew, until now. Isn’t that a shame?

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 emphasising 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.

For Agga and others, including many scientists, this worked. The article stirred in them, if I might borrow the title of Dawkins’s newest book, an appetite for wonder.

Some might object that science is not about stories but facts. But science is always a story about facts. That’s why scientific papers have discussion sections. And there are always different stories to tell about any given set of facts. That’s why people offer various and overlapping hypotheses and theories. Science’s true job and modus operandi is to find and articulate the most compelling story consistent with the facts. Naturally, scientists must revise and replace these stories as research reveals new facts.

Dawkins knows this, and in The Selfish Gene he tells one hell of a compelling story. But in an age when research is showing the genome’s conversation with the outside world, and with itself, to be far more complex than we ever supposed, does the selfish-gene story remain the most compelling one we can offer about genetics and evolution?

That’s my question. Many of Dawkins’s defenders dismiss it by insisting that Dawkins’s selfish gene is not merely a meme or a metaphor, but a parsimonious statement of fact that deserves the status of a fact itself. But it’s not a fact. It’s a story about facts.

In truth, we can hardly even agree on what a gene is. George Williams himself, the biologist who was the selfish gene’s true father, clearly recognised this. In Adaptation and Natural Selection, his pivotal 1966 book that laid out the gene-centric theory which Dawkins would popularise a decade later, Williams noted that our DNA is passed on in repeatedly, continuously ‘dissociated fragments’, and that the ‘potentially immortal’ object of selection – ‘the gene’ that Dawkins would soon call selfish – was an abstraction that could be defined in any number of ways. Williams emphasised this by citing no less than four definitions of ‘the gene’ (as he himself framed it, in quotes) in the very paragraph in which he called it potentially immortal. He defined the gene as ‘“the gene” that is treated in the abstract discussions of population genetics’; as a rare ‘segment or chromosome’, protected from common forces of recombination, ‘[that] behaves in a way that approximates the population genetics of a single gene’; as ‘that which segregates and recombines with appreciable frequency’, and which is ‘potentially immortal’; and finally and most broadly, as ‘any hereditary information’ for which there is selection.

That was 48 years ago. As the Yale geneticist Mark Gerstein and others demonstrate in the article ‘What Is a Gene?’ (2012), the ensuing half-century has added only more definitions to Williams’s conservative list.

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.

Is the selfish gene metaphor still useful?

Tap to vote
I am a scientist
I am not a scientist
Yes
Vote
Vote
Yes
No
Vote
Vote
No


Read more essays on evolution and life sciences

Comments

  • http://researchity.net/ Dominik Lukes

    It strikes me that one important aspect that underlies much of this controversy is the question of metaphor. How it works and how it doesn't work. One camp seems to think that metaphor is just a thin layer of rhetoric on the rock of fact while the other would argue that metaphor is what shapes how we see the very rock itself. What neither of these camps seem to acknowledge and what is so crucial to understanding how metaphors work and how they can be helpful is that many metaphors (or models) can be useful to apply to the same fact to be chosen based on the context. (Kind of like genes.) I give more examples of how this works in several posts on MetaphorHacker (most recently http://metaphorhacker.net/2014/03/what-is-not-a-metaphor-modelling-the-world-through-language-thought-science-or-action/).

    It seems to me that the 'Selfish-Gene' is a very useful metaphor indeed to explain some aspects of the role of genes in evolution but only if we're willing to give it up when the context changes (such as many of the examples presented in this debate). It may be useful to try to fit these new examples into the old metaphor but at some point this just becomes habit. In effect, this debate is not that different from the debates about Pluto being a planet. Except in this case, the role of tearful schoolchildren begging for their goofy planet to be saved is played by intellectual 'heavyweights' like Dawkins and Pinker.

    • Chad

      The problem is that the context really hasn't changed. The argument that "gene expression" is some sort of game changer is wrong. Gene expression is a function of the genes and their variants and because evolution acts on heritable information, it really still comes down to the gene.

    • mattmark

      I
      wonder if Heidegger had metaphor in mind when he claimed that 'every unveiling
      is also a veiling.' Casting light on
      something often involves leaving something else in shadow, and isn't it the
      very power and seductiveness of metaphor that makes it apt to mislead, to
      obscure as much as it illuminates? If
      selfishness is a concept whose intelligibility is coextensive with the concept
      of an emergent consciousness, capable of volition and making moral choices, doesn't
      attributing selfishness to genes commit a simple category mistake?

      • http://researchity.net/ Dominik Lukes

        That's certainly one way of looking at metaphor (I call it the attributive model. E.g. saying 'men are pigs' is just using pig as a label with particular meaning). But if metaphor only worked in this way, it would be almost impossible to interpret. So this model is not really appropriate in this case. What Dawkins was doing was mapping certain aspects of the domain of selfishness onto the domain of genes. So he would never say things like, "Genes never pay for a round of beers" or other things that may follow from selfishness. He didn't even attribute agency to genes as you would find in a selfish individual. But the agency mapping was implied and in many ways has been causing problems ever since.

        • mattmark

          I think Heidegger's concern (and the concern of most
          philosophers) would be with the limitations of metaphor as an aid to the
          understanding. Metaphor's shortcomings as
          a pedagogical tool are, in part, those of analogy in general. When you are invited to conceive of
          arrangements of molecules as coloured billiard balls connected by toothpicks, for
          example, there's an obvious danger of mistaking the 'mapping' for the thing
          itself. Whatever Dawkins intended, he
          should have realized that using a word like selfishness metaphorically virtually
          guaranteed that he would be taken literally.
          Perhaps he did realize it but found the easily predictable future iconic
          status of his attention-grabbing title too seductive to resist.

          • http://researchity.net/ Dominik Lukes

            That's where philosophers go wrong. In assuming that there is a clear boundary between literal and metaphor, they simply ignore vast amounts of evidence (arguably not available in Heidegger's time). That's what I tried to clarify in my post on 'What is not a metaphor': http://metaphorhacker.net/2014/03/what-is-not-a-metaphor-modelling-the-world-through-language-thought-science-or-action/

            But I've also written about the danger and seductiveness of metaphor. But that's not in opposition to literal description but rather a plurality of constantly interrogated metaphors.

          • mattmark

            Even the most inept of philosophers realizes that conceptual boundaries are always clear, failing which we couldn't speak of the literal, the metaphorical, or of boundaries. There never was a shade of gray that wasn't a blend of conceptually distinct black and conceptually distinct white.

            But surely philosophers are not alone in championing expository clarity. Scientists, technical writers, teachers and many others have an interest in ensuring that what they attempt to communicate is not misconstrued. The proper home for metaphor is in literature, where the evocation of connotative meaning often plays a more crucial role than the denotative.

          • http://researchity.net/ Dominik Lukes

            Again, all I can do is point you to my blog posts on this (and the vast literature on metaphor and related tropes it relies on). Avoiding metaphor and trying to ensure "communication is not misconstrued" are not at all the same thing. Even if you avoid the textual decorative metaphors you reference, there are still the deep conceptual metaphors that structure a significant amount of our cognition and metacognition.

            It's not conceptual boundaries that are clear but conceptual centers (prototypes, paragons, schema instatiations). From these vantage points the boundaries seem clear because they are far enough. But when you look at the actual boundaries, zoom in close enough with an actual or a conceptual lens, they get blurrier and blurrier until they disappear all together and become their own centers. (Boundaries, shades of gray, by the way, all metaphors.)

            Let's remember that the whole evolutionary mess started with the metaphor of "natural selection" and pretty much anything we say about genes has a metaphorical component: "pass on genes", "genes code for X", "genes are sequences of DNA like computer code", etc. "Hard sciences" are also full of metaphors. "Electrons rotating around the nucleus of an atom" - a metaphor. "Mathematical proofs by analogy" - a sort of a metaphor. "Law of excluded middle" - two metaphors.

            Even if you don't actually use any overt metaphors, you're still relying on metaphor-like mappings between propositional domains. Metaphors cannot be avoided, no matter how hard you try. They have to be negotiated. Their mappings exposed, their boundaries explored.

          • mattmark

            My concern here--the one expressed in my posts--is our susceptibility to metaphor's capacity to mislead, as likely a consequence of employing metaphor as the illumination sought. The diverse interpretations of the meaning of 'selfish gene,' expressed above, are ample evidence of the perils inherent in seeking to convey insights metaphorically with any precision. Ill-considered use of metaphor in a science paper or philosophy essay runs the risk of encouraging logical equivocation, because of the potentially distorting, interpretive input required from the reader which more rigorous exposition precludes.

            I of course agree that narratives in general--and notoriously
            so in the biological sciences in particular--are suffused with metaphor. It is narrative itself and its conventions that 'hold us in and keep us out,' limiting cognitive understanding by veiling as much as they unveil. As Michael Frayn has pointed out, narrative explanation has its own aesthetic, and this aesthetic "feels somehow satisfying, or fails to; feels satisfying to me, but not to you; feels satisfying today, but tomorrow will feel clumsy, naive, inappropriate."

            But it does not follow that metaphor cannot be identified or avoided. You speak of concepts as if they were empirical generalizations rather than theoretical rationalizations. 'Blurriness' is a feature of empirical sets--of chairs, metaphors, etc.--whose inclusion criteria may be difficult to specify; but nobody blurs the distinction between the set labels 'metaphor' and 'chair.' That there's an identity relation between avoiding metaphor and guaranteeing against misconstrual is not a claim I would make or need to make. Can you think of anything that's gained, though, from blurring an acknowledgment that inappropriate use of identifiable metaphor is a subset of the many ways in which narrative can mislead?

          • http://researchity.net/ Dominik Lukes

            There's no questions that metaphors can mislead. I've written about this quite extensively: http://metaphorhacker.net/2013/10/pervasiveness-of-oblidging-metaphors-in-thought-and-deed/ and http://metaphorhacker.net/2012/08/cliches-information-and-metaphors-overcoming-prejudice-with-metahor-hacking-and-getting-it-back-again/.

            But it is not the metaphor that misleads (an argument made quite paradoxically by Hobbes who wrote one giant metaphor) but a particular use of metaphor. So I would agree only with the part of you your statement that worries about lack of consideration of our use of metaphor:

            "Ill-considered use of metaphor in a science paper or philosophy essay runs the risk of encouraging logical equivocation, because of the potentially distorting, interpretive input required from the reader which more rigorous exposition obviates."

            But you speak of 'logical equivocation' and 'rigorous exposition' as if those were some real things not subject to metaphoric thinking.

            Let's take the question of boundary which is central to so much of logic. You say, quite correctly that there is no fuzziness in the boundary between 'chair' and 'metaphor' or even 'chair' and let's say 'lake'. But the whole notion of 'boundary' of an 'empirical set' is a metaphor and subject to metaphoric reasoning. My counter would be to explore the metaphor further and say 'Well, the boundary between France and Belgium is blurry, but a boundary between France and Japan is not blurry. But that's not because such a boundary is clear but because there's not one.' But because concepts are not firmly grounded in space we might have a tendency not to consider their 'locale' as part of the metaphor and posit a boundary between all concepts, even those that never come into contact with one another. But we can only come to this point by negotiating the the application of the metaphor.

            Expository rigor and logical consistency are intertwined with the thought processes I described above, not an alternative to them. My alternative to these is (following Rorty) "disciplined conversation". And part of that conversation is exploring the boundaries of concepts, the different mappings we're making between conceptual domains, as well as our own biases. We can perhaps avoid the 'obvious' or as you say 'normal' metaphors but they certainly won't guarantee clarity. I actually think that "selfish gene" is a great metaphor for understanding Dawkins' position assuming that the people reading him understand the limitations of the mappings. And it actually makes it very easy to debate the boundaries of what he means.

            But it obviously misleads many who don't understand the context. So did Fukuyama's "end of history" but it was still a great metaphor. You just had to read beyond the deadline. I disagree both with Dawkins and Fukuyama but their use of metaphor makes that easier rather than more difficult.

            Furthermore, you cannot guarantee that any alternative formulation of both of those ideas would not also be metaphorical and encounter the same problems. Let's say Dawkins called his book "Evolution by Natural Selection Operating on Genes not on Organisms". There are at least three metaphors contained in here. They are perhaps not as rhetorically charged but are no more literal.

            The problem is that our 'normal' understanding of metaphor is not very useful when we consider the its use in reasoning. That's because it has its sources in rhetoric rather than an epistemological inquiry. In fact, in my thinking about these issues, I prefer to use the terms 'frame' or 'cognitive model' of which metaphor is only one structuring principle. But the operation of conceptual integration (or blending) that we apply to these models is not that different from metaphoric projections.

            I sympathize with the reluctance to abandon the metaphorical/literal distinction. In fact, I would argue that it continues to be useful in many analytic contexts. But this is not the context in which I think it is sustainable. Which means to explore the issue rigorously we have to give up our unexamined understanding of metaphor. We could even give up the label, but even then we'll still have to go through the same process of exploring the boundaries of the new one.

          • mattmark

            It's clear that your interest in the variety and complexity of metaphor (and perhaps in steering people to your blog which, alas, I haven't the leisure to visit) outweighs your interest in the epistemological sleight-of-hand accomplished by the 'selfish gene' metaphor, a concern of demonstrable relevance to the article to which we are responding. (Certainly, it's more relevant than a dispute about the ontological status--degrees of 'reality'--of logical fallacies and of exposition, rigorous or otherwise.) Since our concerns do not really coincide and only peripherally overlap, we have been posting at cross-purposes. It's therefore time to call a halt; we're probably close to exhausting the patience of Aeon's forum moderators anyway.

            Because of the care and attention you've apparently put into
            your reply (which I do appreciate), I will leave you with three observations. Firstly, the notion that logic has anything to
            do with 'thought processes' is called 'psychologism,' and it was thoroughly demolished over a hundred years ago by Husserl in the first volume of his Logical Investigations.( I should disclose that I have both studied and taught logic... but the disconnect between logic and thinking or reasoning is basic stuff: you can easily confirm it for yourself.)

            Secondly, when you import metaphor into set theory, or speak as if the conceptual difference between France and Belgium has some connection with inexactitudes in the boundary between them, or maintain that the proposition 'Evolution by Natural Selection Operating on Genes not on Organisms' contains three metaphors, I have no idea what cogent arguments could be marshalled in support of such claims and am sceptical that that you do. No doubt terms like 'set,' 'boundary,' 'country,' 'evolution,' 'selection,' 'operating,' etc., can be used metaphorically; but it would be nigh impossible to show that any of them is intrinsically
            metaphorical without impoverishing their meaning.

            Finally, without taking issue with the legitimacy of your
            interest, or your expertise, in what I'm sure must be fascinating subject-matter, it seems appropriate to caution
            against the risks inherent in subordinating all issues to the requirements of a single perspective or a pet theory. The 'island universe' (*) so attenuated risks resembling those of ideologues, in which distortion-free facts and concepts (never mind countervailing evidence) have some difficulty making their appearance.

            Thank you for the time taken to frame your thoughtful
            replies.

            (*) The metaphor is Aldous Huxley's, from The Doors of Perception.

          • Peter F.

            Almost every philosopher I know is inEPT. ;-)

        • Class A Rando

          I think what you describe is a potential problem in numerous books, works, publications that are scientific in nature but are marketed for a wide, less-informed audience. Using an enveloping term or phrase to define the subject material appears commonplace nowadays in order to market one's work, but it poses a specific issue among more serious subject matter. When the work being written of is especially technical, despite being addressed to the layman, there are more discrepancies that arise between the implications of prescribed term (selfish gene) and body of work to which it harkens. As Dominik accurately says, Dawkins is playing upon certain meanings of the familiar term selfish, which embody particular implications and are exclusive of others. But this technique appears seems to be a common trait among more colloquial scientific works and those for a scientific audience supplemented with a preexisting understanding. Simply dubbed works bring us closer to the subject material, and may give it a greater appeal due to the suggestive title, but when examined in the context of more scrupulous scientific examination, the actual behavior of genes in organisms extends far beyond what Dawkins' title implies. While it would be convenient to see genes as holistically egoistic, it is not an accurate representation.

          As all writers acknowledge to some extent, what established "The Selfish Gene" as a seminal work was its accessibility and clarity. The conciseness of the title and vocabulary of Dawkins' work is a decidedly literary technique, but its readability and captivating presentation is what arguably put many of us onto this discussion at large.

  • Matt Baen

    Viroids, selfish DNA, and meiotic drive are pretty strong examples of Dawkinsian genocentrism, the most obvious manifestations of a general principle.

    On the other hand, epigenetic inheritance, environmental inheritance, language, and other non-gene heritable entities show that genes aren't the only unit of inheritance. Even gene-meme (dual inheritance) isn't enough. Just like there are multiple units of inheritance, there are multiple levels of selection. It just happens that gene and organism are the most important ones.

    *I didn't include genetic assimilation because it's not a challenge to genocentrism.

    Sure, Dawkinsian genocentrism is old hat. Like the work of Gould, Hamilton, Margulis, D'Arcy Wentworth Thompson etc. its correctness is less important at this point than its historical significance; whatever about it is useful will be incorporated into an ever-evolving better model.

  • PaulHalsall

    Very interesting. It is interesting that Dawkin's and others seem unwilling to understand that religions also evolve by developping new metaphors, although such a view may be traced back (at least) to Maimonides and St. Thomas. Aquinas.

  • Tom

    Dawkins' "selfish" gene metaphor is not about genetic determinism but about the indifference of replicated genetic material to the processes that replicate it.

    Genetic material contributes or does not contribute, in complex or in simple ways, with or without regulatory environmental factors or parallel epigenetic mechanisms to these processes—typically the development of an organism. But the key point is that it be replicated, by hook or by crook. It doesn't care about the organism, so it is "selfish".

    This point was missed in Dobbs' article, and is still not emphasised by the responses above. This leads to a couple of conclusions: firstly, that the "selfish" gene is an ambiguous metaphor that leads to powerfully false associations; secondly, that Dobbs' article was poorly titled. It wasn't about the idea of the selfish gene but about the qualification of naïve genetic determinism by newer research and theory.

    • dobrophonic

      When I first heard of the selfish gene, I thought Dawkins meant he had isolated the gene that makes people selfish. As a linguist, I have to say that it is a poorly chosen description. Even interpreted as intended, the metaphor doesn't really work, because genes have to work together in order to be replicated, and working together isn't usually what we associate with a selfish person. Rather, it's entire networks of genes that are "selfish", perhaps analogous to greedy corporations or large criminal organizations. Something like "the selfish phenotype" might be more appropriate, however I still think the term "selfish" is problematic, and is certainly no more useful than a more transparent phrase like "survival of the fittest" .

      Ironically, cooperative (i.e. selfless) behaviour is in some cases exactly what makes certain individuals the "fittest", so genes promoting some degree of selflessness have the greatest chances for being replicated under the right conditions. Pack carnivores, for example, work together to take down prey, and then share the meat. Kin altruism is another example, of course, where individual selflessness results in group or species survival. So once again, I take issue with the "selfish" moniker, since it leads to a false understanding (as does "survival of the fittest", for that matter).

      While the facts of gene replication, expression and evolution remain relatively unchanged and unchallenged, the metaphor is simply inappropriate and misleading, and needs to be replaced by something with a little more subtlety.

      • Steve Schmidt

        While you read this article, my genes are plotting to steal your women and possess your cattle.

        • dobrophonic

          Fortunately my genes predicted that your genes would come up with such a plot, so they ensured that I formed mutually beneficial relationships with several burly, well-armed neighbouring herdsmen that are willing to give their lives to guard my women and cattle while I read articles, all for the small price of expecting me to do the same while they get their reading done.

          • Steve Schmidt

            Don't forget to impregnate their women when they're on guard duty. :-)

          • dobrophonic

            It seems like my genes have mitigated against this by choosing women that are both ugly and also exceedingly faithful - double insurance. Gotta be one desperate herdsman that is willing to try to go ahead with that, especially when the penalty for getting caught is getting stoned to death by the rest of the burly herdsmen - no cheaters allowed!

          • Steve Schmidt

            Tough village. My genes are contemplating the invention of porn with great anticipation.

      • mattmark

        As one critic of the 'selfishness' metaphor put it, 'Genes that refuse to cooperate with their neighbours have short careers.'

  • Sergio Graziosi

    I'm 100% with Karen James here. It is ok to write popularising articles that show how the idea that 1 gene => 1 trait is just plain wrong. What puzzles me is why Dobbs continues to inflate that message with the other idea that "selfish gene" is too simple a metaphor and therefore wrong.
    I was on the side of those enraged by the first version of ‘Die, Selfish Gene, Die’ (see here) and then partially reconsidered after the second version was published (see here). I praised Dobbs' willingness to rectify, as well as his effort to do so transparently, and I stand by my words.

    But I still disagree with the science: selection acts on the medium that gets replicated, and that's DNA (in the cases that Dobbs discusses). Unless he can show that there is another carrier of inheritable information that irreversibly shapes the biology of offspring, then his central scientific thesis is just wrong.
    The selfish gene metaphor in not ready for retirement, it is the building block necessary to explain the complexity that evolution is able to generate. So here is a direct question to Dobbs: why is it necessary to instil or suggest a wrong idea (the obsolescence of the selfish gene) to convey the (much needed) message that things are fantastically complex already at the DNA level (thanks to gene regulation and to how it is influenced by the environment)?
    This is a genuine question. Dobbs read both my replies, and publicly praised the second, so why did he not clarify the scientific matter once and for all?
    In the article above he addresses the "storification" side, which is indeed important, but if the scientific concept (selfish gene) is correct, and the popularisation gets distorted, then one would want to address the second by clarifying the first. Clearly, undermining the first is not the best response!
    I am putting this here with the most constructive attitude that I can: I'm trying to explain why people like me (those who see how the expression "selfish gene" is useful) can't avoid sniffing some hidden motives into Dobbs' efforts.
    I see no need or good reason to substitute one misconception with an another one, and I must admit that Dobbs' insistence makes me sympathise with his heavyweight critics: it does suggest a hidden agenda. Of course, this vision may be due to my own cynicism, but I can only register that Dobbs managed to re-ignite it.

  • http://vaickerviews.wordpress.com DPV

    In the absence of any new discoveries to substantially alter the ideas decisively one way or the other, one only sees a tussle -some of it, very ugly - between various factions as it were which, I believe is, very avoidable considering that it does not add to what is being discussed.

    As a lay man, from what I read in the above discussion, I could gather that the gene - selfish or otherwise - is still the king and there has not been a coup as feared by some.

  • Chad

    I have to agree with Pinker's sentiment. Why is gene expression such a profound thing that requires us to dispense with a brilliant metaphor or a reworking of how we understand evolution? Besides, we have known about gene expression for decades. While gene expression and the mechanisms that control certainly make the issue seem more complicated, ultimately these are all still a function of the gene.

    The environment may induce changes in gene expression, but those changes are mediated by other genes (transcription factors and signaling cascades) and are also mediated by genetic variants themselves. For instance, a genetic variant in the promoter region may affect whether or not a gene is capable of changing expression under some stressful condition.

    As Karen James rightly pointed out, evolution is about inheritance. In order for evolution to have an effect, it has to be transmitted across generations and faithfully maintained. If the gene expression state is constantly in flux due to different environmental conditions, then this is not a stable template for evolution to work on. The gene is the mechanism of inheritance. The selfish gene analogy holds up remarkably well then.

  • rameshraghuvanshi

    I agree genes are important for our physical body but environment is as important for our carrier, dealing with people,Environment give us culture, art pure joy self -satisfaction..nature and nurture is oldest controversy , and we are not came final conclusion till I think environment is as important as genes

  • G

    The irony is that Dawkins, as the leading spokesperson for the 'New Atheist' movement, objects vociferously to theistic anthropomorphising of the universe at-large. Then he proceeds to anthropomorphise the gene, using an adjective that is an emblem of the most unpleasant and immoral behaviours of humans.

    Doing this in the context of genetic determinism unleashes a meme that provides an excuse for sociopaths and psychopaths. That might not have been his intent, but it had a foreseeable effect on the culture, so even if only in retrospect it was an error that should be recanted.

    As for the contention between genetic determinism and environmental influences, etc., common sense converges with science to say that genes, epigenetic factors, and environment, all play roles in inheritance of characteristics and in the evolution of organisms. Single-cause theories, particularly when applied to cognition and behaviour, should always be greeted with scepticism, especially where they require manipulations akin to Ptolemaic epicycles to fit observations to theory.

    I'm also inclined to believe that there are underlying emotional inclinations or agendas at work here, polarised along an axis between 'cold & hard' and 'warm & fuzzy.' Dawkins has frequently made statements that fall into the 'cold & hard' camp, that can be paraphrased only slightly hyperbolically as, 'the universe is indifferent, meaningless, purposeless, and dead, dead, dead!!' This is a far different formulation, and importantly it's _no more realistic or reality-based_ than a formulation such as 'meaning and purpose, as with beauty, exist in the eye and the mind of the beholder.' Attributing altruism to 'selfishness,' whether metaphorical or otherwise, follows the same pattern as 'it's dead, dead, dead!'

    Facts and theories are (or should be) emotionally neutral; the emotional language that people bring to them says nothing about the facts or theories and much about people.

  • http://epsos.eu Fredrik Lindén

    I had written a longer comment but it disappeared with the fantastic technology so you get two pictures instead of one.

    I was as a layperson forced to say no to the one and a half question posed. I think you should have extended the questionnaire a little. I think to improve the educational system and the world we need to focus on the social gene metaphor. I would also appreciate a service fully based on semantic technology to get further help from our precious machines. So an article of the semantic scientific definition of the basis of infinity and immortality. Would be fun to read. Thanks anyway for some of the best reading there is.

  • http://vaickerviews.wordpress.com DPV

    To add to what I had posted already: The value / utility of a gene lies in heritability- as one of the writers mentioned - of carrying the traits over to next generation and thereon.

    It is some kind of safety vault or a bank deposit where you can deposit your day's earnings so that you can secure your future But that does not mean you are not going to earn anything in future.

    Genes do a similar job. They keep secure the traits that get added up from time to time and does not prevent further additions. Since it cannot stop any changes to itself, it cannot be said to be in total control - which should mean that it is not selfish. Since it allows the possibility of intervention, it cannot said to define what an individual is. This should allow the environmental factors to interact, influence and alter the individual's life. May be, genes set the limits to it

  • forsdyke

    If you look after number one, you tend to survive, although by no stretch of the imagination will your selfishness result in your becoming 'permanent.' However, Hans Kalmus, long ago (1950), waxed eloquent on the immortality of genes:

    "A gene ... is a message, which can survive the death of the individual and can thus be received repeatedly by several organisms of different [successive] generations. A gene may reproduce itself faithfully and in fact we do not know of any gene which can survive without doing so. ... The permanency of [brain] memory as popularly understood has often been stressed - 'the elephant never forgets' - but it is certainly surpassed by the permanency of the genes, which carry their messages through the generations."

    Richard Dawkins' "selfish" prefix to "gene" (1976) sums this up brilliantly.

    • G

      Memes outlive genes in terms of effects on human societies. Does anyone here know who the descendants of Isaac Newton, Albert Einstein, et.al. are or were? Jesus and the Buddha did not have children: their genes have long disappeared but their memes continue to shape global cultures even among atheists and agnostics.

      Changes in societies produce changes in selection parameters that in turn produce changes in the genes that are passed on vs. those that are not. How many more potential Einsteins were lost to the Holocaust, we shall never know, but that supreme evil could probably be shown to have had an impact on the human gene pool.

      As for 'looking after number one' (quaint phrase, that), it works right up to the point where you get sick. If you've ever taken vaccines or antibiotics, you've contradicted your premise and rendered it meaningless.

      • forsdyke

        Good point. But do not be too confident that memes necessarily outlive genes. George C. Williams noted in 1966:

        "Socrates' genes may be with us yet, but not his genotype, because meiosis and recombination destroy genotypes as surely as death. It is only the meiotically dissociated fragments of the genotype that are transmitted in sexual reproduction, and these fragments are further fragmented by meiosis in the next generation. If there is an ultimately indivisible fragment it is ... 'the gene' that is treated in the abstract discussion of population genetics."

      • saksin

        As forsdyke points out, you have misunderstood the sense in which genes "last". One of the key discoveries of modern molecular genetics is the incredible evolutionary time spans - measured not in millions but in hundereds of millions of years - over which genes are conserved. You carry genes that determine central things like your body plan that arose early in animal evolution. That is the sense of "gene" that figures in Dawkins' title, not the particular genome of a given individual, which, except in the case of identical twins, is one-of-a-kind.

  • Bob Dole

    if you don't understand what "selfish" gene means then don't write articles about it, it is also clear that most of the commenters don't understand what the phrase means either.

    • G

      Aside from the fact that your comment falls short of the normal level of discourse here, it's also incorrect. The author of the present article, and most of us who are discussing it, know full well what Dawkins meant. We also know that the S-word has extensive connotations, and the value of the word in light of those connotations is one of the issues of debate.

  • Phil Maguire

    My problem has never been about the book. We live in a society where
    everyone, including Dawkins, is allowed to say what they think. And
    as scientists, we should encourage everyone to express unusual
    opinions in the possibility that they will move our thinking forward.
    I remember when the dinosaur-extinction-by-asteroid was a new theory.
    I didn't agree with it but I thought that it was fresh thinking which
    we continually need.

    My objection has always been with the scientific community - that they
    have idolised this book rather than tear it apart for its obvious
    errors. Dawkins makes fundamental, even amateurish, mistakes in his
    explanation of genetics. Yet they have gone unquestioned for over 30
    years and I think that there hasn't been any serious discourse on
    evolution in that time

    I have no problem with people believing evolutionism - the religious
    belief that evolution provides a moral, religious framework - because
    people are allowed to believe whatever they wish. But, please,
    please, please, don't pretend that it's science.

    If you really want useful thinking about evolution, I suggest you go
    back to the man who used to teach Dawkins - John Maynard-Smith. His
    brilliant insights have been overshadowed by his far inferior student

  • tribalypredisposed

    Afraid I hate the Selfish Gene more than anyone else so far...

    We can dither about details, but the Selfish Gene makes a huge fundamental error that it cannot recover from: confusing the question of what is selected with the question of how it is selected. Whether "gene" is sufficiently accurate for the layman is not a central issue. The question of phenotype and so on, also not central.

    So Dawkin's makes the assertion several times that he is not claiming that a selfish gene always results in selfish behavior, and then he asserts that it does just that on subsequent pages, then he contradicts himself a few more times for good measure. The central issue is the assumption that by definition genes cannot create real altruistic behavior as they would then be selected out of the genotype. Yet there are plenty of examples of real altruistic behavior, ranging from slime molds to rats to humans. All that is required is a sufficiently adverse environment so that it is some or none: some sacrifice for the group so that the whole group is not wiped out (Mesterton-Gibbons, Michael and Dugatkin, Lee Alan. (1992). “Cooperation among unrelated individuals: evolutionary factors.” The Quarterly Review of Biology. Vol. 67, 3, (Sep., 1992) pp.267-281.) Of course, this requires the use of the word "group" which Dawkins is also in deep denial about. To be perfectly clear, the main issue with Dawkins' view is that organisms can in fact behave altruistically, and they do all the time, and that can be selected for like anything else: if it increases the average number of the gene in subsequent generations. The fact that the genes ultimately do have higher fitness by acting as altruists DOES NOT MEAN IN ANY WAY THAT THEY ARE NOT "REALLY" CAUSING ALTRUISTIC BEHAVIOR.

  • stevesailer

    The term "the dynastic gene" would have been better.

  • Scott Locklin

    Someone should resurrect David Stove for this conversation. His book "Darwinian Fairytales" killed the Selfish Gene for me.

  • http://batman-news.com Raydio

    The books "Darwin on Trial" and "Darwin's Black Box" killed evolution for me.

  • saksin

    It is unhelpful to invite "experts" to comment on a topic if they are not experts in the field to which the topic belongs. Dawkins' metaphor of the "selfish gene" belongs squarely in the field of theoretical evolutionary biology, of which the invited commentators hardly are working exponents.

  • Roy Niles

    Over eons our biological systems have evolved themselves by intelligently taking advantage of what to them are natural accidents. John Dupré came closest to getting this right. Dawkins did not and does not believe that there's anything like intelligence and purpose involved (and uses his intelligence for the purpose of proving that).

  • saksin

    Perhaps it might help some in this discussion to disentangle the 'selfish' that figures in Dawkins' title from the selfish behavior of individuals to point out that according to Dawkins it is the 'selfishness' of the gene that helps explain how in some circumstances individuals sacrifice themselves - even their life - for others (such as a sufficient number of close kin). The gene is selfish in that ultimately it does not care about YOU, but about getting itself into the next generation. If you have not understood that, I recommend reading Dawkins' book.

    • Roy Niles

      I recommend avoiding it like the plague.

  • jeof

    It's interesting to me that Richard Dawkins' own response to Dobbs original piece is omitted here, it would seem at least one of the most interesting pieces anyone seeing this would want to read.

    http://www.richarddawkins.net/foundation_articles/2013/12/6/adversarial-journalism-and-the-selfish-gene

    More specifically, regarding Pinker's comment:

    "Why do sci journalists think it’s profound that genes are switched on/off? Do they think that all cells produce all proteins all the time?"

    Dobbs responds along the lines that even if scientists know this, there's nothing wrong with writers wanting to tell others about it.

    That's a straw man response, completely either missing or evading Pinker's point. There's nothing at all wrong with wanting to tell readers about it, but what Dobbs was doing was pretending that it was new information that somehow invalidated Dawkins' book, and it isn't. Pinker's point was that it didn't refute anything, it was well-known to scientists most especially Dawkins, who describes this in his response to Dobbs above.

  • jeof

    Having just seen it myself, I highly recommend Jerry Coyne's response to Dobbs, found here:

    http://aeon.co/magazine/nature-and-cosmos/an-expert-roundtable-on-the-selfish-gene-and-evolution/

  • Peter F.

    It is a useful metaphor as long as people don't stare themselves blind on it.

    It is even useful to think that a mutation [meant in the sense of an evolutionary (as opposed to devolutionary) pleiotropic addition to the genomic "recipe" (inherited from the 'parental generation') for how a the resulting individual (the potentially reproductive unit) will "turn out" after having been completely enough 'developmentally cooked'] can be "ambiadvantageously" adaptive.

    An "ambiadvantageous" mutation can be most generally defined [though it is also possible to in great and realistic detail describe lifetime scenarios where it is confers a survival/reproductive advantage and it can likewise be co-defined by references to relevant principles of how brains work] as one that enhances the individual mutant's ability to meet a mixture (or combination) of lifetime challenges come selection pressures that consists of:

    1. 'environmentally presented' procreation promoting "opportunities"

    2. inert or intractable threats - threats that are traditionally tackily termed "traumatizing"; However they can also be more thoroughly denoted - not just metaphorically (and deservedly distinKtly so) - as "specific/synaptic hibernation (SH) imploring threats"

    3. by genuine "SH imploring threats" (i.e. predicaments or onerous influences that fit the just previously listed broad subcategory of all possible sensory-detected threats) normally automatically caused to insidiously accumulate - do so within a thus situated brainy individual's central neural (actention selection serving) system - in the form of a with every such threatening challenge corresponding "Conditioned-in Unconsciously Reverberating State Effecting Symptoms" (or a "CURSES", for short).

    [I know of only 3 preexisting alternatives to CURSES - namely: engrams (too euphemistic and used by people involved in a sect-like organisation); Janov's "primal pain or originally just "Pain"; the tacky term "trauma" (e.g. as in a "traumatic memory").]
    --

    Now, conventional and approximately correct conclusions about how we evolved can, at least on paper, be complemented to an effectively philosophy terminating extent IF and only IF it is taken into account that our phylogeny (or evolution) started to accelerate (or started to speed up significantly) about 6-8 million years ago by the advent of a (by prior mutations and selection pressures prepared) in our phylogeny foundational (i.e. we are sure to find that a mating pair in it became the common ancestors to all of us) “ambiadvantageous” mutation that became fixed in at first only one of maybe around 100k (?) troops of chimp-like proto humans, and that this mutation strongly 'encouraged (or inclined) and mentally equipped the "ambiadvantageous mutation carrying and expressing" members to successfully raid and usurp neighboring troops of the same species of simians, so that soon enough (maybe in just a few thousand years) the entire African cradle of humankind came to contain almost nothing but murderously mutually competing troops made up of descendants of this in our phylogeny 'geno/phenotype pioneering', genocidal, neighbor-raiding original AEVASIVEly adapted extended family group.

    More specifically described:
    Ambiadvantageous mutations made, for long enough in our fairly recent phylogeny, those troops whose members carried and developmentally and behaviorally expressed them marginally or markedly more able (than troops whose members did not or to a lesser extent carry this mutation) to make and handle weapons (e.g. sticks and stones), better at using a budding language to plan and coordinate (and also budding dancing and music to further motivate) their attacking, and to better maintain their aggressive/raiding intent - IOW, to less likely to lose their lethal fighting focus and turn timid and thereby as if succumb to the threat-generating aspect of their endeavor’s primarily opportunistic (primarily procreation promoting) character.

    During the millions of years that followed the first or most distinctly ambiadvantageous mutation, several such ambiadvantageous mutations would surely have had plenty enough chances to occur; Hence, the by this kind of murderous intraspecies competition intensified natural selection gained momentum in the direction of increasingly AEVASIVE [pragmatically derived or desperately contrived from Ambiadvantageous(ly) Evolved Veritable Actention (selection serving) System (instructively) Incorporating Various Endorphins] phenotypes.

    IOW, the original “ambiadvantagous mutation” had a 'recursively usurping domino effect' that greatly increased the speed by which our lineage evolved to manifest itself as "the human condition" that we know by looking at what is going on now as well as at historical records.

    Mind you, we typically don’t know the human condition (and ourselves) in as great a depth without concEPTual tools/lenses as we can if we employ these eclectically plaited together elastically philosophical terms (just a few MAD-inspired acronyms and only two explanatory portmanteau terms) - terms that in their seriously considered science-aligned cores reflect a by evolutionary psychology type thinking extended Primal Theory [minus any still not conclusively scientifically supported or underpinned expectations of how much more efficacious primal therapy can in some cases be in comparison to other psychotherapies in providing relief from or a remedy for PTSD=neuroses].
    --

    Metaphors can be helpful, but so can a seriously science-aligned logical argument that is sweetened with sardonically soothing 'SEPTIC humor'!
    %-]

  • Chil_Cruise

    It was well written but it's the title of the article (and the obvious objective) that's the main culprit here. But I guess that was the objective: to generate controversy and clicks.

    But the article itself was focused on phenotypic expression, which of course is extremely fluid - that is old "news" - and not on genotypic evolution, which is where the "selfish gene" metaphor is more aptly applicable. The former is concerned with quick changes within short periods of time; the latter with slow, painstaking evolution over vast stretches of time. No matter how a present generation markedly transforms via changes in gene expression as an adaptation to its current environment, it's not going to matter in the larger scheme of things (i.e. its ultimate survival as a species) if it doesn't result in genetic changes that would be similarly beneficial to its progeny. Reading and translating a book in a different way may give you an advantage today but if you're making exact copes of that same book over and over again and, after a hundred years, the ideas in it are no longer relevant, it doesn't matter how you translate it because nobody is going to want to read it and it will be forgotten. That is how species go extinct. And that book contains the genes, which is what matters in the end (not the translation) and why it still rules selfishly and deceptively, no matter how a journalist slyly repurposes and distorts this self-same concept ironically for his own selfish agenda.

    So the author is being disingenuous is saying he was merely trying to educate laymen when he was only zooming in on and describing a tiny part of the picture when he is also jumping to make a conclusion that attempts to repaint the whole picture based only on that myopic view. That's a miseducation and a missed opportunity to truly educate.

    But he should be forgiven. After all, it's those selfish genes that drove him to try his darndest to survive and earn money by writing the article and especially that ironic title. Damn those selfish genes! He probably wishes more now that they're dead. But alas, they want him and all of us to survive.

  • cees

    Richard Dawkins' point is : what is surviving when it's not the species and not the individuals ? Every individual dies, many species became extinct, so what's left ? Only their genes

  • FredO

    Biology is permeated with concepts such as information and purpose, and saying that they are just "metaphors" is just intellectual cowardice, a dogmatic refusal to allow any form of teleology into the discussion.

    Fortunately this mechanistic worldview is crumbling, as freethinking scientists awaken from their "dogmatic slumbers".

  • Guest

    Why not use the sefish meme to justify/explain all kind of nensense?

  • Michael Livshits

    Why not use the sefish meme to justify/explain all kinds of nonsense?

  • Philippa Rees

    I am staggered in this day of science's necessary syntheses between previously opposed and irreconcilable alternatives, to read a forum discussion so mired in either-or thinking. The influence of the environment and the gene's susceptibility to such influences has re-enlivened an earlier Lamarkian-Darwinian opposition, only in more nuanced vocabulary ( epigetic, triggers, groups, etc). Yet the influence of gene determination, at it most extreme in 'the selfish gene' still governs most comments and David Dobbs' questioning is really a mild request for moderation of Dawkins' stridency. Underpinning all of these caveats, entreaties, is still the concept of genetic determinism ( whether moderate and modified) or unidirectional...gene to phenotype (with one or two comments excepted). Scientific respectability does seem to require the acceptance of what has been accepted, and this seems to govern discussion. The very question posed (Selfish Gene, dead or alive?) assumes this.

    I suggest there may be an alternative: that the relationship between genotype and phenotype is constantly modified, as is the relationship between organism and outer environment.The evolution of the genotype has been the conservation of this intimately reciprocal relationship...and that it continues, not merely within the organism but across the biosphere. What changes one changes all- only such integration explains the fine tuning of each to other and each to all. That is what contemporary ideas of holarchies, fractals, holograms implies. Is it not time to switch to both/and dispositions and frame thinking more inclusively?

  • Bill Buckley

    An important part of the question, "What is an organism?" is context, a point that is generally ignored. Genes are the writing on the blackboard of DNA only in the context of that molecular milieu that acts to interpret those writings. So, the complaints reviewed here go, in my view, only half way. Genes describe phenotypes only within the context of a machine that can generate those phenotypes from those genes. It is not genes alone that are selfish.

  • Mong H Tan, PhD

    RE: Controversial conspiracy or irrational ideas will never die; they only die within the irrationalist conspirators themselves: One funeral (of irrationalism) at a time -- just as observed by the physicist Max Planck (1858-1947) that “Science advances one funeral at a time”!?

    Philoscientifically, I thought that the Aeon Editor Brigid Hains has had posed a very ambiguous and dubious question, which I briefly answered in my “RE title” above; whereas I must compliment on the science journalist David Dobbs -- whose previous article “Die Selfish Gene” that I prominently footnoted in my last September review of the neo-Darwinism vs Darwinism issues (link listed below) -- for his intellectual bravery, depth, and sincerity, in his attempt to deconstruct and debunk the world’s most renowned and controversial neo-Darwinist book “The Selfish Gene” (TSG) since 1976 -- even the 4 Aeon invited experts have had relented in their explicit criticism of it -- whereas TSG with its mythic “meme” has taken me many years (since 2006) to revisit and reevaluate the whole field of “evolutionary biology” (or EB as TSG has perported to represent, pursue, portray, and dictate) as EB is theoretically related but philoscientifically and dimetrically opposed to the then and now revival of the empiricist driven research, inquiry, and pursuit in the developmental biological field of “molecular genetics” or “cell and tissue engineering” or “cloning” or “nuclear and organelle transplantations” etc, that all the inquiry of cell biology and genetics had had begun to emerge and pursue ever since the “modern cell theory” (not EB or evolutionism) was first sketched out by the botanist Matthias Schleiden (1804-81) and the animal physiologist Theodor Schwann (1810-82); and the “proto-genetics” of peas plants (the phenotype of which) was first empirically and statistically demonstrated and described by the Augustinian monk (one who had had prevous trainings in both physical and non-physical sciences) Gregor Mendel (1822-84) in the early-third and mid-19th century, respectively (please see my historical and scientific scrutiny of these subject matters therein: ).

    Consequently, and strictly speaking, and by philoscientific analysis, TSG with its extended meme has not been a standard model of science writing, nor an insightful philosophy of biology or national phenomenology (as Darwinism has attempted) of evolution (of organisms and common ancestors) at all; in fact, TSG is a perverted, physicalist, reductionist, positivist, evolutionist, and sophist literary masterpiece in the first order of the pseudoscientific, evolutionist, neo-Darwinist, description and rhetoric of “genes as the generic or common replicators of all organisms” [as analogically extended and modeled on the naturalist Charles Darwin’s (1809-82) “common ancestry” biomorphism hypothesis] that TSG has had firmly believed and parasitized and privileged on the earlier evolutionist flawed theory of the “Modern Synthesis” (MS) or the “superimposing Darwinism (1859) over Mendelism (1866) synthesis” since the 1930s-40s past; and that most (> 55%) today’s sophists and evolutionists alike in EB and/or pseudo-genetics (like Richard Dawkins of TSG fame; and see the survey results above) have had unequivocally inherited, accepted, and unapologetically extended and morphed their thus newfound MS fallacy as their supremely-prided Darwinian legacy -- while their unwittingly and uncritically nor scientifically turning their thus misinterpreted or reanimated Darwinism into their modern-day dogma, or orthodoxy, that is Neo-Darwinism or the MS!?

    As such -- unless Dawkins himself could or should be willing to philoscientifically reflect, rationalize, correct, and retract his very flawed, neo-Darwinist, physico-reductionist thinking and rhetoric and his subsequent use of clueless metaphors and analogies -- in and with his such an enduring sophist and evolutionist pseudoscience and his neo-Darwinist gene-animated or physico-reductionist anthropomorphized solipsism and crafty penmanship (since 1976), TSG and its amorphous memes will never die: neither be scientifically debunked or challenged, nor be philosophically repudiated or falsifiable, big time, especially in the wake of its evermore philoscientific fallacies; clueless rhetoric; analogies; metaphors; embedded in its penultimate pseudogenetic anthropomorphism; sophistry and penmanship syntheses; etc, since the mid 1960s-70s!?

    Thus, as the erudite minority (< 45%) Aeon readers may have observed (in the survey results above): TSG and its ethereal memes have had permeated and almost saturated the pseudoscience literary mythosphere; and that the Planck’s observation of “how scientific advances are made” in the mid-17th to 20th-century “physical sciences” like physics, chemistry, etc, may soon become true as well, in the late-20th to 21st-century “non-physical sciences” like neurobiology, genetics, biomedicine, psychiatry, etc -- QED!?

    Best wishes, Mong 3/17/14usct4:43p; practical science-philosophy critic; author "Decoding Scientism" and "Consciousness & the Subconscious" (works in progress since July 2007), Gods, Genes, Conscience (iUniverse; 2006) and Gods, Genes, Conscience: Global Dialogues Now (blogging avidly since 2006).

  • Michael Crossan

    The Genial Genome.

  • Genie

    Gene's rock. Dad said he saw Gene Vincent and Higgs Boson waltzing in a bar in Venice. They were electrolyte.

  • madelfi

    "Alas, a more vitriolic line of objection also arose. "

    For all their lauding of 'rationalism', Steven Pinker and Richard Dawkins seem to lose all sense of rationality when their work is called into question, choosing instead to issue snarling and vicious attacks.

    More worrying than this lack of academic professionalism, is their apparent quest to silence academic debate.

    See http://blogs.scientificamerican.com/cross-check/2013/02/18/the-weird-irony-at-the-heart-of-the-napoleon-chagnon-affair/

    • Ted_Fontenot

      There's a good deal on Chagnon here at Edge. Note that most of the Dawkins crew is involved (except for Jerry Coyne). I found the interview with Pinker particularly interesting and revealing. Dawkins and Co. generally make mincemeat of their critics, as they do here with these Aeon articles. They are simply more learned and just smarter. I didn't find any of that that Horgan cited snarling or vicious. But read the actual stuff at the Edge link about and by Chagnon.

      http://www.edge.org/conversation/napoleon-chagnon-blood-is-their-argument

      • madelfi

        The main thing that stands out about Chagnon in this Edge page is how disparaging he is of the people he's working with. He calls them sons of bitches, assholes, buggers... Why the animosity? What's weirder, is that the transcripts edit out all his insults.

        Anyway, none of this has anything to do with my initial point, which is that the 'Dawkins crew' sought to silence John Horgan through menace and threat. As self-professed defenders of science, why do they not see the irony in seeking to suppress the views of those who don't agree with them?

        • Mong H Tan, PhD

          RE: Attempting to silence John Horgan by the “Dawkins crew” -- A case happening to me too here at Aeon!?

          Almost 3 weeks ago, I posted a comment at Aeon therein -- http://aeon.co/magazine/nature-and-cosmos/an-expert-roundtable-on-the-selfish-gene-and-evolution/#comment-1288961127 -- entitled “RE: Controversial conspiracy or irrational ideas will never die; they only die within the irrationalist conspirators themselves: One funeral (of irrationalism) at a time -- just as observed by the physicist Max Planck (1858-1947) that “Science advances one funeral at a time”!?” (AeonUK; March 17).

          However, with a week of posting, someone has had put it on hold or flagged as my comment entry page now still reads “Hold on, this is waiting to be approved by Aeon Magazine.” I wonder when will it be approved and released for the general Aeon readers so as to judge my critical contents for themselves!?

          Best wishes, Mong 4/6/14usct3:51p; practical science-philosophy critic; author "Decoding Scientism" and "Consciousness & the Subconscious" (works in progress since July 2007), Gods, Genes, Conscience (iUniverse; 2006) and Gods, Genes, Conscience: Global Dialogues Now (blogging avidly since 2006).

  • on the other hand

    I like Laura Hercher's thoughts on finding a better language and better stories to communicate the reality of genes and gene expression to the general public. Knowledge of genes that carry disease risk has to be accompanied by an understanding of gene expression and of behavioural changes that can mitigate the risk of a particular disease or syndrome.

    My father died relatively young from cancer. One of his brothers died at the same age from a stroke. Two more died of alcoholism. Of the remaining two, one was permanently weakened by a heart attack in his fifties and the other has been battling cancer for years.

    I can look at all that and think the "genetic deck" is stacked against me. Or I can be empowered and realize that through diet, exercise and other lifestyle choices I can act to significantly improve my health and chances of living to a ripe old age.

    I find it ironic that in a society that is so dependent on scientific knowledge and research so many are ignorant of what science actually does.

    I do take hope from the recent publicity around brain plasticity. If people can come to understand that brain damage does not always mean permanent impairment then they can also understand that genes are not destiny.

    Maybe the place to start is by offering courses in understanding the scientific method and scientific papers for journalists. That seems like a very useful function for a university to take on. Then maybe a single, tentative study result won't result in blaring headlines giving either false hope or a needless scare.

  • Mong H Tan, PhD

    [This is a serialized posting of my original and edited comment on March 17, 2014]

    RE: Controversial conspiracy or irrational ideas will never die; they only die within the irrationalist conspirators themselves: One funeral (of irrationalism) at a time -- just as observed by the physicist Max Planck (1858-1947) that “Science advances one funeral at a time”!?

    Philoscientifically, I thought that the Aeon Editor Brigid Hains has had posed a very ambiguous and dubious question, which I briefly answered in my “RE title” above; whereas I must compliment on the science journalist David Dobbs -- whose previous article “Die Selfish Gene” that I retrospectively and prominently footnoted in my last September review of the neo-Darwinism vs Darwinism issues (linked below, footnoted in Dawkinsism) -- for his intellectual bravery, depth, and sincerity, in his attempt to deconstruct and debunk the world’s most renowned and controversial neo-Darwinist book “The Selfish Gene” (TSG) since 1976 -- even the 4 Aeon invited experts have had relented in their explicit criticism of it -- whereas TSG with its mythic “meme” has taken me many years (since 2006) to revisit and reevaluate the whole field of “evolutionary biology” (or EB, as TSG has perported to represent, pursue, portray, and dictate) as EB is theoretically related but philoscientifically and diametrically opposed to the then and now (since the 1980s) revival of the empiricist (not evolutionist nor EB theorist) driven research, inquiry, and pursuit in the developmental biological field of “molecular genetics” or “cell and tissue engineering” or “cloning” or “nuclear and organelle transplantations” etc, that all the empirical inquiry of cell biology, physiology, genetics, and biotechnology had had begun to emerge and pursue ever since the “modern cell theory” (not Darwinism or EB theory or evolutionism) was first sketched out by the botanist Matthias Schleiden (1804-81) and the animal physiologist Theodor Schwann (1810-82); and the “proto-genetics” of peas plants (the phenotype of which) was first empirically and statistically demonstrated and described by the Augustinian monk (one who had had previous trainings in both physical and non-physical sciences) Gregor Mendel (1822-84) in the late first-third and the mid-19th century, respectively [please see my historical and scientific scrutiny of these subject matters therein: “Reductionism vs. Holism in Modern Biology and History: Neo-Darwinism vs. Genetics and Physiology!?” (September 1, 2013)]. [to be continued as a reply below]

    • Mong H Tan, PhD

      [continued from RE: Controversial conspiracy or irrational ideas will never die; … above]

      Consequently, and strictly speaking, and by modern philoscientific analysis: TSG with its extended meme has not been a standard model of science writing, nor an insightful philosophy of biology or natural phenomenology (as the authentic Darwinism that was first conceptualized in 1837-59) of evolution (of organisms and common ancestors) at all; in fact, TSG is a perverted, physicalist, reductionist, positivist, evolutionist, and sophist literary masterpiece in the first order of its physico-reductionist, pseudoscientific evolutionist, neo-Darwinist, pseudogenetic determinist, description and rhetoric of “genes as the generic or common replicators of all organisms” [as analogically and physico-reductively extended and modeled on the naturalist Charles Darwin’s (1809-82) “common ancestry” biomorphism (not geneticism) hypothesis] that TSG has had come to firmly believe in, parasitize, and privilege on the earlier evolutionist flawed theory of the “Modern Synthesis” (MS) or the “superimposing Darwinism (1859) over Mendelism (1866) synthesis” since the 1930s-40s past; and that most (> 55%) today’s sophists and evolutionists alike in EB and/or in pseudo-genetics (like Richard Dawkins of TSG fame; and see the survey results above) have had unequivocally inherited, accepted, and unapologetically extended and morphed their thus newfound MS fallacy as their supremely-prided Darwinian legacy -- while their unwittingly and uncritically nor scientifically turning their thus misinterpreted or reanimated Darwinism into their modern-day dogma, or orthodoxy, that is Neo-Darwinism or the MS evolutionism, geneticism, scientism, irrationalist neo-atheism (since 2006)!? [to be continued as a reply below]

      • Mong H Tan, PhD

        [continued from RE: Controversial conspiracy or irrational ideas will never die; … above]

        As such -- unless Dawkins himself could or should be willing to philoscientifically reflect, rationalize, reevaluate, correct, or retract his very flawed, neo-Darwinist, physico-reductionist, pseudogenetic determinist thinking and rhetoric and his subsequent use of clueless metaphors and analogies -- in and with his such an enduring sophist and evolutionist pseudoscience and his neo-Darwinist gene-animated or physico-reductionist anthropomorphized solipsism and crafty penmanship (since 1976), TSG and its amorphous memes will never die: neither be scientifically debunked or challenged, nor be philosophically repudiated or falsifiable, big time, especially in the wake of its evermore philoscientific fallacies; clueless rhetoric; analogies; metaphors; embedded in its penultimate pseudogenetic anthropomorphism; sophistry and penmanship syntheses of evolutionism and scientism alike; etc, since the mid 1960s-70s!?

        Thus, as the erudite minority (< 45%) Aeon readers may have observed (in the survey results above): TSG and its ethereal memes have had permeated and almost saturated the pseudoscience literary mythosphere; and that the Planck’s observation of “how scientific advances are made” in the mid-17th to 20th-century “physical sciences” like physics, chemistry, etc, may soon become true as well, in the late-20th to 21st-century “non-physical sciences” like neurobiology, genetics, biomedicine, psychiatry, etc -- QED!?

        Best wishes, Mong 3/17/14usct4:43p; practical science-philosophy critic; author "Decoding Scientism" and "Consciousness & the Subconscious" (works in progress since July 2007), Gods, Genes, Conscience (iUniverse; 2006) and Gods, Genes, Conscience: Global Dialogues Now (blogging avidly since 2006).

  • Rich The Bluegeek

    I am not a scientist by vocation, but I am very interested in science and technology. These two quotes from Dobbs resonate with me very strongly:

    "Naturally, scientists must revise and replace these stories as research reveals new facts."

    "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."

    And this is where I believe bad science can end up distorting facts. Some people come to believe in the story so completely that no other story could be considered possible and thus the facts must be hammered into their own story no matter how badly they fit. Or even dismissed as unimportant subplots we're free to ignore for the sake of the story.

    Why can't we admit that there's a lot we don't know? That sometimes science is an act of faith? That the stories of science are only models based on our observations and that our observations might not be complete?

    The truth of the matter is, there is still a lot to discover and learn about how our universe works. As we develop new ways to perceive the world around us, it's possible -- maybe even likely -- that the stories will need to change to fit the facts we never had before. Ultimately, it's the truth that matters and not the stories.