Richard Dawkins’s “The Selfish Gene,” book and meme, is now 40 years old. Has it served its purpose? And how do we talk about whether it has?
When I argued not long ago that his ‘selfish-gene’ model obscures richer emerging views of genetics and evolution, the responses ranged from enthusiastic agreement to objections both civil and savage. I naturally drew pleasure from the excited agreement, which came from both laypeople and scientists. 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 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 did 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.
This post is adapted from my contribution to “Dead or Alive: Is it tie to kill off the idea of the ‘selfish gene’?”, a roundtable discussion of “Die, Selfish Gene, Die,” at Aeon. I’m thankful to John Dupré, Laura Hercher, Karen James, and Robert Sapolsky, who also contributed to the roundtable; to Aeon, for publishing both pieces; and to all the geneticists, writers, and others who engaged in constructive discussion of the articles. Thanks also to Philip Ball, whose smart, calm post on this today spurred me to revisit the issue and post this.