Dead or Alive? The Selfish Gene, Reconsidered

Lizard v grasshopper
Evolutionary models. Photo courtesy Aeon Magazine, all rights reserved.

After my Aeon essay “Die, Selfish Gene, Die” last December sparked much discussion, the editors asked biologists Robert Sapolsky and Karen James, genetic counselor Laura Hercher, and philosopher John Dupré to offer their thoughts on the subject. Their smart, well-considered, well-crafted responses  are published today. My hearty thanks to all four of these contributors, to Aeon editor Brigid Hains for collecting their responses, and to the many, many who have contributed constructively to the lively and fascinating discussion of genes and evolution that this is part of.

Some snips:

Robert Sapolsky:

…[I]n 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.

Laura Hercher:

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

Karen James:

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.

John Dupré:

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?

My own follow-up is there as well. An excerpt:

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 sometimes replace these stories as research reveals new facts and dynamics.

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

That’s my question.

Get the whole kit at Aeon: Selfish gene, dead or alive?


Earlier posts on the subject:

‘Die, Selfish Gene, Die,’ with links

Jerry Coyne Mucks Up and Misreads “Die, Selfish Gene, Die”



  1. Hi, David.
    Your article and Aeon’s follow-up panel opened my eyes to an intellectually exhilarating realm of inquiry. One senses that it’s been downplayed in public due to tactical imperatives of the culture wars. What a pity. The discoveries and the interpretive responses alike are exquisite, and my mental universe is much enriched for knowing a tiny bit about them. It saddens me to think of missing out, even from the non-scientists’ peanut gallery.
    I have a question – perhaps a naïve one – as I try to get some traction on this brave new (to me) world. As I reading further on this topic, the proposals for an “extended evolutionary synthesis” (EES) seem to consistently condense into two classes. On the one hand are moderate proposals in which an evolutionary change, to count as such, must still ultimately manifest genomically. The main distinction of this type of EES from the classical Synthesis is in the complexity of their causal schema. On the other hand, a more radical class of proposals would count extra-genetic changes (e.g., epigenetic, behavioral, cultural) as genuine evolutionary change. The latter seems to coincide with “developmental systems theory.” In your view, is this a fair generalization?
    Thanks for your good work!
    Tim Feist

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