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

Below is a corrective comment I left below Jerry Coyne’s second of two posts (his first is here) critiquing “Die, Selfish Gene, Die,” my recent article in Aeon about complaints from some biologists that the “Selfish Gene” framing of genetics and evolution was hindering both public and scientific understanding of genetics and evolution. This is rather a tempest in a testy teapot, quite likely of little interest to most readers, but I post it for the record. I apologize for what might seem a combative tone. I’ve been so very pleased with the open, fair-minded, construction of quite a few geneticists who found my story either muddled or wrong or both; I thank some of them in clarification yesterday, My TL,DR version of “Die, Selfish Gene, Die”. As I say there, they do science well by assuming we’re all after the same thing: accounts of nature that are both compelling and as true as can be made at the time. Alas, some have responded to my article by seeking to dismiss rather than debate, and to crush rather than merely correct, take them where it may.

Dr Coyne, allow me to offer a correction and a question. No, make that a correction, a rhetorical question, and a correction.

The first correction is fairly minor: You say I quoted West-Eberhard as saying Dawkins would end up “on the wrong side of history.” I did not. That quote, attributed to another geneticist who said it in reference to Dawkins’ resistance to expanding more flexibly the gene-centric paradigm, appeared in the article only briefly. A few hours after the story was published, the source quoted contacted me and argued, convincingly, that while the quote was accurate, its close proximity to a different quote from West-Eberhard might make some people think that the source was allied with West-Eberhard in a broader sense (which he is not), rather than just about this resistance to altering dominant framings of genetic evolution. I found that a completely reasonable concern. The source and I very briefly discussed whether to use the quote elsewhere, but as the source had a truly all-consuming family situation to deal with, and it might take some time to find another right spot for the quote, we agreed that the most sensible thing to do was just cut it. So I cut it.

I point this out so that no one puts in West-Eberhard’s mouth words that she did not say.

The idea of putting words in mouths brings me to my question and second correction:

Where o where, in my account of the quickening hunters that you excerpt above, do I say the faster-running hunters gene-expression changes were passed to offspring in some Lamarckian way? Look for it. It’s not there and never was. I never said or wrote or thought any such thing. Having described how the parents grew faster through gene-expression changes due to what amounts to steady training, I continued the scenario by describing how the kids in each generation grow up running faster essentially because they started training earlier, and this phenotypic change is then locked in when a friendly mutation shows up in a grandchild. I thought that would be clear, but apparently it’s not. But even if things in this passage are less than dead clear, I do not see any reader, except one who hopes to see me advocating a Lamarckianism inheritance, can conclude that I said the parents passed their training-increased speed on via some Lamarckian voodoo. Here are the words in question:

“Your kids, hunting with you from early on, soon run faster than you ever did. Via gene expression, they develop leaner torsos and more muscular, powerful legs.”

I then describe how, in the next generation, a mutation arose that essentially locked in that change. (Just as a similar gene that was available via standing variation could have done the same.)

You say that passage “postulates … .a Lamarckian inheritance of change.” It says no such thing. Nowhere. You have to force such a meaning on the passage. Yet you do. And then you build much of your dismissal around a statement I never made and a postulate I never offered.

THIS is what I meant, in my comment below your first post on my story, by deliberate misreading. And it’s everywhere in both of your posts. And your misreadings are not peripheral to your argument; they are central and necessary to most of it.

You lead this post, for instance, by stating I contend “that conventional natural selection, in which existing genetic variation is sorted out according to the gene copies’ ability to replicate, is wrong.” This is every bit just as manufactured as my non-existent call on Lamarck. Nowhere do I say conventional natural selection is wrong. I simply point out, first, other ways that sharply different traits can be built during a lifetime via gene expression changes (no news to geneticists, but complete, startling, and exciting news to many lay readers), and, second, other ideas about how a trait can develop first through gene expression changes and then be locked in via a gene distinctly friendly to that trait. As both you and Dawkins have said, those dynamics and ideas are utterly compatible, from a what’s-happpening-in-the-organism point of view, with conventional views of genetic natural selection. And while I do argue that the Selfish Gene’s gene-centric framing discourages most nonscientists from seeing these dynamics, I never say these other ideas disprove or should shove aside genetic selection. Only that the emphasis on selection can obscure them.

I never said genetic natural selection is wrong. I never said anything close. Yet you accuse me flatly and plainly of saying exactly that. You seem determined to paint me as rejecting all of established conventional genetics. And you do so despite this passage, which comes immediately after a sentence saying that Dawkins’ “gorgeous argument” is wrong. I truly don’t see how an attentive reader, especially one who reads my article curious about whether I’m rejecting all of conventional genetics or Dawkins’ ideas, reads this and decides I’ve’ done so:

Wray and West-Eberhard don’t say that Dawkins is dead wrong. They and other evolutionary theories … have been calling for an ‘extended modern synnthesis’ for more than two decades. They do so even thought they agree with most of what Dawkins says a gene does.”

Read the last sentence twice if you have to. Then try to square it with your thesis statement, which is that I contend “that conventional natural selection, in which existing genetic variation is sorted out according to the gene copies’ ability to replicate, is wrong.”

You can’t square it. Your main thesis here is a fabrication and a strawman. And it’s wrong.

 

 

27 responses

  1. Although I’m in agreement with Coyne and Dawkins on this issue, I agree it’s unfair to assume you are Lamarckian. There was a whole slew of genuinely Lamarckian stuff a few years back when people were using epigenetics to attack the neo-Darwinian model.

    But here’s how I would edit that final quote from your original piece:

    Wray and West-Eberhard don’t say that Dawkins is dead wrong. They and other evolutionary theories … have been calling for an ‘extended modern synnthesis’ for more than two decades. They do so even thought they agree with most of what Dawkins says a gene does – and are unable to identify the parts that they don’t agree with.

    • Coyne was probably wrong to describe him as Lamarckian, yes, but I had the same misunderstanding after reading the article and rereading select portions multiple times. I’m not going to boast about my reading comprehension, except to say that if I came away with that misunderstanding after multiple reads, the layman is likely to do the same – which is ironic since one of Dobbs’ charges against selfish gene theory is that it is prone to cause confusion.

      The best thing to be said about “Die, Selfish Gene, Die” is that it makes fewer mistakes than it appears to make. Vague, abstract attacks on Dawkins (…too simplistic…could create misunderstandings…isn’t wrong but isn’t not wrong…) might garner attention for a time, but the ideas represented in the article are unfit to usurp the selfish gene metaphor. If Dobbs had drawn our attention to a more potent framework or some shred of evidence that contravenes selfish gene theory, that would probably also have helped.

      I’m not going to judge Dobbs based on one article, though. I do think “Die, Selfish Gene, Die” was a blunder – and I do wish he’d come out and say it! – but after skimming some other articles on this blog, I’m inclined to chalk this up to a simple case of biting of more than he could chew. I’ve certainly done the same…though I hope I was a little bit more parsimonious.

  2. Speaking of “Lamarckian inheritance of change”:

    The smell of fear can be inherited, scientists prove
    http://www.independent.co.uk/news/science/the-smell-of-fear-can-be-inherited-scientists-prove-8975995.html

    Mice Inherit Specific Memories, Because Epigenetics?
    http://phenomena.nationalgeographic.com/2013/12/01/mice-inherit-specific-memories-because-epigenetics/

    I know you weren’t claiming or aiming for the association, but it is funny how the study’s publication so closely coincides with your article and the ensuing controversy. Doesn’t negate Coyne’s deliberate/disingenuous selective and mis-representation of your article, but still…

    • Yes, Michael, as you say, a coincidence that my article was published in rough proximity to these. I think heritable epigenetic effects like this are worth pursuing while being viewed skeptically for now.

  3. I enjoyed your piece quite a bit — neat science writing. (My only nitpick is your misuse of “genetic code,” which actually refers to the codon/amino acid correspondence 🙂

    Coyne’s mistake is to read your point as a scientific one. But my understanding is that your criticism is mostly sociological: you question the dogmatic straitjacket that the selfish gene cult has imposed on the entire field. If so, I believe you’re spot on.

    Coyne is a case in point. Here’s an established scientist who replies to a piece of science writing with which he disagrees by saying “If he [Dobbs] were an honest man, he would… apologize. But we know that we won’t.” This is precisely what’s wrong with evolutionary biology. His language (like Dawkins’s) is that a teenager having a temper tantrum. It’s an old tradition in biology to insult one another like schoolyard bullies. I believe that has held back the field. Those people need to grow up.

    Now what’s wrong with Dawkins? Technically speaking, nothing. Genes are the institutional memory of life and indisputably central to any understanding of biology. But in science the centrality of a concept is not a metaphysical notion: it’s instrumental. Energy in physics is a key concept. Why? Is it because it’s the idea around which the physical universe is ordered? No one knows. Energy is central because it makes the equations much much much simpler. Same with entropy (another mysterious concept that only nonscientists believe they understand).

    So the question to ask Dawkins is the following: How helpful is it to situate the gene at the center of life? And the answer is: now that the low hanging fruits are gone, it’s no longer terribly helpful. Coyne and Dawkins are trained biologists of the old school: neither understand math or physics or computer science. Neither of them understands dynamical systems or computational complexity. They’re what Rutherford and Kelvin called “stamp collectors.” They collect facts and doesn’t worry about the glaring contradiction in front of them: why should the most complex of all sciences (biology) have the most simplistic of all theories (the modern synthesis). Doesn’t it bother you, Coyne and Dawkins, that it takes thousands of pages of hard math to explain the phase transitions of water, but it takes 5 lines of plain English to explain life? What’s wrong with that picture?

    Speaking of wrong, if Coyne was a honest man… [ha ha] he would mention CRISPR: a clear case of Lamarckism occurring in all of archae and half of bacteria.

    Come on, biologists, please open your mind to new ideas! Your field is stuffy and, despite the media, hype, stuck. My beef with the selfish gene is not that whether it’s right or wrong: it’s that clinging to that view will ensure that biology will continue to progress at a sluggish pace.

    • CRISPA is not a clear case of Lamarckism. It’s what might, at best, be described as quasi-Lamarckism. CRISPA does not get any hits on Jerry Coyne’s website, but he has discussed a similar mechanism – HGT. No problem. As far as I can tell, he doesn’t avoid any issues. Perhaps you can go there and find out what he thinks. However, perhaps you shouldn’t start your comment off with: “If your were an honest man…”

      • >> However, perhaps you shouldn’t start your comment off with: “If your were an honest man…”

        I agree with you that Coyne shouldn’t question Dobbs’s honesty merely because of a difference of opinion.

        My view is that the debate between Darwininian and Lamarckian is sterile. (Not to mention the historical fact that Darwin himself was Lamarckist.) Nature offers clear-cut cases of Darwinian evolution (random mutations selected via phenotypic variation) and the Lamarckian kind (environmentally caused adaptation). Among prokaryotes, the immune system is almost exclusively Lamarckian. And then you have all sorts of things inbetween: RNA interference, histone modifications, DNA methylation, etc. Weismann was not an idiot and the germline-soma barrier was not a figment of his imagination. But his argument was silly at best: cutting off tails of mice… give me a break. That has nothing to do with disproving Lamarck.

        What Weismann could not explain (because it’s false) is why nature would deprive itself of Lamarckian evolution. Empirical evidence shows that the latter is rare. But this is not an argument. Look, if you observe evolution in action, it’s much tougher to establish a Lamarckian mode than a Darwinian one. It’s much tougher to prove that something is NOT random. It’s only in the last few decades that we’ve seen Lamarck in action and that’s because of progress in lab technology. To say that Lamarckism is “rare” is as unscientific as a medieval astronomer claiming that galaxies are rare because he’s spotted very few of them. Get a better telescope and next thing you know, you’ll be claiming there are 100 billion of them.

        The only theoretical argument against Lamarck is that evolution requires enough variation but not too much. Lamarck would bring about too much variation, ergo can’t happen. Of course, we look at CRISPR and we see that indeed Lamarck faces a huge dilemma, which is the dilemma of all immune systems: how to keep the mechanism from destroying itself. Well, recent work shows precisely how CRISPR avoids the auto-immune trap and it’s incredibly ingenious. Same with HGT.

        Whenever I hear a biologist say: “This cannot happen….” without invoking the laws of physics or chemistry, I cringe. Nature is incredibly creative and, if it can use Lamarckism, it will. And sure enough it does.

        Final point, biology is too burdened by its history. The main reason Lamarck is a dirty word is Lysenko. Lysenko is dead and gone. Time to move on and leave one’s hangups behind.

  4. I can understand training making the immediate next generation of kids faster, but why does even a second generation have to be faster than the first generation. Presumably, the second generation too will start training only as early as the first generation and not earlier. So the grandchlidren (second generation) should on average, perform the same as their parents.

    Though in this clarification you say that a mutation occurs in the grand children your original paragraph clearly says that the grandchildren are faster than the chlidren without any genetic changes (even if one of them does have a mutation).

    “By the time your grandchildren show up, they seem almost like different animals: stronger legs, leaner torsos, and they run way faster than you ever did. And all this has happened without taking on any new genes.”

    That you understand Lamarckian inheritance does not work is not something I doubt. But when you say that the grandchildren will be faster than their parents without any genetic changes, it seems to be logically incorrect.

    • I assume he means meiotic crossover will reinforce the running skill (epigenetically?) Yes it’s confusing. But where the text goes awry is here: “Had the gene showed up earlier (either through mutation or mating with an outsider), back when you lived in the forest and speed didn’t mean anything, it would have given no advantage.”

      That’s missing the point. The mutation would have given no advantage. Yes, but not because speed was not needed. Saying that is implying that the mutation would have made its beneficiaries run faster but since that had no selective advantage, that mutation would not multiply. Dobbs’s reasoning there is totally Darwinian. (In fact his entire example is Darwinian.) The point is that the mutation would NOT have caused people to run faster.

      The only reason the mutation helped people run faster is that it fixed epigenetic marks brought about by the changing environment. Without that new environment, no marks and no speeding benefit from that mutation.

  5. “Your kids, hunting with you from early on, soon run faster than you ever did. Via gene expression, they develop leaner torsos and more muscular, powerful legs.”

    I then describe how, in the next generation, a mutation arose that essentially locked in that change. (Just as a similar gene that was available via standing variation could have done the same.)

    I was a commenter at your piece at Aeon, and this threw me too. Improved muscle performance and leaner torsos, which you hypothesized might result merely from gene expression (gxpr) changes induced by certain environmental demands was one thing. But then going on to propose that this phenotype could get “locked” in a grandchild, and become fixed in subsequent generations, by a fortuitous mutation in a gene that causes the same phenotype (improved muscle performance, lean torsos), is what I think bothered a lot of people critical of your piece.

    Reasons:

    1) Even as postulated, the mechanisms for the two molecular processes you describe are unrelated and independent. That is, the increased (or decreased) pattern of somatic gxpr in the parent(s) that made them exceptional runners would have nothing to do with causing a random mutation in either parent’s germ. To me, it seemed like you were searching for some kind of mechanism to get the parents’ (one or both) phenotypic adaption that had occurred via gxpr, into theei child’s genetic code. Thus the remarks around Lamarck. But again, gxpr and gene mutation result from distinctly different cellular processes which, so far as I understand (1), don’t communicate.

    2) Even with #1 aside, I would be quite surprised if a mutation in a single gene *alone* would cause the gain of function you describe — “leaner torso and more muscular/powerful legs.” It is far more often the case that a single gene mutation will cause a complex system to *fail* (certain cancers come to mind), but the reason we call many phenotypes “complex” is because the underlying molecular mechanism is usually very complicated, frequently involving dozens, even hundreds of gene products, along with other bio-molecules functioning in a network (or pathway) in a precise and concerted fashion.

    Those were the biological quibbles I had with your piece. Having said that, I think there are unquestionably important weaknesses to the gene centric theory which tend to get glossed over in the oversimplification of the “as-if” metaphor. Sure, only the DNA survives one generation to the next; that’s not controversial and I certainly don’t disagree it’s a fact. But then we didn’t need a 300 page book to tell us that. No, I suspect the selfish gene wanted to claim something more than just that, claims which may no longer hold up to what we know now >25 years later, and my guess is you think so too.

    1. PhD in an area of molecular biology.

  6. 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 a 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. What a long-winded process! 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.

    Steven Pinker tweeted that the article was rubbish because someone (Dobbs) who “hates evolution” should not be listened to. Hates evolution? If anything the article seemed steeped in wonder of teh complexity of evolution and a wish that the common narrative be shifted to better adress that!

    So perhaps all you Phd’s should remember that you do not know what the layman’s view is, what the common narrative or the 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?

    • Thank you, Agga. I know the article confused some people, so that they did not experience the same thing you did, and for that reason I’ll soon be adding some material to clarify. But this is exactly what I was trying to accomplish with the article, and I am glad that even this flawed version worked for you.

      • David, I found the Aeon piece to be a very interesting read. I’m fascinated by the whole nature versus nurture debate, and your piece added some compelling ideas.

        By the way, Dawkins has written a response on his website – I hope you respond!

      • I look forward to the response to Dawkins – it seems to me that there is some outrage amongst some commenters at Aeon that you dared to question his expertise. No-one should be above being challenged – especially not in science.

    • >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

      Keep in mind, that these don’t go against traditional understanding of Evolution. We’ve known this for a long time. Look at your body. Every cell in your body carries the exact same DNA, and yet heart cells look and function very differently from brain cells and liver cells. In the animal kingdom, a butterfly goes through stages, from egg, to caterpillar, to pupa, to butterfly, and in ant colonies, some eggs product sterile workers, others huge warriors, and others queens. Same species, different expression of the same DNA.

  7. David,

    I think this line is what gave the impression of Lamarckian inheritance:
    >“Your kids, hunting with you from early on, soon run faster than you ever did. Via gene expression, they develop leaner torsos and more muscular, powerful legs.”

    Why would your kids run faster than you ever did if all that was selected was a gene expression? (i.e. the genes that build your kids’ bodies, would be the same as the ones that built yours)

    To come back to the Darwinian world, you’d have to qualify that statement and argue something like: the genes that allowed increased phenotypic adaption in a new environment would be passed down by from the parents – so the kids, armed with these genes, and able to grow up in this new environment, would show a stronger fast-running expression than their parents.

    The problem you have is that there’s no evidence for this type of inheritance. At best, it’s possible, but most likely highly improbable. Your hypothetical example itself is highly contrived. Everything needs to be just right. The gene expression in the new environment needs to be beneficial. The genes for this plasticity need to be selected for, and there needs to be a possibility that this effect can even be stronger in the next generation, all the while, the traditional Darwinian process of simply selecting faster runners with faster-running genes needs to not apply.

    And at the end of it all, it’s still all firmly within the “The Selfish Gene” metaphor! The fact that at some point in the future a ‘real’ fast-running mutation locks in the phenotype expression in place, and to an outside observer it looks as if the phenotype preceded the gene, is interesting, but it doesn’t change the fact that it started with a gene (for environmental plasticity)!

    So what am I missing?!?!

    • Thanks, Dan. I agree the passage as written is confusing. I’m now composing a clarification meant to make it less so. Should be posted in a day or two.

      Thanks for reading and for the feedback.

    • I wonder if you’re not missing the peculiar nature of biological causality. Compare it with a computer. You can say that the behavior of your computer (which may display “learning”) all goes back to the software. And that is true: software + hardware + inputs = all computer behavior. The point of this equation is that all three entities are separable: people write software; others build chips; others play with mouse and keyboard.

      But here’s the thing. There is no equation, genes + biochemistry = life, with a similar separability property. Put Dawkins in a lab with as much DNA as he wants and all of organic chemistry at his disposal. Life will never emerge from it! This is a crucial point. The dynamics of a cell is causally cyclic. It’s ok to say that Beethoven’s 9th all goes back to the score. After all, if we have the score we can feed it to a computer that’ll play it for us. But that’s not true of DNA. If all you have is DNA you’ve got nothing. So all Dawkins is saying is something like, in a tennis match between Nadal and Federer, it’s all about the Swiss guy because Nadal is only reacting to Federer’s causal actions. That view is not even wrong: it’s missing the whole point about cyclic dynamics.

  8. The following seems to me LaMarckian and clearly wrong.

    “For example, suppose you’re a predator. You live with others of your ilk in dense forest. Your kind hunts by stealth: you hide among trees, then jump out and snag your meat. You needn’t be fast, just quick and sneaky.

    You get faster. You mate with another fast hunter, and your kids, hunting with you from early on, soon run faster than you ever did

    Then a big event — maybe a forest fire, or a plague that kills all your normal prey — forces you into a new environment. This new place is more open, which nixes your jump-and-grab tactic, but it contains plump, juicy animals, the slowest of which you can outrun if you sprint hard. You start running down these critters. As you do, certain genes ramp up expression to build more muscle and fire the muscles more quickly. You get faster. You’re becoming a different animal. You mate with another fast hunter, and your kids, hunting with you from early on, soon run faster than you ever did. Via gene expression, they develop leaner torsos and more muscular, powerful legs. By the time your grandchildren show up, they seem almost like different animals: stronger legs, leaner torsos, and they run way faster than you ever did. And all this has happened without taking on any new genes.”

    • You’re not the only one to read this as Lamarckian, despite that I didn’t mean it so; my bad. I’ll post today or tomorrow a fix that should clarify. Thanks for the feedback and for reading; apologies I didn’t make myself clear.

Leave a Reply

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