A Calm Eye on the Selfish Gene Storm

Lizard v grasshopper

Over at the Genetic Literacy Project, editor Kenrick Vezina offers a particularly level-headed and constructive consideration of the debate over the fitness of the selfish-gene metaphor that my Aeon article “Die, Selfish Gene, Die,” raised.

Violence of the title aside, [Dobbs’s] point was not that we should go out and gather up all the copies of biologist Richard Dawkins’s seminal book and burn them. Instead, he argues that in light of the myriad biological phenomena that take pace outside the simple one-to-one gene-makes-trait paradigm, we might want to devise a new narrative. A new story that more easily accounts for the ability of grasshoppers to become locusts without altering their DNA, or for culture to act as a mechanism of cross-generational inheritance.


While fully acknowledging the good it has done, Dobbs and several of the scientists he consults argue that the selfish-gene concept as broadly understood may now have become oversimplified and ossified; an obstacle to a richer understanding of evolutionary science.Ultimately Dobbs proposes some sort of “social genome” framework for further development.This pissed a lot of people off.

From here Vezina looks at the pushback from Richard Dawkins, Jerry Coyne, and Steven Pinker; notes the pivotal role The Selfish Gene played in his own love of science; and describes his reaction to Steven Pinker’s dismissals of my article. Then, moving toward his crux, he notes:

First, Dobbs isn’t guilty of horribly botching any facts, of sensationalism or of anything that would be considered a major crime in journalism. Second, everyone agrees that the selfish gene was a useful metaphor, so no one is trying to take anything away from Dawkins or his most famous idea. Third, most of the responses focus on the question or whether or not the gene is a necessary, immortal vessel of inheritance.

His final concern is with the perspectives offered earlier this week at Aeon by Robert Sapolsky, Karen James, Laura Hercher, and John Dupré. As he says, all four contributors make fascinating points, and 

since none of the panelists actually seem to be wrong in any significant way here, it’s all about varying perspective. This is where the fourth response, from Hercher, hits home.

Then Vezina articulates something I liked about Hercher’s response, but which I didn’t quite identify even to myself.

She, as a genetic counselor, is in the unique position of needing to communicate both the power of genes and their non-deterministic nature to patients dealing with genetic screening results. Hers is perhaps the most humanizing voice in this debate. She sees the kerfuffle raised in the wake of the article, including the opposition of Pinker, Coyne, and Dawkins — and to a lesser extent, I suspect, by her peers on the Aeon panel — as distracting from the real concern raised by Dobbs’s piece. “There is a pressing need,” she writes, “to create a language in which to discuss the complex relationship between genes and traits, which is accessible to the non-scientist.

Which is indeed my main point, above all. And here, says Vezina,

is where Dobbs’s response and my own synch up perfectly. Science, he rightly notes, is built on stories. The facts are merely the beats the story must hit, the parameters it must be told within, but always science is trying to find the best story (read: hypothesis, idea, theory) to make sense of the world as we understand it.

Whether or not it’s time to dethrone the selfish gene as the reigning metaphor seems to me slightly irrelevant. It’s more important that we be willing to have the conversation. What the more vitriolic response to Dobbs’s piece showed — especially the dismissive and condescending response from some of the people we hold up as leaders in science communication — is that the real ossification is not in the ideas of the selfish gene but in the people who defend it as holy ground.

Go to Genetic Literacy Project for The selfish gene debate: The power of stories in science and society.

One response

  1. Dear David Dobbs,
    thanks for your wonderful article. I’ve been reading it and following the reactions since it was put through via Arts and Letters Daily. I consider it a huge success, because even Pinker and Dawkins reacted! You should be proud. To me reading your article was a big relief, I’ll explain myself. It all has to do with my graduation in 1985.
    Almost 30 years ago I got my degree in biology, philosophy of biology to be precise. The subject was ‘adaptation’. I made extensive studies of 5 major articles by philosophers of science on evolutionary biology and read books on the side, from Darwin via the modern synthesis / Ernst Mayr to Gould, E.O. Wilson, Richard Lewontin, Michael Ruse and Philip Kitcher (Abusing science; get a copy and read it!). And Dawkins (The extended phenotype). And of course I was submersed in the prevailing view at the time, that of the selfish gene.
    I was 25 and only slightly learned and brilliant, but nevertheless set myself to write my thesis, and in it tried to fit the stuff in the articles in a common framework. This forced me to think about the ‘core’ of evolutionary biology. I thought about ‘the gene as the unit of natural selection’, and studied and studied.
    I must admit Dawkins’ metaphor of the selfish gene irritated me from the start. A gene being a small part of a molecule and selfishness being a human characteristic, I just couldn’t take a combination of the two seriously. And still can’t. Of course in an abstract sense I see its value, and the maths that support the idea of the gene as the unit of selection are impressive (and way above my head).
    But what also irritated me was the reasoning in population genetics that was en vogue at the same time: a gene for homosexuality explained by the extra care homosexuals would take of the offspring of their siblings. This was supported by a mathematical model. Apart from the gene for homosexuality not being identified (still not, keep on trying boys!), the fact that mathematical models support the reasoning doesn’t impress me. Let’s not forget: Ptolemy’s planetary system also was supported by sound calculation. Furthermore I have never heard of any research in which the extra care of nephews and nieces by homosexual uncles and aunts was proven as a fact (that would have to be a big project spanning several generations). So here’s what happened (I watch Monk): a metaphor led to a hypothetical story that was never tested. Never mind, let’s start some calculations. Hey: 2 times 2 equals 4!
    Furthermore, how could one selfish gene survive in a genome of tens of thousands of other selfish genes, a genome that only partially determines the phenotypic outcome? Many traits are the outcome of several genes working together under the influence of environmental factors. It is as if the grains of sand in an hourglass would have to through the small opening all at once, at the same time being both selfish and cooperative (as we’re talking about one genome). How one selfish gene might be successful in this jungle of influences beats my imagination.
    Of course I saw the power of the concept of natural selection of genes, and I still do. But the easy dismissal of the individual as a relevant level of selection to me was too far-fetched. I just couldn’t accept it, in fact I secretly thought it was nonsense. So I took the position that selection of individuals had to be taken into account, and my thesis wasn’t well received. Now I wasn’t the brilliant writer that Dawkins was, in other words: I’m not saying I should have been noticed. I’m just very glad with your account about the selfish gene as a metaphor being questioned, that it’s having a hard time as any scientific concept or theory should. The case for gene-expression as a serious part of a theory of evolution by natural selection puts the individual back where it belongs. It creates a space in which a fruitful debate about the next step for evolutionary theory could take place.

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