“Die, Selfish Gene, Die” Has Evolved

Hopper or locust? Photo by scarymonkeyshow.
Hopper or locust?

This morning Aeon published a revised version of my story “Die, Selfish Gene, Die,” which originally ran last Tuesday. The title is the same, the subtitle altered:

Die, selfish gene, die

For decades, the selfish gene metaphor let us view evolution with new clarity. Is it now blinding us?

In the original (as in the revised) I argued that the “selfish gene” model and meme popularized by Richard Dawkins’ lovely book, The Selfish Gene, is outmoded and threatens to impoverish the way both scientists and the rest of us view genetics and evolution.

I didn’t expect to convince everyone this is the case, and I haven’t. But I had hoped to make my argument clear, and soon after the story’s publication I saw that I had not. Quite a few readers were confused, and others misunderstood me. For this I apologize. I take seriously and highly value my readers’ efforts to understand what I write; I’m deeply sorry if even a few well-meaning readers tried and failed to take my meaning because I muddled it. In this case it was more than a few.

Thus the revised and expanded article posted this morning, which seeks to clear up the main muddles. I also added a version highlighted and one with links. Here’s a guide:

  • The expanded version is here at Aeon.
  • The original is archived here.
  • If you primarily want to see the most substantive additions and alterations (because you’ve already read the original), I’ve supplied a PDF in which those sections are highlighted. (Note: That document highlights probably 80-90% of the changes, and all the most vital, but not quite a few smaller ones that go along the same lines. It may also have a few small differences from the published version. Please don’t quote from it without checking against the latest published version.)
  • And here is a version with links to sources and such (which don’t appear in the Aeon version).  

Above all, the revision also seeks to make dead clear a point that I failed to make emphatically enough the first time around:

I am not saying that the all the science described or suggested by the ‘selfish gene’ model is wrong. I am observing that while the selfish gene story is adept at taking in new findings and ideas from genomic studies, anthropology, and other evolutionary studies, it does so these days with increasing discomfort to both host and guest. And I am asking, in an age when such new ideas and discipines are flourishing and new tools are revealing astounding new things about the genome, whether the selfish gene story remains the best way to account for or inspire them.

As I put it in the revised article:

Does it make sense to attach these proliferating findings and ideas to the selfish-gene story as appendices? Or is it time to find another story? It may be that the gene is always a player. But it is rarely the only player. And —  may I speak metaphorically? — it may (or may not) be that the gene always behaves as if it were selfish. But that doesn’t mean it always gets its way.

The story has small changes scattered throughout. The most extensive additions and changes in two places:

  1. in the section starting with “Like what other ways?” and ending with the paragraph quoted above. This added section looks at research areas I argue are in tension with the selfish-gene model. Their absence allowed many people to conclude I was offering another single dynamic, genetic accommodation, as a global replacement to conventional genetic selection.
  2. In the “fast hunter” section about genetic assimilation (called genetic accommodation in the original; assimilation is more exact, since in some usage it’s one kind of accommodation). This passage starts with “One way in which the gene follows…”. The main new emphases here are that the process is most definitely not Lamarckian, and that genetic assimilation is just one example (along with the many named in change #1 above) of a dynamic does not fit comfortably within the selfish gene story.  

Again: You can find those spots most easily if you consult the PDF in which they are highlighted. I hope these passages clarify things for any readers that the original confused or misled. If not, please read the whole thing, for the many smaller tweaks I’ve made address these issues too.

Thanks for reading.

Comment policy: As always, free, civil discussion of ideas is welcome, while insults or ad hominem attacks are not. Discuss ideas and arguments, not their vehicles. Thanks.

Photo by scarymonkeyshow. Some rights reserved.