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.