My TL,DR version of “Die, Selfish Gene, Die”

Many have liked  “Die, Selfish Gene, Die,” my Aeon piece challenging Richard Dawkins “Selfish Gene” meme. Quite a few readers have objected to and disagreed with the story, sometimes sharply. Some readers have both liked it and objected to it. At least one objected both rudely and inaccurately; I answer that here

I want to thank everyone who’s read it, and to acknowledge right here at the top (as well as later, at bottom) the extra energy and goodwill extended by those who objected in constructive spirit. The hardest but most necessary sort of reading is to read charitably, and with a sincere, sustained effort to understand, something that sharply challenges you.

Those readers and others, such as some who managed to read my piece as a case for Lamarckianism (which it is not; nay nay nay), make it clear to me that I muddled much of my message. Most crucially, I seem to have not made clear that my challenge was less to an technical account of nature than to a metaphor and story used to describe those technicalities. To put it another way: I apparently did not make clear that “Die, Selfish Gene, Die” is a story less about how genetics and evolution work than about the stories we tell about how genetics and evolution work — and, most crucially, about how those stories about nature percolate out beyond academia and into the minds of the lay public. I could write for pages to try to clarify all this. Possibly I may. But I do want to give here a tl,dr attempt to clarify.

Here then, are first a truly short tl,dr version of “Die, Selfish Gene, Die”; then one slightly longer; and a key passage from the original in which I meant to convey what is here reduced to these tl,dr versions:

“Die, Selfish Gene, Die,” the truly short version

Richard Dawkins’ “The Selfish Gene,” both book and concept, is an achingly beautiful story about how genes and evolution work. Even at almost 40 years old, it’s still mostly right about how genes and evolution work. But as story and meme, its power has come to obscure newer understanding of how genes and evolution work. As a metaphor for how genetics and evolution work, the Selfish Gene needs to be replaced.

For those who want slightly more and bigger words:

“Die, Selfish Gene, Die,” the slightly longer tl,dr version

The dominant story science tells about genetics and evolution these days — certainly the dominant story that reaches the public — comes from Richard Dawkins’ ‘selfish gene’ conceptualization of genetics and evolution. “The Selfish Gene,” both book and concept, is one of the most elegant and powerful framings of genetics and evolution ever published or disseminated. It remains largely correct and accurate about how genes and evolution operate. It’s compatible, if sometimes uncomfortable, with most findings since it was published. Alas, the very power of the selfish gene story, and especially its rhetorical and conceptual focus on the role of the single gene (please note book’s title), so strongly encourage an emphasis on the power of single genes that it is now hindering both scientific and — more dangerously — public understanding of how genes and evolution works. Accordingly, “the selfish gene,” as metaphor and story, needs to go.

For those who want even more, see the real thing: “Die, Selfish Gene, Die”

Again: I offer these now because it seems my Aeon story did not make these things  clear. Many readers  — both those who loved the story and those who objected — seemed to miss this. So I seem to have muddled something, possibly several things, and even if some people misunderstood because they were bringing to my story a wish to confirm some story they wanted to be true, then I failed to get them to set those stories aside, which is part of my job. Apologies all around. As a couple of generous critics (conscientious objectors?) noted early this morning on Twitter, I was trying to do a lot, and not all of it came clear.

However, if you read my shorter version above and ask yourself, “Why the fuck didn’t Dobbs say that to start with?” I ask you to consider this passage from the original, which is the crux passage of the entire piece, and which is the very spot in which the piece comes closest to saying Dawkins had everything wrong. (It’s what journo-types call ‘the nut ‘graf,’ meaning nut paragraph, which, true to the perversity of that ugly and perversely misspelled jargon, can actually be several paragraphs.) Crucial bits in bold this time around:

By the time you’ve finished his book, or well before that, Dawkins has made of the tiny gene — this replicator, this strip of chemicals little more than an abstraction — a huge, relentlessly turning gearwheel of steel, its teeth driving smaller cogs to make all of life happen. It’s a gorgeous argument. Along with its beauty and other advantageous traits, it is amenable to maths and, at its core, wonderfully simple.

Unfortunately, say Wray, West-Eberhard and others, it’s wrong.

Wray and West-Eberhard don’t say that Dawkins is dead wrong. They and other evolutionary theorists — such as Massimo Pigliucci, professor of philosophy at the City University of New York; Eva Jablonka, professor of mathematics education at King’s College, London; Stuart Kauffman, professor of biochemistry and mathematics at the University of Vermont; Stuart A Newman, professor of cell biology and anatomy at the New York Medical College; and the late Stephen Jay Gould, to name a few — have been calling for an ‘extended modern synthesis’ for more than two decades. They do so even though they agree with most of what Dawkins says a gene does. They agree, in essence, that the gene is a big cog, but would argue that the biggest cog doesn’t necessarily always drive the other cogs. In many cases, they drive it. The gene, in short, just happens to be the biggest, most obvious part of the trait-making inheritance and evolutionary machine. But not the driver.

I recognize that other elements in the story, along with reader expectations set by all sorts of factors, may have led some readers to miss that passage or what I meant to be its centrality. For my failings there, I apologize. I’d likewise ask readers to consider why, if they missed this, they did so.

Some readers have complained that part of the problem is the story’s title and subtitle — that those, by implying or (end of subtitle) that Dawkins had everything wrong, obscure my point above about this being about stories about nature rather than about nature. I stand by the title but agree we might have found a better end to the subtitle — that it might have been wise to run with something other than “it’s wrong.” Fair enough.

Yet in answer to any really strident objections to a title that threatens to obscure a richer aragument — to any charges that I can hardly expect people to hear my deeper argument if I lead with title like “Die, Selfish Gene, Die” —I would answer: Let us examine more closely “The Selfish Gene.”

Finally, let me again thank all the many, many readers who came to both article and ensuing discussion with a sincere wish to understand first, argue second, and to argue, when it seemed necessary, with a continued determination to reach, if not agreement, at least a mutual understanding of the others’ deeper argument and intentions, and a desire not just to change the other’s thinking, but expand their own.

I won’t attempt to name all who’ve done that despite disagreeing with me, but am happy to name as examples of such engagement Graham Coop, Karen James, Aylwyn Scally, Emily Willingham, Razib Khan, and Hopi Hoekstra. Even amid ugly shouting from various corners, these people have engaged in spirited disagreement with the intent not just to tear something down, but to build something new. They have listened as much as they have spoken. They have sought to understand as much as to be understood. Despite discord they have engaged under the noble assumption that drives all the best science and all the best writing: That, absent evidence otherwise, we are all here trying to tell true and constructive stories about a nature gorgeously and maddeningly complicated. Cheers to you lot.