liv: ribbon diagram of a p53 monomer (p53)
[personal profile] liv
So my brother, who briefly considered becoming a biologist before he settled on philosophy, asked me months ago to explain Steven Rose's critique of Richard Dawkins in this debate. The problem is it's an hour-long video with no transcript, which is bad enough for extracting information, but on top of that there's the prospect of spending an hour listening to Dawkins being smug and annoying.

I finally got round to watching the video some months after Screwy asked me about it. What prompted me to do this was that Emily Nagoski, my favourite sex blogger, linked to a really excellent Aeon (long-form web magazine) piece by David Dobbs debunking the selfish gene metaphor. As I suspected it might, the Dobbs piece expands on Rose's point, and I at least find it a lot easier to absorb complex scientific information from a 5K word essay than from a bloody video interview.

I honestly think Dobbs does a better job than I can of explaining why Rose and many other biologists reject Dawkins' selfish gene idea. Both Rose and Dobbs are addressing general audiences anyway, but I did promise Screwy I'd have a go at explaining some of the issues in the Rose/Dawkins debate from a biologist's perspective. Also, the Dobbs essay in particular provides a good jumping off point for the essay about epigenetics I've been meaning to post for ages, and which has become topical again with this somewhat dubious news story about mice with inherited trauma memories.

When I was a teenager passionate about molecular genetics, I read and enjoyed The Selfish Gene. Even Dawkins' detractors regard it as a good piece of science writing. I was coming from an unusual perspective, I think, because by the time I was 15 or so I had self-taught myself enough genetics to get me most of the way through the first year of university before I started encountering new concepts. So for me, the value in Dawkins' book was in explaining how the molecular mechanisms I was fascinated by were relevant to actually observable biological phenomena such as animal behaviour. Whereas I think what he was aiming to do was simplify all the molecular stuff for people who were not obsessed with the topic, in order to convince people that biological complexity arose through natural selection. This was never a controversial issue for me, but with no direct personal experience of genetics I pretty much accepted Dawkins' view that natural selection acts at the level of the gene, not the species (though not his wild leap of logic that the truth of this proposition "proves" that there's no God).

The book that really directed me towards pursuing a life science degree and through that into a career in molecular biology research, though, was Steven Rose's The chemistry of life. I read the original blue-covered Penguin edition which was 30 years out of date when I picked it up, and by now is about as relevant as Darwin to modern biology. But Rose's book made me understand that the same kind of elegant, fascinating complexity I was drawn to in genetics exists throughout the field of biochemistry. Which made it not just a hobby for a nerdy teenager, but something I actually wanted to spend my life doing. Rose introduced me to the concept of cell signalling and the idea of the cell as a decision-making machine (a deterministic one, you understand, not consciously making decisions), the kind of thing I work on now, albeit using techniques that even someone as forward-looking as Rose couldn't even have conceived of in 1966.

So it's kind of amazing to me that Rose is a spokesman for the respectable but still minority view that Dawkins was wrong, not just about religion, everybody knows he's a fool about religion, but about genetics too. One problem here is that Dawkins is not only an individual who holds certain scientific (and political) views with which one may agree or disagree, Dawkins is the figurehead and almost the symbol of New Atheism. So any criticism of him can be read as an attack on, to coin a phrase, the sacred cows of atheist identity politics. Indeed in many cases it is; there are plenty of religious apologists trying to fling mud at Dawkins simply because he's so famous for his non-belief in God and his objections to religious organizations. Let me be absolutely clear here: I think the question of whether natural selection operates at the level of the gene is very interesting and scientifically relevant, but has no bearing on whether God exists. And Rose and Dobbs and myself are all, essentially, Darwinists; nobody is arguing from the fact that Dawkins over-extended his metaphors in The Selfish Gene that all the different species were created spontaneously in the garden of Eden and are completely unchanging.

This is also not a political argument; it is the case that many of the people who accept all the ramifications of the selfish gene metaphor tend to be politically right-wing, and many of the people who dispute it come from the left, but this is at root a scientific debate, not a political one. However much I may be annoyed with Dawkins, I am pretty convinced he isn't responsible for the fact that some Reagan-ite political thinkers looked at the word "selfish" and tried to claim that Dawkins' views justified the sort of abhorrent "might is right" view that is sometimes claimed as "social Darwinism". Dawkins is often a dick and sometimes sexist, racist and colonialist, but he's not actually a white supremacist and has repeatedly argued against interpreting his selfish gene model as a "biological" justification for extremely selfish libertarian politics.

So on what grounds does Rose challenge Dawkins? He finds the view that natural selection operates at the level of the gene to be over-simplified if not flat wrong. Partly because, as Dawkins himself makes clear, "the gene" in his thinking is an abstraction, not really connected to biochemical reality. It doesn't make sense to declare that this is the only level where natural selection operates, because it isn't a level that has any meaningful physical existence. Dawkins explains in depth in The Selfish Gene that he's not talking about a single continuous stretch of DNA which can be inherited as a unit, he's talking about the interplay of several different "genes" in the classical sense which give rise to a particular selectable trait. But Rose argues that if you're going to handwave that, you might as well talk about the gestalt state of interaction of every gene in the genome with every other part of the genome. And indeed with the environment and life-course of the organism and all the other organisms it is connected to ecologically. Which for one thing undermines the maths that Dawkins lifted from JBS Haldane which allows some predictions to be made based on the idea of gene-based natural selection, because that assumes that a gene is at least some kind of defined entity with some kind of one-to-one relationship with a trait.

Rose follows this line of argument to its logical conclusion, which is that there is no meaningful distinction between genotype and phenotype. Everything is phenotype, from the precise arrangement of combinations of genes in a particular organism, to the interaction of that organism with all aspects of its environment. Thus, natural selection doesn't pick a level at which to operate; a particular combination of genes, populations and environment has a survival advantage or doesn't. In Rose's view, it's a mistake to ever talk about genes "for" something, (not so much because it's teleological whereas being Darwinists we accept evolution as a random, undirected process), but because a gene doesn't cause a particular trait in isolation, rather all traits are the outcome of the interplay of genes and gene products and situation and ecological context and environment.

Dawkins argues against this because although he acknowledges that the complex interplay is biological reality, he says that everything that's similar between two organisms can be mathematically cancelled out, leaving only the (heritable) differences to be subject to natural selection. And that difference might well be something biochemically defined, even a single base substitution. Which harks back to the classical Darwinian view that natural selection acts on random variation. Rose agrees that there has to be variation present for natural selection to come into play, but he points out that the existence of animals with varying traits itself alters the environment in which the variations are favourable or unfavourable. His view is that this makes evolutionary biology essentially non-deterministic or at least completely impossible to predict because it's a chaotic system with all kinds of feedback loops. I felt like this was the weakest strand in Rose's argument and Dawkins countered it by pointing out that we can make useful predictions on a fairly broad level of abstraction, and test them by comparing unrelated organisms that have evolved in similar niches and show that the same patterns keep coming up.

A more important pillar of Rose's view is that it's wrong to give genes, as in sequences of DNA, so much primacy in our view of biology. To a certain extent this is an issue of metaphor choice and language rather than actual scientific differences between Rose and Dawkins, but it's also I think significant that Rose is concerned with actual biochemical mechanisms as opposed to Dawkins' theoretical abstractions. He criticizes Dawkins for claiming that genes are the only thing that's inherited, firstly because offspring do not inherit specific molecules of DNA from their parents but rather inherit copies, and those copies are made by the cellular machinery and indeed this is a key point where variation-causing mutations can occur. But also, lots of characteristics of parents affect offspring that are not directly genetic sequences; maternal behaviour and context have major effects on the survival of offspring, possibly more important than which sequences of DNA are inherited on a cellular level.

This is also where Rose converges with Dobbs, because Rose thinks that the gene-lead view skims over the very important point about patterns of gene expression, which genes are switched on or off in which circumstances, both during development and in response to the environment. Dawkins of course does not disagree that this occurs, because Dawkins is a highly educated biologist whatever else you might think of him. However Dawkins doesn't think it's very important to talk about in his model of how natural selection works, because for him it's just implementation detail of how genes create the phenotype which is selected. I think Dawkins is right in that clearly all the patterns of gene expression Rose and Dobbs lean on are in fact determined by the gene sequence, ultimately. But I can definitely see the point of using a model which centres the interplay of gene expression and environment, both of them altering eachother. This isn't a trivial detail, this is the key point of how biology works.

And part of the reason why I think this is because I work directly with the biochemical reality of how that gene switching works. I'm aiming to follow up this post in a few days with a bit of an introduction to how that works. The absolute key fact here is that some of the patterns of gene expression are themselves heritable. Not only in the indirect sense that Rose alludes to (eg if a parent organism moves to a particular location, then the offspring will experience natural selection in that location and that will affect whether their phenotype is is fit or not), though that is very important. But actually literally passed on biochemically from parent to offspring.

(no subject)

Date: 2013-12-05 01:25 am (UTC)
ironed_orchid: pin up girl reading kant (Default)
From: [personal profile] ironed_orchid
Thank you. This is very clear and helpful.

As someone with a humanities background, I've read the "Selfish Genes and Selfish Memes" essay (chapter?), and had problems with the metaphors there, but not had the biological background required to address the Selfish Gene stuff by itself.

(no subject)

Date: 2013-12-05 08:58 pm (UTC)
From: [personal profile] flippac
That makes sense - the humanities are far more used to poking holes in pretty abstractions, not to mention the necessity thereof. It took me too long to pick up enough from them, but it's been pretty much life-changing doing so.

(no subject)

Date: 2013-12-07 10:54 am (UTC)
ptc24: (Default)
From: [personal profile] ptc24
It's fairly easy to reel of a list of philosophers that like the gene-centred view; Daniel Dennett is the obvious one, a wikipedia trawl picks up Philip Kitcher, David Hull and Helena Cronin. There is of course Mary Midgley's early critique of Dawkins, but I don't think that's so much a case of Midgley "seeing through" Dawkins as failing to see Dawkins at all.

I think this idea of anthropomorphised named communities that can do things like "seeing through" a particular author - i.e. things that individuals can do... is an abstraction which needs to be applied with great caution. Sometimes, I think, it works.

(no subject)

Date: 2013-12-10 09:53 pm (UTC)
ptc24: (Default)
From: [personal profile] ptc24
I think, on calmer reflection; my impression of Midgely is that the quality of her critique is hugely variable. On the one hand, some of her statements are so obviously off target, and it's so easy to find passages that deflect them, that key parts of it look laughable. On the other hand, I think I can see more flaws in The Selfish Gene due to Midgley than possibly any other critic.

Her original paper is widely regarded as highly intemperate; so much so that apparently she's apologised for the aggressive tone; I tried reading it but found myself unable to read calmly after a page or so. I have a theory that offended people have poor reading comprehension; this applies to me as well as to Midgley, so take my comments with a pinch of salt.

(no subject)

Date: 2013-12-05 02:13 am (UTC)
princessofgeeks: (Default)
From: [personal profile] princessofgeeks
thank you for teaching.

(no subject)

Date: 2013-12-05 03:00 am (UTC)
lilacsigil: 12 Apostles rocks, text "Rock On" (12 Apostles)
From: [personal profile] lilacsigil
It's fascinating how much more complex genes are than was thought even as late as the 1990s! The more we learn, the more there is to learn.

(I'm an atheist, BTW, and I consider Dawkins more an anti-religionist than an atheist.)

(no subject)

Date: 2013-12-05 09:58 am (UTC)
kaberett: Trans symbol with Swiss Army knife tools at other positions around the central circle. (Default)
From: [personal profile] kaberett
Thank you!

Environmental Influences

Date: 2013-12-05 10:47 am (UTC)
From: (Anonymous)
I know that Lamark's work (or Stalin's misuse) is discredited.

With hindsight, is there any value in his approach?


(no subject)

Date: 2013-12-05 11:58 am (UTC)
nameandnature: Giles from Buffy (Default)
From: [personal profile] nameandnature
The more I think about this, the more I realise I don't really know what the disagreement is about. Perhaps I should read Dawkins's books again. I do remember being confused about just what he was claiming a "gene" was, since I remember that he was saying you could not necessarily identify a particular sequence of DNA as a gene.

Supervenience sounds like a useful concept here: is Dawkins arguing with people who think that selection does not supervene on genes, or is he arguing with people who agree with him that it does, and just saying that genes are the best level to think about things at (for example, to avoid confusion or mistaken predictions)? Do the parties to the disagreement actually make different predictions (or retro-dictions)?

(no subject)

Date: 2013-12-08 10:12 am (UTC)
green_knight: (Default)
From: [personal profile] green_knight
How does domestication fit into this model? It appears to me that domesticated animals are vastly more successful than their counterparts which occupy similiar ecological niches, but which do not cooperate well with humans and are not similarly prized by humans.

(no subject)

Date: 2013-12-05 02:33 pm (UTC)
khalinche: (Default)
From: [personal profile] khalinche
What a rich and interesting read, thank you.

(no subject)

Date: 2013-12-05 07:24 pm (UTC)
sunflowerinrain: Singing at the National Railway Museum (Default)
From: [personal profile] sunflowerinrain
Lovely clear exposition.

As a humanities type, I could never understand why so many scientists thought Dawkinsism was a Good Thing.

By the way, I read this article with interest, though ignoring some of the Big Hard Words[0].

[0] "CpG hypomethylation" appears to mean something has run out of meths.

(no subject)

Date: 2013-12-06 10:09 am (UTC)
sunflowerinrain: Singing at the National Railway Museum (Default)
From: [personal profile] sunflowerinrain
I look forward to your post on epigenetics!

I don't understand why creationism and evolution are presented as Boolean options. Life, The Universe, and Everything aren't binary, and surely biologists, of all scientists, should be comfortable with concepts of both being true, or rather a merge of bits-of-both? I'm not advocating a refusal to accept all that obvious evidence, but I don't think believing in evolution automatically means disbelieving in a creative Something.

Come to think of it, I'm not even sure laptop computers are as 0 and 1 as we are led to believe...

(no subject)

Date: 2013-12-05 08:18 pm (UTC)
rysmiel: (Default)
From: [personal profile] rysmiel
To my mind Rose's "there's no distinction between genotype and phenotype" and Dawkins' "all other factors can be cancelled out" are both excessive extremes, excluding the middle of a wide range of more or less complex sets of genes and other interacting factors about which it is possible to say useful things; it's obviously easier to determine what those useful things are about systems that behave in more straightforward ways, such as the classical examples of phenotypic effects correlating with whether a single gene is functional or not (such as cystic fibrosis), but I do believe we are in the process of becoming able to say meaningful and interesting things about systems more complicated than that but still well short of a whole organism level of complexity.

I dislike Dawkins' use of "gene" for "whatever unit selection behaves neatly on" intensely for muddying the language, and I am also not at all convinced that his arguments adequately acknowledge the existence of purely neutral variation within biological systems, and traits becoming fixed by chance.
Edited Date: 2013-12-05 08:20 pm (UTC)

(no subject)

Date: 2013-12-06 08:38 pm (UTC)
rysmiel: (Default)
From: [personal profile] rysmiel
I also think your intuition is plausible, that we can do some degree of system level stuff but we can't meaningfully model whole organisms (certainly not whole ecosystems at a molecular level).

I wouldn't characterise that just as an intuition, given that I am kind of thrashing around on one border of that problem at work right now; people are grappling with the system-level stuff even if not, to my knowledge, yet at the point of having well-defined insights as to ways forward with it. (I keep feeling there must be some way to drag Stafford Beer's conceptualisation of variety management in here but not quite seeing exactly how best it fits.)

Have you actually looked into the aetiology of CF recently? Because I've been teaching it to second year medics and I am not convinced that the model of a single mutation creating the whole phenotype is useful any more.

I have not looked into the etiology recently, it doesn't surprise me that it should be more complicated than a single mutation causing the whole phenotype, but is it sufficiently far from that that paying attention to whether CFTR is functional or no is no longer useful in and of itself ?

What would you regard as a useful definition of a gene? That's a genuine question and not rhetorical. For example, I really don't think we're going to get far in modern biology with the Jacob-Monod "one gene, one polypeptide" model, if only because there is turning out to be so very much regulatory and important non-coding RNA. And I'm not convinced we have a better concept to replace it with.

That's not one to which I can see a simple answer, but I suspect I would start from something like "set of 1 to n indivisible units, individually correlated to protein performing defined biochemical function, and subject to (largely) the same regulatory functions" with some handwaving in there about alternative splicing; that does kind of fail with weird edge cases like kinetoplastid genomes in some kinds of protozoa, though.

I agree with Rose's criticism that Dawkins' usage is way too fuzzy to be useful (and I think to a great extent depends on circular reasoning).

I'm not sure it's entirely circular to approach a problem from the direction of "this is the scale on which it is possible to draw meaningful and useful results so this is the scale on which we will work", but I think Dawkins is overdoing that and not generally being clear enough that that is what he is doing.

And yeah, neutralism was a popular critique of Dawkins back when I was an undergrad, I'm fairly certain that there is a great deal of neutral variation and stochastic rather than selective fixing of traits.

It's been a while since I looked at any of that, but iirc there are fairly well-defined, workable and not excessively complex mathematical models for assessing selection pressure vs. neutral drift in populations.

(no subject)

Date: 2013-12-06 10:30 pm (UTC)
ptc24: (Default)
From: [personal profile] ptc24
"A gene is defined as any portion of chromosomal material that potentially lasts for enough generations to serve as a unit of natural selection." - I think this is not quite equivalent to "whatever unit selection behaves neatly on", I think it's fairly clear that under that definition two loci on separate chromosomes don't constitute a gene, and depending on the rate of crossover, two loci at opposite ends of a chromosome almost certainly wont. Apparently it comes from G. C. Williams.

If you had a metabolic pathway with two enzymes (and you needed both to get something useful), coded for by regions on two chromosomes, then I think it's clear that Dawkins would count that as two genes.

"genes for" - he uses this to describe the difference a gene makes in context. I think (I'm extrapolating a little), in Dawkinsese, if both genes are common in the relevant gene pool, then both genes are "genes for" the production of the eventual metabolite - if both genes are rare, then they are "genes for" a small chance of producing the eventual metabolite. "A gene that cooperates well with most of the other genes that it is likely to meet in successive bodies, i.e. the genes in the whole of the rest of the gene pool, will tend to have an advantage."

Conclusion: I think Dawkin's idea of a gene can encompass promoter sequences, tRNA, snRNA, and various other things; it's not a way of getting around gene-gene interactions. It's not clear to me how durable methylation patterns etc. are - if you can have a methylation pattern now and meaningfully have the same methylation pattern 100 generations (possibly fewer) later with no interruptions, then I suppose that might be counted as a gene.

I think Dawkins discussed neutralism in The Blind Watchmaker. From the video, Dawkins says that neutralism is important in evolution, but that only natural selection can explain adaptation. Rose replies, "that's true, in a sense, except it's also the case that organisms choose their own environment, so the environment also becomes adapted to the organisms", and then there's some agreement about preadaptation/exaptation and spandrels.

(no subject)

Date: 2013-12-11 12:25 am (UTC)
ptc24: (Default)
From: [personal profile] ptc24
Caveat: I've been re-reading tSG but not his later stuff; it's been a while since I read his earlier later stuff and haven't read his latest stuff.

rRNA - one thing I decided to look at today was my working idea of a gene - for text mining, this is "anything Entrez Gene thinks is a gene". This turns out to include ribosomal RNAs, pseudogenes and quite a few other things - it doesn't include trans-acting enhancers as far as I can tell - I think promoters etc. get assimilated to the genes that are promoted. That said, text mining people often can't tell the difference between a gene and a protein and often have confused ideas about species.

"genes for" - this is complicated by traits and how you describe them (do you say "parental care" or "feeding small squawking things in the nest", to use an example of his[1]?). In a lot of cases Dawkins should really be talking about alleles, he likes to talk about the difference a bit of DNA makes. I think this makes more sense going forward from genes to traits; less sense going backward from traits to genes. It's a bit like the old fly geneticist approach; let's break this bit of DNA to see what it does. I opened a page at random, "Suppose that a parent has a gene that tends to cause an even distribution of parental benefits" (emphasis his) which doesn't seem too bad, although I think that Dawkins got lucky with my random choice. He does use "genes for" or "a gene for", I don't think I've seen him use "the gene for" but I might be wrong. To a certain extent he justifies the "gene for" as common practise.

So, I think that given that Dawkins talks about differences... I think it might depend on what functional differences you can get from mutations in the rRNAs or their promoters etc. Dawkins admits that his definition is a bit fuzzy. Among the many alternative titles he has for his book is The slightly selfish big bit of chromosome and the even more selfish little bit of chromosome. He does have an example of a "butterfly mimicry cluster" (it's significant that it's a cluster) which by his definition counts as a single gene, so possibly an rRNA cluster would count.

One of the problems is that most of his explanation of genes and gene function is in Chapters 2 and 3, but the passage he likes to quote when accused of being too reductionist is at the back of Chapter 5, which is mainly on aggression. OK, there's a forward reference and it does depend on ideas introduced in the rest of that chapter (the idea of ESS). He has this metaphor of genes as rowers in boats - a rower has a career in several boats and that way you can get an idea of how "good" he is - and in Chapter 5 he says his analogy isn't really up to the job, but imagine having English and German rowers, and good communication being essential. In a "rower pool" of mainly English rowers, the need for good communication selects for English rowers - likewise in a "rower pool" biased toward German rowers, German rowers are selected for. This is how he deals with several genes on different chromosome being needed to put together a trait; they're different genes in his scheme, and you tend towards an ESS for genes; I suppose that the ESS defines the context against which you can define the difference that a gene (or allele) makes. I think he would have benefited from giving sickle cell as an example of how that works out in a slightly tricky case.

Some of his "extended phenotype" stuff makes for surreal reading; he can talk about genes 'for' (his scare quotes) stone shape and hardness in caddis houses. Possibly you can consider this the punchline of a reducto ad absurdum - if you start about talking about genes for flower colour, this is where you end up.

His scheme... isn't bad IMO for explaining in general terms how there can be various sorts of complex adapted behaviour (or morphology or whatever), but it can give real problems when looking at one bit of complex adapted behaviour and trying to get the right explanation for it. A lot of the points about spandrels etc. that turned up since (?) tSG have the same flavour for me; I don't think they mess up explanations for adaptation in general too much, but they really complicate the process of trying to explain specific adaptations - or even assigning things as adaptations.

This latter problem looks to be hard, especially in Dawkins' home field of ethology - you're looking at not just evo-devo but evo-devo-neuro-psycho (and possibly -eco). The thought of how an instinct (or, perhaps more aptly in many cases, learning bias) might be coded in the genome, let alone evolved, is a bit mind-boggling to me.

[1] Incidentally, I've heard a theory about cuckoos and/or other brood parasites, which says that the bird(s) bringing up the cuckoo chick might not be as fooled as we thought, and they might be intimidated into raising the cuckoo chick by its parent(s).

(no subject)

Date: 2013-12-06 09:31 am (UTC)
ptc24: (Default)
From: [personal profile] ptc24
Politics - one of the issues with discussing the politics here is that different sides have different ideas of what "right wing" means. Reading the 2nd edition of TSG I'd class Dawkins of that era as centre-left; he voted Labour, was horrified by the 80s Tory government, had written something critical about "the working people of Britain" in the main text (pre-Thatcher) but was blushing about it in the 2nd edition end notes (but nevertheless says his remark "could have been taken from a speech by any Labour minister of the time". Rose, OTOH, has been apparently been described by a friend as a Marxist; I've heard similar things about Gould and Lewontin, whose names are frequently associated with Rose's.

Likewise I've heard rants from evolutionary psychologists (i.e. people in the Tooby and Cosimides school) about being portrayed as right wing when they identify as centrist or centre-left.

(no subject)

Date: 2013-12-06 11:48 am (UTC)
jack: (Default)
From: [personal profile] jack
I think, in my head, the salient characteristic of Selfish Gene was expanding the popular conversation from:

Strawman: Evolution operates SOLELY at the level of complete organisms. (And is therefore bollocks because worker bees have no reason to exist. Also, what about a peacock's tail or human compassion? Surely those contradict evolution?)


Dawkins: No, evolution also happens at the level of individual genes. In fact, I bet it SOLELY happens at the level of individual genes. Or, um, groups of genes. Or, um, things that act kind of like that but I don't know exactly what because I don't really know anything about epigenetics...

So when I hear "Dawkins was wrong" I hear "we have to go back to considering SOLELY complete-organism inheritance" and I have a big negative reaction.

And the NORMAL process of science is that when a key insight is right, it turns out to only be 10% of the much more complicated picture, along with a small amount of group inheritance, and a lot of epigenetic things, some of which evolution works on just like physical "genes", and some of which it doesn't. And normally the original author failed to anticipate that, and speculated that their insight explained 100% of everything. And as often as not, they go on insisting their original interpretation was right because they're stubborn. To me, that's the normal process of science is, and calling someone "wrong" because they had one important insight and failed to anticipate that it would turn out to be one part of a larger picture is as nit-picky as calling Newton "wrong" because he spent 90% of his time on alchemy and failed to anticipate relativity.

But it seems like, to a biologist, everyone already knew what, to me, was the important insight, and the defining feature of Selfish Gene is "GENES ARE EVERYTHING". In which case, I'm hardly surprised that's wrong. I was very surprised when you first told me how important epigenetics was, but surely "popular science book from 35 years ago turns out to be incredibly simplistic" is the expected outcome, so it's controversial to the extent that people have emotional attachments to the philosophical implications they think it has, but I'm not sure if it's controversial biologically (or if so, why), or if the philosophical implications (if any) are different with a knowledge of epigenetics?

I also don't know, how much selfish gene is just out of date now, and how much Dawkins should have known better at the time if he'd been keeping up to date with biological research. In theory that shouldn't matter for how wrong it is, but I've a lot more sympathy for someone who speculated and was later overtaken by new research, than someone who wrote something deliberately sloppy because they had an agenda: I do object to the latter, even if I like other things about it.

Oops, I spent two hours thinking about this... I think now I've (somewhat) defused my atheist-sacred-cow reaction, I need to read the post again a lot slower and try to follow the biology.

(no subject)

Date: 2013-12-13 05:15 pm (UTC)
jack: (Default)
From: [personal profile] jack
You said "wrong" was your humorous exaggeration, and I'm sorry for reading too much into it :) But the articles you link to say things like "Die, selfish gene, die" -- it sounds like they think Dawkins is wrong about something important...?

(no subject)

Date: 2013-12-06 11:51 am (UTC)
jack: (Default)
From: [personal profile] jack
his wild leap of logic that the truth of this proposition "proves" that there's no God

FWIW, I've not read it, but it seems some people genuinely think that human altruism/compassion/morality are completely antithetical to evolution and they could only possibly come from God, and selfish gene is the correct rebuttal to that?

But that just debunks one argument, it obviously doesn't prove the opposite.

(no subject)

Date: 2013-12-06 05:19 pm (UTC)
rysmiel: (Default)
From: [personal profile] rysmiel
it seems some people genuinely think that human altruism/compassion/morality are completely antithetical to evolution and they could only possibly come from God, and selfish gene is the correct rebuttal to that?

I'd say iterated Prisoner's Dilemma is the closest there is to a correct rebuttal for the idiotic notion that altruism/compassion is antithetical to evolution on its own terms, myself.

(no subject)

Date: 2013-12-06 11:57 am (UTC)
jack: (Default)
From: [personal profile] jack
Thank you very much for laying out the various philosophical implications people have tried to read into the selfish gene, and which (I think) most people reading this, whether they're inclined towards or away from Dawkins own views, probably agree which ones are bogus.

Listing what the implications aren't helps defuse a lot of potential controversy.

claim that Dawkins' views justified the sort of abhorrent "might is right" view that is sometimes claimed as "social Darwinism"

However, even though I know no-one reading this is likely to disagree, I could stop myself ranting against this. It seems no-one who tries to derive morality from evolution (whether generally positive or generally negative) is at all consistent. Almost no-one says we should ALWAYS do things that are natural, or NEVER do things that are natural: they pick things they think they should do, and then justify it with evolution as appropriate...

(no subject)

Date: 2013-12-06 05:36 pm (UTC)
ptc24: (Default)
From: [personal profile] ptc24
Dobbs' post: I've read Dawkins' response (which alas features a picture of a smug git in an offensive T-Shirt but otherwise I liked it). There's Jerry Coyne's response which Dawkins likes, which has prompted Dobbs' response to the response, which pretty much confirmed my impression of the main post:

People on all sides seem to be in general agreement on what the substantive issues of what the science is; the disagreements here are solely about how to present this to a popular audience. Dobbs' title and tagline are a wild exaggeration of his actual position - in his defense Dobbs points to the title of The Selfish Gene and compares it to his own title. Dawkins criticises Dobbs article for having an excessively adversarial tone and presenting an interesting refinement of the current synthesis as revolutionary. There's an analogy with previous things such as punctuated equilibrium and neutralism - I remember a chapter of The Blind Watchmaker talking about punctuated equilibrium.

The link to the video doesn't work, but I presume this is the thing - I've started watching and it seems interesting. There might well be a chemist's-eye view in response to this. ETA here - are we talking about the same video?
Edited Date: 2013-12-06 09:11 pm (UTC)

Fascinating, thank you!

Date: 2013-12-13 03:29 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
Thank you - I found this really very interesting to read. The kin selection vs group selection predictions between the two theories, in particular - I really haven't been following enough biology in recent years.

I've posted a link to your post on my blog as it seemed very much worth sharing. Please do tell me if I've misinterpreted or misrepresented you in any way in it.

(no subject)

Date: 2013-12-15 10:53 am (UTC)
From: (Anonymous)
Thanks sister. That was very helpful. I'm still not sure I get it, but here is a thought (albeit I read the selfish gene about 12 years ago and haven't looked at it since). In that book Dawkins presents a neo-Hobbesian picture of the world. (Hobbes is the red in tooth and claw chap). So, in a Hobbesian view the world consists of atoms. Each atom has private interests and there are no external constraints on those interests. In particular, there is no constraint by goodness or truth. So, private interests actually turn out to be inclinations and drives. The idea was -- back in the 17th and 18th century -- that complexity, stability and the simulacrum of goodness would emerge from this simplicity. Dawkins takes that view wholesale and says, 'ah but the atoms are genes, and the interests are selection pressures'. He's never very clear what those are, but I think he settles for a functional definition of some sort, though it is important for the view that these functional units are physically realised. If they aren't you don't get the Hobbseian atomism.

So that's the set-up, I think. Next comes Midgeley who says, 'you're a bloody Hobbesian' and the big D denies it with both hands. This trope is repeated ad nauseiam with each fresh critique. I think Dawkins did write the book as a defence of a Hobbesian view, but doesn't realise that it is a contentious metaphysical position. He thinks he's just doing pop science and science tells us that Hobbes. Rose, who seems a better philosopher, says, 'look, you don't have atoms 'competing' with each other. You've got complex systems. Each bit is playing a role but what those bits are is actually determined by how the system works, so the functional role drives the ontology'. The upshot is that you don't have atomism. Again, Dawkins misses this criticism because of his metaphysical dogmatism. Still there is nothing very radically different in Rose's understanding of natural selection from Dawkin's, because they both put the gene first as mechanism. The dispute is over the ontology.

The bee woman in the Dobbs article, she's more radical. She seems to be saying gene's aren't in any sense the unit of selection. She says, 'that's not how genes work. Look complicated gene switching mechanisms, ergo phenotype changes result from selection pressures on whole systems.' I think for her there are no units of selection. It seems really radical. It's almost biology without evolution. I think she thinks that systems change over time. We can understand those mechanisms, and part of that is reproduction selection pressures but there is no neat model of change, diversity and stability. In a way, I think, she has brought Midgeley's knock down refutation of memes and applied it to the whole theory of the survival of the fittest.


(no subject)

Date: 2014-01-23 11:52 am (UTC)
merrythebard: (Default)
From: [personal profile] merrythebard
Fascinating, and informative. Thank you. :-)


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