Dec. 4th, 2013

liv: ribbon diagram of a p53 monomer (p53)
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.

Dawkins is Wrong on the internet, and in his books, and in person too I expect )

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.

Soundbite

Miscellaneous. Eclectic. Random. Perhaps markedly literate, or at least suffering from the compulsion to read any text that presents itself, including cereal boxes.

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