A really interesting dust-up in the land of evolutionary biology is going on. David Dobbs, a science writer, has thrown down a gauntlet against Richard Dawkins’ idea of The Selfish Gene. “The selfish gene is one of the most successful science metaphors ever invented. Unfortunately, it’s wrong”, he writes.
So, my curriculum vitae happens to have NOT AN EVOLUTIONARY BIOLOGIST right at the top, but as far as I can tell as a layman, Dobbs appears to be creating a huge conflict over something that isn’t really a conflict, in order to introduce some deeper levels of modern evolutionary theory to a broader public.
So, what follows is a really great, well-written article by Dobbs containing at its centre a phony conflict. This doesn’t make for a completely top-notch article, but it does transmit some of what I understand to be some really important ideas about the ways genes get expressed into phenotypes. Most interesting takeaway which I was not aware of: grasshoppers and locusts are the same species. Locusts are just different expressions of the same DNA in a reaction to environmental changes.
My understanding of the problem with the article is this: no matter what the gene expression in question, the coding that expresses the mechanisms that create gene expressions are also coded in the genes. The genes are the machines that create the machines that express the genes, so to speak.
So, there are two interesting companion pieces which I urge you to read.
- First, and most especially, this caustic point-by-point rebuttal by Professor Ceiling Cat over at Why Evolution Is True. This piece is a hard read, since it gets into a lot of details, but it really gets into some interesting changes to the way we think heredity and evolution.
- The second is this post by Pharyngula, who is far more positive, though he too thinks that the idea of selfish genes need to be retained.
Just as an apropos, I suspect that a lot of the temperature in the first piece by Dobbs stems from Dawkins’ standing these days as a public intellectual. He’s been doing some rather poor thinking on religion — I’m an atheist myself, but I think Dawkins’ overly confrontational approach to creating a secular society is probably not a good one. Though he makes many excellent points, I think his ranty twittery side just does not look good:
(I’d like to talk more about atheism and religion at some point — if that’s something you’re interested in, leave a comment.)
So I find that that’s a tension in the background of the piece by Dobbs, or at least in the commentary it has engendered. There’s this strong dislike of Dawkins by the multiculturalist leftists who see him as an islamophobe and by everyone in the religious community. And it seems to be driving the backlash against his scientific thinking. It should not. His scientific thinking remains completely sound, until rebutted by the scientific process.