Richard Dawkins, The Economist & bylines

By Razib Khan | July 23, 2009 12:17 pm

The Economist has a review up of a book about Richard Dawkins’ influence, The Selfish Genius: How Richard Dawkins Rewrote Darwin’s Legacy. But it would really be nice to know who wrote something like this:

Her argument that the selfish-gene model is being superseded by other forms of evolutionary explanation relies on an overinterpretation of those alternatives.

In disputed areas of science perspective matters, and who someone is is a critical part of the information in judging their argument. I’m assuming this book review was written by someone who knows some evolutionary biology, in fact, someone with a familiarity with the Oxford zoology department where Dawkins has spent most of his career (In a hard-to-find-online piece about The Economist in The New Republic from about 10 years ago Andrew Sullivan claimed that most of the writers at The Economist hailed from one college at Oxford). I’m less hostile to Dawkins (on the science) than someone like Larry Moran, but it would be nice to know who is writing defenses of him nonetheless.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Culture, Evolution
  • toto

    The selfish gene is a useful metaphor (the gene’s eye view perspective helps in avoiding gross errors of causal logic). But it cannot suffice as a complete description of the evolutionary process, or even worse, of life in general.
    The most obvious counter-examples are those cases of evolution where heritable change is not directly mediated by genes -e.g. endosymbiosis. What’s the gene “for” having mitochondria?
    Evolution is really about heritable “features”, in a deliberately vague, all-encompassing way, and is better left like that.

  • Eric Johnson

    I think Dawkins’ evolution writings are for the most part very clarifying. I just wrote this at the Larry Moran thread. I’ve polished it a little.
    > philosophers of science like Brandon and Whimsatt have put Selfish Gene to rest a couple of decades ago. Biologists are the ones who need to catch up with that.
    Forgive my skepticism. (And my brusque tone, which isn’t in the least directed at anyone; I’m just an irritable young codger.) But how is any of this a philosophic matter? As Dawkins wrote, there’s really no “unit of selection.” Alleles rise and fall in frequency. I would say that means they get selected. Some might disagree. Yet it doesn’t matter, because we agree that they rise and fall in frequency. Individuals vary in reproductive output. We all agree on this. Does that mean they “get selected?” I don’t know.
    It seems like everyone agrees on all the concrete descriptions. They quibble about abstract descriptions of little importance.
    Some of my alleles, perhaps many of them, contribute to my willingness to sometimes sacrifice my interest for my siblings’ or parents’ interest. Is this selfish, because the gene is helping itself and hurting me? Arguable. I don’t really think so, because really, other forms of kin altruism are fundamentally the same as altruism toward my own offspring. Helping my brother is, essentially, a form of reproduction. (Altruism toward my own offspring is higher than toward other first-degree relatives probably only because they are younger and have a higher expectation for future reproduction.) Whether it’s selfish It’s a matter of how you use words, and what angle you look from. I, and probably most, would find it odd to think that genes are being selfish by making us reproduce and be altruistic to our offspring, so I don’t think they are being selfish by causing kin altruisim either. But more importantly we all agree what is happening concretely, and why.
    Are genes selfish in general? Personally, I say that most of them are not. Let’s put it in precise concrete terms: the typical allele borne by me is not out to reduce my inclusive fitness by increasing its fitness. A few alleles possibly borne by me (or by some animal), though, are out to do that: segregation distorters, uppity mitochondrial alleles, transposons, parasitic chromosomes, etc. Those are certainly selfish. But most of my alleles have nothing to gain by harming my inclusive fitness or reducing the fitness of any other allele. So they don’t do it.
    A lot of genes put me in conflict with my family – like those that raise maternal blood sugar due to expression by the fetus, something the mother’s body often resists. (I may well have some of these, having been born at nearly 11 pounds.) But those genes don’t lower *my* inclusive fitness. They make *me* selfish against my mother, but they aren’t selfish.
    Again, is there any real disagreement over any of these concrete facts, when we use precise terms like allele frequency and inclusive fitness? Should I care what some philosophers or philosophizing biologists say about them? Should I have a “gene centered view of evolution?” What does that even mean? An allele rises in frequency if and only if the average individual bearing that allele has higher inclusive fitness than the average individual – what more do I need to understand?

  • Caledonian

    An allele rises in frequency if and only if the average individual bearing that allele has higher inclusive fitness than the average individual – what more do I need to understand?

    That the first half of your statement is incorrect.

  • Ninja

    Eric Johnson writes above:
    “An allele rises in frequency if and only if the average individual bearing that allele has higher inclusive fitness than the average individual – what more do I need to understand?”
    Well put, I think. And I agree that the “philosphical” questions raised by The Selfish Gene “theory” are really not that profound once you start to think about it. Only, non-biologists may find it a bit exiting that they are merely vehicles for genes – but, no matter how you look at it, we are just pawns in the game of evolution, and that is, I guess, equally provoking, if you wish.
    No, the real scientific question that Dawkins raised was what to study, when one studies evolution. Can we just throw out all the “old phenotyping” and instead focus only of sequence alignment if we want to study evolution? That is the real question. As Dawkin said: There is no unit of selection. Okay, but how to we then study evolution? And how do we integrate the different levels of evidence, say genes versus teeth?…. just my five cents… hope I am not deraling this discussion too far…

  • Eric Johnson

    “Philosophy” in bio is somewhat related to Dawkins’ own meditations about good and bad “poetic science” (essentially, the use of metaphor in scientific thinking). Though I’m not sure Dawkins has followed his own advice on that matter unfailingly.
    We desire, in our ideas, clean correspondences, clean tables of categories, symmetries, geometric structures, schemas – almost like we want a fine cathedral or other pre-postmodern building. It’s OK for it to be pretty complicated – in fact that’s usually desirable – but it must be rather sharp and clean, and ordered, it must map onto something. Though I haven’t read him I suspect Oswald Spengler is a key example – this civilization is epitomized by Faust, that one by XYZ. Each culture has four periods in which it shows, in its own way, characteristic developments of religion, of art, of politics.
    This is not unrelated to a desire for beauty. Even more related is idealism vs realism. Personally I’m “worse” than average in this regard. I loved geometry, calculus, and above all real analysis. I hated algebra and above all refused to take stats, which is nearly the ugliest and also one of the truest of all disciplines. I now agree with those who say we should put stats in the high school curriculum in place of some of the other math.
    This psychological tendency is one thing for an artist, perhaps, but outside art it always risks sottish and messed up ideas. Just when I think I have suppressed it enough, I see the need and advantage of suppressing it just a little further.
    I think units of selection and gene-centered vs individual-centered is a case of making stuff up that doesn’t exist, and it comes out of this idealizing-schematizing drive. Another example is the debate over whether viruses are alive. “Alive” turns out to be a very ill-defined predicate, and moreover one that doesn’t add anything within the context of scientific material reductionism. If you want crisp predicates, look at our understanding of macromolecular interactions and how they transmit information, which explains very nicely everything that viruses do, leaving almost nothing obscure. That’s viruses – they are that.
    Human life itself has more than a little poetic flair. It’s not necessarily something we conduct completely within a worldview of material reductionism (nor do I necessarily believe that the latter can explain qualia). Privately, I see and “feel” viruses as alive. I’m not too interested in arguing about it with those of the opposite view, but I don’t deny it’s a question that could be interesting. What it’s not, though, is anything to do with science – in scientific mode it’s not decidable and not valuable.

  • Eric Johnson

    >> An allele rises in frequency if and only if the average individual bearing that allele has higher inclusive fitness than the average individual – what more do I need to understand?
    > That the first half of your statement is incorrect.
    Well, yes. I meant, other than segregation distorters, rebel organelles, and other miscreants I had bracketed out above as being evidently exceptional.


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About Razib Khan

I have degrees in biology and biochemistry, a passion for genetics, history, and philosophy, and shrimp is my favorite food. In relation to nationality I'm a American Northwesterner, in politics I'm a reactionary, and as for religion I have none (I'm an atheist). If you want to know more, see the links at


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