In 1976, Richard Dawkins published his book The Selfish Gene, which built upon George C. Williams ground-breaking idea that “adaptation” was too vague a term to build a scientific theory upon, and that evolution would be better understood as selection among genes or individuals. Dawkins helped develop this concept into what is now called the gene-centric view. This perspective (or model) provides a valuable view of the history of life and one cannot truly claim to have grasped modern theories of natural selection without some appreciation for how things seem when viewed from the perspective of genes.
However, as useful as this model can be it is rife with misconceptions. The mythologies attached to “the selfish gene” can be broken into two distinct camps: firstly, erroneous iconography created by the wording of this phrase when the individual does not understand the gene-centric viewpoint Dawkins was espousing, and secondly, an overly reductionist dogma among some scientists who mistake an explanatory principle for a fundamental law.
The problem with the idea of a “selfish gene” in popular culture is that what 'selfish' means to most people is utterly different to what 'selfish' means in the gene-centric view. This criticism is meticulously developed by the philosopher Elliott Sober in his essay What is Evolutionary Altruism? which demonstrates that the way “selfish” and “altruistic” are deployed by evolutionary biologists is radically different from the way these terms are used colloquially. He uses the example of giving someone a piano: this can be altruistic in the vernacular sense (depending upon the motive behind the gift), but in the sense used in evolutionary theory, the piano may distract you from having babies , thus reducing your “evolutionary fitness”.
Arguably more pernicious is the dogmatic belief in an ideology derived from the gene-centric view. Stephen Jay Gould and Richard Dawkins fought bitter public battles over their differing interpretations of evolutionary mythology, and Gould was especially scathing about Dawkins' obsession with genes, claiming that the gene-centric view was “a confusion of bookkeeping with causality”, providing an overly reductionist perspective which he characterised as “Darwinian fundamentalism”. Gould's criticisms in this regard arguably overstepped the mark, probably as a result of the anger and hostility engendered by the heated conflict between the two highly regarded scientists.
The problems with predicating the gene-centric view as a fundamental principle are multifarious, but a brief but key complaint is that genes do not generate behaviour in and of themselves, and much of Dawkins and others reasoning in this regard depends upon this connection. Genes are DNA code for proteins, and although these proteins are used to construct behavioural systems, such as elements of the brain, neurotransmitters and hormones, the gene is just a component of the template for the organism's biology. Just as a brick is used to construct a building but tells you little about what people do in buildings, a gene helps build a body but by itself tells you little about what that body does. Behaviour – even among simple animals – depends as much on environment and culture (or ecology for less complex lifeforms) as it does the biological capacities inherited via genetic transmission.
Rather than “the selfish gene” – which risks misrepresenting the natural history of life as driven solely by miserly competition (a myth exposed last week) – the gene-centric view can perhaps be better grasped in common parlance by the idea that advantages persist. This is indeed the essence of the gene-centric view: a gene that leads to advantages for an individual (and by extension, a species) is vastly more likely to persist, and this persistence of advantage is the ratcheting mechanism that drives, in another of Dawkins' metaphors, the ascent up the slopes of “mount improbable” - the landscape of all possible life.
Alternative myth: Advantages Persist
Next Week: Myth #4: Kin Selection