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Selfish Gene, RIP

When it appeared, our friend and contributor Denyse O'Leary highly recommended taking "two coffee breaks" to absorb David Dobbs's long essay for Aeon magazine, "Die, Selfish Gene, Die." Instantaneously, the article set off a brawl among Darwin bloggers, with Dawkins himself weighing in in his own defense. By now to get through the burgeoning commentary on Dobbs, pro and con, would require a full cocktail hour or two.

Coyne hated it. PZ Myers, interestingly, found much to admire. Dobbs's point is that Dawkins's conception of the gene driving the technology of life is now vastly outdated. The gene is driven much more than it drives. He opens with the fascinating illustration of charming, pretty grasshoppers that, under environmental stress, morph in as little as a matter of hours into scary-looking locusts. That's what a locust is, a grasshopper under the spell of insect lycanthropy.


Wray and West-Eberhard don't say that Dawkins is dead wrong. They and other evolutionary theorists -- such as Massimo Pigliucci, professor of philosophy at the City University of New York; Eva Jablonka, professor of mathematics education at King's College, London; Stuart Kauffman, professor of biochemistry and mathematics at the University of Vermont; Stuart A Newman, professor of cell biology and anatomy at the New York Medical College; and the late Stephen Jay Gould, to name a few -- have been calling for an 'extended modern synthesis' for more than two decades. They do so even though they agree with most of what Dawkins says a gene does. They agree, in essence, that the gene is a big cog, but would argue that the biggest cog doesn't necessarily always drive the other cogs. In many cases, they drive it. The gene, in short, just happens to be the biggest, most obvious part of the trait-making inheritance and evolutionary machine. But not the driver.

Myers summarizes:

The new idea that Dobb's describes, and that is actually fairly popular with many developmental biologists, is that phenotype comes first: that organisms are fairly plastic in response to the environment in ways that can't be simplified to pure genetic determinism, and that the genes lag behind, acting to consolidate and make more robust adaptive responses.

Yes, the phenotype, the physical expression of the idea of the organism, comes first. Or as ID advocates would say, the idea itself comes first. On the implications for ID, the argument that says that ideas indeed guide and shape matter not the other way around, our contributor Rob Sheldon comments:

There's a fascinating concession to ID in this article. [Wasp expert Mary Jane] West-Eberhard says that the gene follows, it doesn't lead, because epigenetic changes precede the gene mutation that fixes the phenotype. E.g., the phenotype is plastic until the mutation heat-cures it in. But why does the mutation "know" about the epigenetics? Eberhard-West simply says it happens, but we know that favorable mutations don't just "happen." So apparently there is an implicit ID mutagenesis going on in her model.

For more on the revolutionary Dr. West-Eberhard, see here: "Subverting Darwinism from Within: The Quiet Revolution of Mary Jane West-Eberhard." As James Barham wrote in this space last year:

To avoid teleology, Darwinism must posit random genetic changes that result in random phenotypic changes. But West-Eberhard's work shows us there is no such thing as a random phenotypic change. Instead, we can now see that all phenotypic change is goal-directed.

Thus, the evolutionary process has depended upon the inherent, teleological capability of all living things to adapt themselves to circumstances, within and without. It is this capability that explains evolution, not the other way around.

Now, to the repeated coffee breaks, or cocktail hour as you prefer.

Speaking of which, Bruce Chapman reminds me that FDR wonderfully called the latter ritual as practiced in his White House "the Children's Hour," because it's when the children are blessedly sent away. But that is another matter.