Monday, July 20, 2009

The Collapse of the "Dawkins Dogma"

Fern Elsdon-Baker has written an article for New Scientist entitled Comment: The Dawkins dogma.

It begins with a description of the selfish gene and Darwinian orthodoxy as described by Richard Dawkins. All of this is about to change, according to Elsdon-Baker.

My excitement increased as I read on. Finally, New Scientist is about to wake up to the fact that random genetic drift—a non-Darwinian mechanism—plays an important role in evolution. At long last their readers are going to learn what evolutionary biologists have known for half a century.

No such luck. The challenge to the Richard Dawkins view of evolution comes from .... wait for it .... epigenetics and Lamarckian evolution!

Not only that, lateral gene transfer is toppling the tree of life at its roots.

Who is Fern Elsdon-Baker? She's identified in the by-line as, "Fern Elsdon-Baker is head of the British Council's Darwin Now project and author of The Selfish Genius, published this month."

Turns out she has recently (2006?) completed her Ph.D. in the history and philosophy of science. Her thesis topic was,
Theories of inheritance in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries : The role of historiographical constraints on contemporary scientific research, with particular emphasis on the role of "Weismann's Barrier" in Darwinian and Neo-Darwinian debates
Her book, which is apparently an attack on Richard Dawkins will be published next week. It seems to be an extension of her thesis work, judging by the early reviews.

BTW, you can read one of these reviews of The Selfish Genius on the The Times website. It looks like her focus is on epigenetics and the inheritance of acquired characteristics. There's no indication from the review that she has clued into the adaptationist vs pluralist controversy that's been at the heart of most criticism of Dawkins for the past thirty years.

This seems strange for a person who just got a Ph.D. for studying evolutionary theory.

At least New Scientist had the good sense to identify the article as "comment." This should alert readers to take Elsdon-Baker's opinion with a large grain of salt. It looks very much like the article is part of a publicity campaign associated with the upcoming release of her book.

Move along folks. There's nothing new here. Modern (pluralist) evolutionary theory is not about to be overturned.


  1. I liked this statement:

    "However, it is important to note that LGT does not necessarily challenge Dawkins's selfish gene metaphor: these transposable elements could be seen as a sort of selfish replicator as outlined in The Extended Phenotype."

    I'd recommend she read Robert Trivers and Austin Burt's "Genes in Conflict: The Biology of Selfish Genetic Elements". That would ease her breathlessness, I'm sure. brteathlessness over this

  2. I wonder if there's ever going to be a point where we can curb the out-of-control sensationalism occurring in some sectors of scientific discourse (public or technical)? It's getting annoying to read about how microRNAs, or epigenetics (please define, thank you) changes everything. I heard a bunch of talks at this year's SMBE meeting where such terms were thrown around coupled to other terms only slightly below the level of 'paradigm shift' on the hyperbole scale without any kind of evidence to back up such excitement.

  3. People still read _New Scientist_? From the physics side of things, it has been overly sensational to the point of non-scientific for about a decade.

  4. Ford Prefect, CatnapperMonday, July 20, 2009 5:27:00 PM

    I am often frustrated by what I see as flawed attacks on Dawkins' selfish gene concept.

    I disagree strongly with the selfish gene view, and with the notion that genes are units of selection. However, I feel that the best way to assail this view is by discrediting the gene-as-unit-of-selection view, instead of simply trying to wow the reader with how complex and irreducible to genes life is.

    Those things are true, but even so, the gene-selection hypothesis is viable, and Dawkins and his followers are clearly not impressed by that argument. Biologists with organocentric bent should instead cut to the heart of things and criticize Dawkins et al. on causal grounds., not mere obfuscation. IF anything, LGT supports the gene-centered view.

  5. I wonder if there's ever going to be a point where we can curb the out-of-control sensationalism occurring in some sectors of scientific discourse

    I hope so, but I doubt it. I fear public support of science is being diminished by this circus. I think the public is getting tired of, for example, the "great medical breakthrough" hype stories, as their loved ones keep dying of the disease . If we can't curb this soon, we are all going to suffer a huge backlash, IMHO.

  6. while I share Larry's feelingt about adaptationism being obsolete, he's wrong in 2 things: 1) H'es wrong if he thinks "pluralism" has triumphed. There's still far too much silly adapta-selectionism out there 2) It's stupid to say there is nothing new to epigenetics. A true river of hardcore molecular-genetic research is making a huge difference with the simplistic ways the old generation (like Dawkins or Larry himself) used to think about heredity. The lazy and cynic oldies are not doing their homework. they rarely read actual papers on epigenrtics.

  7. what do dawkins and larry have in common? an all-too easy dismissal of epigenetics

  8. I was intrigued by the review of her book on Laelaps:

    and 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.

  9. A Vargas,
    Sure, epigenetics exists and is something new - but just how important is it in things we care about, like fitness, disease? Whether it's new is not the question.

    > 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 simply 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 the concrete description. 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? 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. So is kin altruism the work of selfish genes? It's a matter of how you use words - 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) 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. (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, 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?

  10. Eric Johnson says,

    Sure, epigenetics exists and is something new - but just how important is it in things we care about, like fitness, disease? Whether it's new is not the question.

    Perhaps it's not an important question, but it is a question nevertheless.

    Depending on your definition of "epigenetics" we've known about it for anywhere between 30 and 60 years. That doesn't count as "new" in my book. Does it in yours?

  11. The levels of selection argument is very important in evolutionary biology. It makes a big difference whether individuals are being selected within a population or whether genes are being selected within a genome, for example.

    The differences are most obvious at the levels of groups and species. If species sorting is correct then it's not explicable by selfish genes.

    Of course the other major problem with the "levels of selection" debate is that it ignores completely all those mechanisms of evolution that don't involve selection. Speciation, for example, can't be explained by selfish genes; although ultra-Dawinians sure do try from time to time.

  12. Dawkins said

    " The more likely a length of chromosome is to be split by crossing-over, or altered by mutations of various kinds, the less it qualifies to be called a gene in the sense I am using the term."

    * HOWEVER *

    If there is no mutation or alteration, there is no allele

    No alleles means no allele change in populations. Not for fully qualifying genes, anyway !


    No Genetical theory of Evolution by Natural Selection on Mutation ( on the not existing mutant phenotype )?