Friday, August 31, 2012

How Could We Have Been So Stupid Back in 1976?

Tim Radford reviews The Selfish Gene by Richard Dawkins [The Selfish Gene by Richard Dawkins – book review]. The review is a bit late—the book was published in 1976—but I suppose the old adage of "better late than never" applies.

Actually it's not as bizarre as you might think. Lot's of people don't understand the ideas that Dawkins was pushing. He was mostly pointing out that evolution is a phenomenon that takes places at the level of genes and populations. Dawkins tweets that Rafford "gets it" in his review.
Lovely retrospective review of The Selfish Gene by Tim Radford, the Guardian's distinguished science writer. He gets it.
Unfortunately, Tim Rafford doesn't "get" everything. I was surprised to read this in the review ...
To re-read it is to be reminded of what an extraordinary achievement it was. When he picked up the theme, researchers certainly knew that genes contained the instructions for protein assembly; some had found a way – laborious and inaccurate – to "read" a DNA sequence; and others had begun attempts to "map" certain genes to particular chromosomes.

But that was about it: nobody knew for sure what a gene was, how many genes there might be, how they did what they did, or how they could affect the behaviour and preferences of an individual, or a species.
That's not how I remember it. Back in 1976 my colleagues and I were beginning a project to clone a Drosophila gene (hsp70). We had a very good idea of what a gene was and we knew about lots of genes that didn't encode proteins. We had detailed genetic maps of many 'phage, viruses, and bacteria, and high resolution maps of the genes in specific parts of eukaryotic chromosomes.

We knew roughly how many genes there were in E. coli, Drosophila melanogaster, Homo sapiens, and many other species. We knew a lot about the functions of many genes and the proteins they encoded.

On the other hand, it's true that we had only the vaguest notions of how genes might affect behavior. In fact, many of us weren't even sure that all behaviors had a strong genetic component. That's why there was so much opposition to Sociobiology (now called evolutionary psychology) [The Bankruptcy of Evolutionary Psychology ].

That part hasn't changed much since the publication of The Selfish Gene. There's still a lot of controversy over the role of genes in animal behavior.

It's important to remember that The Selfish Gene advocates an adaptationist (Darwinian) view of evolution. This is the view that Gould & Lewontin attacked in their "Spandrels" paper a few years later [What Does San Marco Basilica Have to do with Evolution?].

Here's how Dawkins describes the selfish gene—the fundamental unit of natural selection (p. 33). (I would love to hear how he defines the fundamental unit of random genetic drift.)
To be strict, this book should be called not The Selfish Cistron nor The Selfish Chromosome, but The slightly selfish big bit of chromosome and the even more selfish little bit of chromosome. To say the least this is not a catchy title so, defining a gene as a little bit of chromosome which potentially lasts for many generations, I call the book The Selfish Gene.

We have now arrived back at the point we left at the end of Chapter 1. There we saw that selfishness is to be expected in any entity that deserves the title of the basic unit of natural selection. We saw that some people regard the species as the unit of natural selection, others the population or group within the species, and yet others the individual. I said that I preferred to think of the gene as the fundamental unit of natural selection, and therefore the fundamental unit of self-interest. What I have now done is to define the gene in such a way that I cannot really help being right!


  1. When I first read it, which was about 1980, I was immediately struck by the simplicity and elegance of the ideas. I still think it is the book, should aliens arrive tomorrow and ask, "What has Man discovered about his origin?", that one should hand them.

    1. If I had to give them a book by Richard Dawkins, I would give them The God Delusion. If I had to give them a book about evolution there are several dozen books that give a much more accurate picture of what we know. I'd probably settle for Why Evolution Is True by Jerry Coyne but Carl Zimmer's new book, Evolution: Making Sense of Life would be a close second.

      There's a very good reason why the ideas promoted in The Selfish Gene aren't covered in any of the modern evolution textbooks.

    2. Zimmer's textbook just came in yesterday. Flipping through...the pictures are stunning. Larry, do you plan on writing a review?

  2. The unit of drift is the unselfish gene.

  3. I was immediately struck by the simplicity and elegance of the ideas. I still think it is the book, should aliens arrive tomorrow and ask, "What has Man discovered about his origin?", that one should hand them.

    Gould in his article (pp. 230-32) notes that the later Williams (1992) ends up accepting selection on interactors (as opposed to replicators) at the material level but places genic selection at a non-physical, informational, or "codical" level. Interestingly, this revised position of Williams converges with the position that Lewontin (1976) in an early, brief review suggested Dawkins would have held if he had been less confused. Lewontin noted that Dawkins claimed that an extra-terrestrial attempting to gauge the level of human civilization would ask, "Do you understand natural selection?" Lewontin counters that a better question would be, "Do you understand the difference between sets and their members?" (implying that the early Dawkins does not). Many have noted that the immortality that Dawkins attributes to genes applies not the physical DNA but to the whole set through time of the copies or to the form of the sequence as manifested in successive, physically different, individual DNA molecules. Williams new "codical" realm likewise resides in this quasi-Platonic region, separate from the material world.

    Lewontin’s Living Legacy: Levels of Selection and Organismic Construction of the Environment by Val Dusek

    Long time since I read the spandrels paper. This link worked for me.

  4. The Irrationality of Selfish Altruism
    And, especially, of calling it "science"

    1. This is probably more stupid than the stuff the creationist guy who posts on sandwalk writes.

    2. Creationist? Moi? Here's how one of my posts in my newest series starts:

      EVOLUTION is long. Really, really long. It encompasses the entire duration of life on the planet Earth. Most commonly that is thought today to be a period of more than three billion years. That’s a number we are all familiar with hearing but getting your mind around what even one billion - 1,000,000,000 - years really consists of is impossible. What could a billion years mean to a person? What would the first, the last and all of the varied unknown and unrecorded days, seasons, years and ages in between years one and one billion mean. They are incomprehensible in their vast duration and compass of possible experience in terms of even the longest human life span. We have no frame of reference.

      And not only is EVOLUTION (upper case) long, it is also large in numbers, encompassing, literally, all of the lives of all of the organisms that have ever existed. All of the organisms which have reproduced or been produced. That number is of many magnitudes larger than even the incomprehensible billions of years already mentioned. Consider, just as a sample of the complications, the known time periods between generations of living species of rodents, and of one-celled organisms. Consider the number of fertile eggs some species of plants, insects and mollusks produce in one reproductive cycle. Each of the surviving, reproducing individuals was and is a variation, many have the possibility of having an effect on future generations. Leaving the entirely relevant question of individuals aside, imagining even the number of what we might classify as species, each comprising subspecies, varieties, and other sub groupings is incomprehensible.

      Larry, does it ever discourage you how few of the readers of science blogs can tell the difference between evolutionists and creationists?

      You know, anonymous, if you'd read the link you would have known what it said. Or is reading something to find out what it says something that Dawkinsites don't have to do? Just as they don't actually have to observe nature to make huge assumptions about it.

    3. Re-reading my post just now, I like this part:

      Dawkins' assumption that a gene complex resulting in that, specific, type of action resulting in death would stand a better chance of being inherited and perpetuated among the surviving members of the flock has one huge problem. "Altruistic" birds being preyed on instead of "non-altruistic" birds would give the gene complex a decreased chance of of being inherited by cutting out a potentially breeding animal that carries it. Its death increases the percentage of "altruism gene free" birds in the flock or the species whenever that happened. That would be the case even if only one or a few birds in the flock didn't have the "altruism" genes. If the "altruism gene complex" is held by a majority of the flock, why would it persist if "altruism" carrying birds were more likely to be preyed on than selfish birds that don't carry the "altruism" gene? You would expect that birds not carrying the gene and at less of a chance of being preyed on would tend to predominate in the species, thus removing the reason to make all of Dawkins' assumptions. Again, if all of the birds in the flock carried the genes, Dawkins' motive for the "alarm bird" to call out would disappear and, as mentioned, natural selection would be irrelevant to it. If only the "altruistic alarm" bird in the flock carried those genes or if a minority of them did then their "altruism" would tend to lead to the genes' extinction. That would make such altruism truly altruistic, if it was intentional and for that reason, which can't possibly be demonstrated, but it would remove it entirely from the analysis of natural selection and "gene selfishness".

      You could also wonder about other genes the proposed altruistic bird no doubt carries, genes governing things that are known to be present instead of this theoretical avian altruism. Genes that would not be shared by many other birds in the flock which might not be advantaged by the act of actually selfish "altruism". It's quite possible that those genes would be "disadvantaged" by the self sacrifice. Are those genes weaker than these most ambiguously advantaged "altruism" genes? I'd think that genes for sensory acuity would tend to wipe out any influence "altruism" genes in Dawkins scenario. Especially since they are far more relevant to the predation scenario. Dawkins story depends on the alarm bird seeing the predator, I mentioned hearing as a factor. Since those senses, presumably, were developed through natural selection to warn of danger and insure survival, among other things, Dawkins scenario would seem to present the paradox of an obvious selective advantage being mitigated into a selective disadvantage through his entirely theoretical genes. And in the case of eyesight and hearing, differences in those abilities are indisputably real and relevant to the proposed scenario. Wouldn't it be expected that a group of "altruism carrying" birds with poor eyesight would tend to dominate as altruistic birds with excellent eyesight- and hearing - sacrificed themselves by, uh, virtue of their sensory acuity? Wouldn't that tend to cancel out the effect of genetic avian altruism by making such birds ineffective at self-sacrifice? Those speculations aren't based in any observation in nature but none of what Dawkins said is either.

    4. Re-reading my post just now, I like this part:

      I know you like it, you have proudly trotted out this deathless prose before, but it is a completely bogus piece of evolutionary biology. You think the 'huge problem' you point out at the start has not been noticed by evolutionary biologists? God, they must be thick. The mugs think there is a rationale for the spread of such an apparently deleterious gene, which principle has been extensively characterised. But ... the altruist suffers casualties! Biologists worldwide are slapping their foreheads as I type. They hadn't realised.

      By the time one gets to "I'd think that ..." one realises one is in the company of someone content to just make stuff up, rather than attempt to treat the problem mathematically, or understand basic genetics. Eyesight? Hearing? You do realise that genes in a recombinant species typically assort independently? The fantasy about short-sighted altruists increasing because they can't see predators so well and give the alarm call that gets them killed is comedy gold, on so many levels.

      I think this kind of thing is why people can't distinguish you from a creationist.

    5. Allan Miller, the reason people can't distinguish someone who is a rather conventional evolutionist, though not a Darwinist, from a creationist is because they don't know a lot about it, mistaking Darwinism for evolution. I'd like that to change on the basis of accurate information instead of Darwin Industry PR tripe.


  5. OK this is not terribly relevant but I'd bet money that the person who did the cover for that first addition also did the artwork for The Beatles Yellow Submarine.

    1. The cover of The Selfish Gene was done by zoologist Desmond Morris, who wrote The Naked Ape, among other books...though the similarity to the yellow submarine is striking.