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Wednesday, August 26, 2009

The Selfish Genius

I'm still waiting for my copy of The Selfish Genius to arrive. I ordered it weeks ago when I first heard of the author, Fern Elsdon-Baker. She wrote a promotion piece in New Scdientist last month where she outlined her main thesis; namely, that epigenetics and Lamarckian evolution are challenging the Dawkins dogma. I noted that she seemed to have completely missed the adaptationist-pluralist debate—the real challenge to the Dawkins viewpoint that's been playing out over the past three decades [The Collapse of the "Dawkins Dogma"].

This is a remarkable omission for someone who claims to be a scholar of this history. I was looking forward to reading a copy of The Selfish Genius in order to see for myself just how wrong she could be. As most of you know, I'm an advocate of pluralism and "evolution by accident"—a viewpoint that's the exact opposite of Dawkins' adaptationist position. I'm not opposed to overthrowing the "Dawkins Dogma," but I don't think that epigenetics is the real threat. It's just a fad.

I won't have to post a review of The Selfish Genius because Razib Khan (of Gene Expression) has already posted a lenghty review and I doubt very much there's anything I could add. Read it at: The Selfish Genius, mind your manners Dr. Dawkins!


  1. It looks like pop science based on Dawkins's pop science that far removed from the evolutionary biology literature.

    Dawkins has NEVER been a major player in evolutionary biology. He hasn't published a single original paper since the early 70's (don't take my word for it - do a search on the ISI database). From what I heard, that is also the impression of his former fellows at Oxford. I can't understand this fascination that people have for Dawkins, while the actual major contributors to evolutionary biology are consistently ignored (e.g. Hamilton, Williams, Lack).

    The title itself is bizarre. I offer my challenge again: could anyone point to a single important original scientific contribution during Dawkins's entire career? Answer: zip. Is that our criterion for someone to be a genius?

  2. while the actual major contributors to evolutionary biology are consistently ignored (e.g. Hamilton, Williams, Lack).

    hamilton, williams and smith take up a lot of space in dawkins' early popularizations. much of the attack on dawkins is therefore a jab at hamilton et. al., "bean baggery," etc., and such.

    the only living physicist the average american is liable to know is stepehen hawking, not ed witten. nothing peculiar about evolutionary biology that way.

  3. Razib,

    I wasn't talking about the "average american". I was talking about people in academia.

    And still, Stephen Hawking might not be Nobel prize material, but he's made several important contributions to physics over the years (e.g. his work on cosmology in collaboration with Penrose). OTOH, what original scientific contributions did Dawkins make during his entire career? I'd be glad if you could provide a single instance.

  4. "I'm an advocate of pluralism and "evolution by accident"—a viewpoint that's the exact opposite of Dawkins' adaptationist position."

    sorry, I'm new. How exactly does that work? And can you provide evidence for how adaptive structures arise accidentally without selection? thanks in advance.

  5. marc, just an fyi, the title "selfish genius" is a marketing ploy. elsdon-baker admits this almost immediately.

    i think you do make a good point about the public fixation on popularizers like gould, dawkins, or, less prominently, someone like robert bakker, as luminaries of the field. but to be fair to dawkins his popularizations early on were all about getting the word out on hamilton, williams and smith's insights.

  6. "It's just a fad"
    Like integrating evolution and development? what about phenotypic plastcity?

    These are not fads, but appropiate consideration of the true complexity of biological reality.

    The only "fad" here was to think population genetics was somehow a "sufficient" explanation of evolution. For instance, Larry knows only two evolutionary mechanisms! Drift, and Selection.

  7. Larry, you're just stuck in the fad of your own generation.

  8. no one going to answer my question? Larry? Anyone? I would like to see evidence that randomness without selection can create anything adaptive in a population.

  9. Anonymous asks,

    no one going to answer my question? Larry? Anyone? I would like to see evidence that randomness without selection can create anything adaptive in a population.

    I don't think there's any evidence that evolution without selection can be adaptive. The mechanism of adaptation is natural selection.

    Why do you ask?

  10. Larry, seriously, you should some day realize that phenotypic plasticity and exaptation are also mechanisms of adaptation, different from selection. I guess your brain be too old to assimilate that?

  11. Marc says,

    Dawkins has NEVER been a major player in evolutionary biology.

    If you are an evolutionary biologist and you aren't familiar with Dawkins' books then your education is sorely lacking. You may not agree with Richard Dawkins but claiming that he isn't a major player in evolutionary theory is just plain silly.

    You might want to read "Richard Dawkins: How a Scientist Changed the way We Think." The book contains 25 essays by various authors who analyze Dawkins' contributions and ideas.

    Offhand, I can't think of many other evolutionary biologists who merits such attention. Ernst Mayr and Stephan Jay Gould are two exceptions and that's pretty good company.

    It sounds to me like you're one of those people who think the only way to make a contribution to science is to publish short articles in the peer-reviewed scientific literature.

    That's very naive. Facts and data matter in science but the really important part of science is how you put it all together into ideas and concepts. In other words, it's theory that's important, not data. A great deal of modern theoretical biology is expounded in books and you can't be a good scientist if you don't read them and discuss their content.

    If all you do is churn out data then you're just a glorified technician.

  12. Then again, being almost purely theoretical just doesn't do the trick. There may have been many biologists that have had fun discussing Dawkins in the secondary and tertiary literature, but he actually hasn't changed the way biologists do their research on evolution. Unlike SJ Gould, who was not only a much better empiricla researcher than Dawkins, but had an important role in resurrecting the now flourishing area of evo-devo.

  13. in turn, we CAN seriously blame Dawkins influence in writing softcover books, for the creation of such "pretyness" as the area of evolutionary psychology, and rampant adaptationism in philosophy. A lovely legacy.
    Dawkins to me is too much of a charlatan. Simply not the real thing.

  14. Larry: "I don't think there's any evidence that evolution without selection can be adaptive. The mechanism of adaptation is natural selection."

    what about all the endogenous mechanisms available to the organism? HGT, epigenetics, etc.

    My point, however, is that you've said you are not a darwinist...yet above you said that evolution can't be adaptive without selection. so what gives? If you think all the adaptive traits got here accidentally (via selection) then how are you not a darwinist?

  15. To Anonymous #1,

    An adaptive trait IS a selected trait. Therefore all adaptive traits are the products of selection. Your choice of words walked you in a circle and Larry literally answered your question.

    But there is a lot more to evolution than big antlers and peacock tails. At the genetic and genomic level, a lot of people interpret much of the observed evolution to be neutral, via random genetic drift.

  16. Larry,

    I measure the contribution of a scientist to the field by his *original contributions*, particularly in terms of peer-reviewed scientific papers. So yes, I'm one of those people.

    I'm not saying that Dawkins doesn't provide data. I'm saying he doesn't provide original empirical data NOR theoretical advances (as opposed to Gould, who consistently published important contributions to Paleobiology, for instance. The same applies to other people like Pinker, Stephen Hawkins, Sean Carroll, etc.).

    I'm not even sure he's such a great writer. He's got great prose, but he certainly makes things much simpler than they are. I've seen enough people thinking that genes *really* are selfish. Evolutionary biology is way more complex and wonderful than the pulp fiction version in Dawkins's books (which, by the way, include less and less science over the years).

  17. I've seen enough people thinking that genes *really* are selfish.

    then they haven't read his books, or they're stupid. that confusion has nothing to do with the quality of the writing, and everything to do with the dullness or laziness of the reader.

  18. Well, I'm not a massive Dawkins fan, but if we're being fair it's important to acknowledge that he did publish some reasonably significant papers in the 70s. For example:

    Smith, J.N.M and Dawkins, R. (1971) Hunting behaviour of individual great tits in relation to spatial variations in their food density. Animnal Behaviour, 19, 695-

    Dawkins, R. and Carlisle, T.R. (1976) Parental investement, mate desertion and a fallacy. Nature, 262, 131-133.

    Dawkins, R. and Krebs, J.R. (1979) Arms races between and within species. Proceedings of the Royal Society Series B, 205, 489-511.

    So there's both empirical data and theoretical work in the above. There are a few others as well. The Dawkins and Krebs paper in particular, is highly cited (539 times).

  19. SteveF

    Just a few papers in the early 70's wouldn't even get him tenure anywhere if it weren't for his pop science. And certainly those are not sufficient to establish him as a major player in Evolutionary Biology... not even close.

    About Larry's comments that not many evolutionary biologists would deserve similar attention, I guess you don't seem very familiar with the literature in evolutionary biology. I can think of dozens. W.D. Hamilton, E.O. Wilson, Sewall Wright, A. Templeton, H. Carson, M. Slatkin, R. Lewontin, T. Dobzhanski, E. Charnov, Francisco Ayala, etc. These are real scientists that made huge contributions to the field (and not simply churning data or writing pop science).

    Pop science is very important. But it should be recognized as what it really is.

  20. I didn't say he was a major player in evolutionary biology. He's certainly not, in terms of papers published at least. But you stated that he "doesn't provide original empirical data NOR theoretical advances", which may be true now, but hasn't always been the case. For a balanced perspective it's important to acknowledge this. In his earlier career he made contribute to the literature, contributions which have persisted (all 3 of the above papers are still being cited). The Selfish Gene was a fairly big deal too.

  21. Epigenetics is not a fad. Your thinking is way too black-and-white!! Yikes.

  22. Anonymous says,

    Epigenetics is not a fad. Your thinking is way too black-and-white!! Yikes.

    Perhaps I should have explained myself better.

    Many of the things that are defined as epigenetics—such as, regulation of gene expression, methylation, chromatin domains/modification—have been around for decades. We been teaching the principles since the early 1980's (at least).

    Those things aren't fads. The fad part is the hype associated with the "re-discovery" of things most of us have known about for a long time. Anyone who thinks this is hot new stuff is mistaken. If they think that our understanding of evolution is about to be overthrown because of epigenetics then they've fallen for the fad.

    Perhaps "cult" would be a better description for that kind of behavior.

  23. Larry, the only fad has been the falsehood of gene reductionism, that you can understand evolution without understanding development, which is only possible under the false assumption that genotype = phenotype. This is no realistic treatment of the actual relationship of genotype to phenotype.

    Larry, you're an idiot who talks about what he does not know about. Do humanity a favor and stick to writing biochemistry textbooks.

  24. Hi Professor Moran !
    As always, I enjoy reading your opinions.
    I wonder how it sits with you, that Dawkins equivocates Denier of what he presents, to Denier of Holocaust - with social penalty the same: The Shunning ? It's a religious relic still practiced today in Canada, by Jehovah's Witnesses,, as one example. Nobody at work will look you in the eye, no excess talk with the one under Shunning.
    If a non conformist to what Dawkins teaches, is to be equated with Holocuast Denier, and treated as such vis a vis the social punishment called for, do not Larry Moran, David Sloan Wilson,. and the author of afore- mentioned Heresy, do not they deserve double the penalty...being Scientists and all ?


  25. Here's a bit of the fascination with Dawkins. In chaper two of his new book, he presents Coppinger.
    Dawkins within the introduction of chapter states that all breeds of dogs are domsticated wolves.

    He then explains Coppingers ideas of self domestication and domestication.
    Coppinger, in his writings,is insisting that dogs are NOT domesticated wolves, hes' arguing for recognition of Dog as domesicated village Dog, not domesticated Wolf !
    He also says domesticated dog is a different species than modern gray wolf, of course.

    Dawkins got mixed up on the difference between "Are descended from wolves" (and fish, too ! ) and "Are domesticated wolves".

    At least he stopped himself before he delared them "Domesticated fish". However we still have the problem of Dawkins saying "if" Coppinger is right.

    Well, "if" Coppinger is right, Dawkins must retract, saying "All breeds of dogs are domesticated Village Dog, not domesticated wolves", or be left holding a bag of first example that didnt work to support what he was saying.

    It's till not clear that this starting example is better than his example of cowardly penguins using "Guinea Pigs" to test for predators. Antarctic researchers say it's a never-been-seen behaviour, anecdote related because of the milling crowd of birds and occasional falling off the edge.

    So to be called Heretic to what Dawkins is rolling out for us is almost an honour.