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Darwin-L Message Log 3:2 (November 1993)

Academic Discussion on the History and Theory of the Historical Sciences

This is one message from the Archives of Darwin-L (1993–1997), a professional discussion group on the history and theory of the historical sciences.

Note: Additional publications on evolution and the historical sciences by the Darwin-L list owner are available on SSRN.


<3:27>From ahouse@hydra.rose.brandeis.edu  Thu Nov  4 06:57:48 1993

Date: Thu, 4 Nov 1993 08:03:12 -0500
To: darwin-l@ukanaix.cc.ukans.edu
From: ahouse@hydra.rose.brandeis.edu (Jeremy John Ahouse)
Subject: Re: The Selfish Gene

>A recent post by Hanna Tuomisto cited the book, The Selfish Gene, by
>Richard Dawkins, as an example of a popular book that "seems to have
>gotten away with it" -- which I interpret to mean that the book is
>well regarded.  I would be interested to hear other opinions on this:
>is The Selfish Gene perhaps a particularly good example of sound
>scientific writing for a popular audience?  What has been the book's
>impact over the (what is it -- 15?) years since its publication?
>
> Barry Roth
> Museum of Paleontology, University of California, Berkeley
> barryr@ucmp1.berkeley.edu    Phone: (415) 387-8538

    Since Barry Roth asked... there was a discussion of selfish genes
on the bionet molbio evolution newsgroup last Spring that even brought a
response by the good Richard Dawkins himself.  I include it below (his last
point is particularly relevant to the current discussion.

    As to Barry's question; I think Dawkins position falls into the
camp of selfconscious caricature theories, used in practice (though he
wouldn't probably use it this way) as a foil.  It is used to stimulate
discussion among students (like the Gaia "hypothesis").  There is even a
whole volume of this kind of "stimulating idease in biology" (e.g. extreme
views that start arguments) from MIT press called _From Gaia to Selfish
Genes_ ed. by Connie Barlow.  I think the selfish gene position is also
tacitly used in the language of molecular evolution where it is wedded with
a notion of optimality and gene specific functionalism so that molecular
evolutionists talk as if each gene is particularly well adapted and has a
single function.  But I don't think many of these people have ever read
_The Selfish Gene_.

    - Jeremy

From RICHARD DAWKINS, Oxford University
I am not equipped to read the USESNET directly, but Steven Brenner of Cambridge
has kindly forwarded to me a large, stimulating and provocative correspondence
about selfish genes. He has kindly offered to forward my remarks onto the
network and I am most grateful to him.  Many of my points have already been
made by correspondents already on the network, and I am grateful to them.  The
latest USENET message I have seen is dated Feb 28th 1993, so I may be out of
date, in which case sorry.

Obviously I could go on till the cows come home, but since I've already done so
in two books (The Selfish Gene and The Extended Phenotype) I'll confine myself
to a few comments where I feel I can specifically clarify points that have come
up in the USENET correspondence.  As follows:-

1. Various people are absolutely right to point out that there are two meanings
of 'selfish gene' going around.  From the point of view of clarity it is best
to call them two meanings, but if I am right in my view of life (see The
Extended Phenotype), they will eventually collapse into the same meaning after
all.  The two meanings are:-
  Selfish-Gene-A. ALL genes are selfish, even those that work via normal
bodies.
  Selfish-Gene-B. Only 'outlaw' genes like 'Selfish DNA' sensu Orgel & Crick
(and segregation distorters etc) should be called selfish genes.  Some people
call Selfish-Genes-B 'Ultra-selfish genes'.

2. There has been some discussion on USENET for and against my priority in
developing the concept of the selfish gene.  There is an irony here.  Many
people are happy to credit my priority for Selfish-Gene-A, but attribute
'Selfish DNA' to Orgel & Crick, and Doolittle & Sapienza.  The irony is that,
whereas it could certainly be argued that G.C.Williams and W.D.Hamilton
invented Selfish-Gene-A, I do not think it can be doubted that I WAS the first
to suggest the hypothesis now called Selfish DNA!!  As Doolittle & Sapienza,
and Orgel & Crick acknowledged in their 1980 papers, their theory is clearly
set out on page 47 of the original 1976 edition of The Selfish Gene.

3. You can imagine, therefore, how pissed off I was to read somebody on USENET
saying how amazed he was "that the concept of the Selfish Gene is always
accredited to a popular science book as opposed to the work of the authors who
published the original papers" [Orgel & Crick etc]!  He seems to have retracted
it, so I'll say no more.  Except to object to ANY sneering at so-called popular
science books SIMPLY BECAUSE THEY ARE WRITTEN IN A STYLE THAT ANYONE CAN
UNDERSTAND.  There are some popular science books that seek to bring to popular
attention ideas that have already been published in the 'original literature.'
There are other books that seek to change the way people think, including or
even especially colleagues in the research community, BUT WHICH ARE WRITTEN IN
SUCH A WAY THAT THEY CAN BE UNDERSTOOD BY ANYONE ELSE AS WELL.  Do not assume
that BECAUSE a book is easy to understand, it therefore CANNOT be saying
anything new or original. And above all don't fall for the pernicious
corollary: "If something is difficult to understand it must be saying something
important or profound!" I believe science would be a lot more fun and might
progress faster if EVERYBODY's papers were refereed, not only by an expert in
the field, but by somebody in another field, such as philosophy or history.
The only objection I can see to this is that papers would become awfully long
filling in background knowledge before getting down to the new stuff.  But if
you want people to listen to your new ideas in science, it's not a bad plan to
write AS IF for the benefit of your aunt, or at least for an intelligent
academic in a wholly unrelated discipline.

4.  A great deal of what I have to say on the subject of selfish genes and the
Levels of Selection controversy is contained in my second book The Extended
Phenotype.  It is emphatically NOT true, as S.Gould (recent NY Review of Books;
see also Dan Dennett's magnificently spirited puncturing of the Gould balloon
in the Letters column) alleges, in his recent bullying review of Helena
Cronin's 'The Ant and the Peacock,' that The Extended Phenotype recants away
from the 'extreme' position of The Selfish Gene.  Quite the contrary: The
Extended Phenotype carries the selfish gene theory to a more radical
conclusion.  The Extended Phenotype is quite a long book, but its essential
argument is sumarised in the new Chapter 13 of the Second Edition of The
Selfish Gene, entitled 'The Long Reach of the Gene.'

RICHARD DAWKINS, March 8th, 1993

Posted on bionet.molbio.evol by:
--
Steven E. Brenner     |  Internet  seb1005@mbfs.bio.cam.ac.uk
Department of Biochemistry  |  JANET   seb1005@uk.ac.cam.bio.mbfs
University of Cambridge   |  Laboratory  +44 223 333671
Tennis Court Road     |  Home    +44 223 314964
Cambridge CB2 1QW, UK     |  Lab Fax   +44 223 333345

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