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If you ever wondered whether Richard Dawkins is past it, yes he is

In “The descent of Edward Wilson” (Prospect, May 24, 2012), Richard Dawkins strikes back at Wilson’s The Social Conquest of Earth,  payback, presumably, for Wilson retracting his own kin selection theory.

What Dawkins offers, in the age of epigenetics, is a long rant for genetic fundamentalism:

The essential point to grasp is that the gene doesn’t belong in the hierarchy I listed. It is on its own as a “replicator,” with its own unique status as a unit of Darwinian selection. Genes, but no other units in life’s hierarchy, make exact copies of themselves in a pool of such copies. It therefore makes a long-term difference which genes are good at surviving and which ones bad. You cannot say the same of individual organisms (they die after passing on their genes and never make copies of themselves). Nor does it apply to groups or species or ecosystems. None make copies of themselves. None are replicators. Genes have that unique status.

Evolution, then, results from the differential survival of genes in gene pools. “Good” genes become numerous at the expense of “bad.” But what is a gene “good” at? Here’s where the organism enters the stage. Genes flourish or fail in gene pools, but they don’t float freely in the pool like molecules of water. They are locked up in the bodies of individual organisms. The pool is stirred by the process of sexual reproduction, which changes a gene’s partners in every generation. A gene’s success depends on the survival and reproduction of the bodies in which it sits, and which it influences via “phenotypic” effects. This is why I have called the organism a “survival machine” or “vehicle” for the genes that ride inside it. Genes that happen to cause slight improvements in squirrel eyes or tails or behaviour patterns are passed on because individual squirrels bearing those improving genes survive at the expense of individuals lacking them. To say that genes improve the survival of groups of squirrels is a mighty stretch.

The remarkable thing is that readers are actually beginning to question the dogma. One says, in Wilson’s defense and contrary to Dawkins’ claim that his controversial retraction paper was not peer-reviewed,

Dawkins is no mathematician and doesn’t understand this but this seminal paper went through a completely rigorous peer review process (befitting the world’s top scientific journal) and although many biologists didn’t like the results no-one has ever refuted them.

See also: Is Richard Dawkins truly an “embarrassment” to new atheism? Or an accurate representation?

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3 Responses to If you ever wondered whether Richard Dawkins is past it, yes he is

  1. 1

    I do not agree with this at all. It needs to be understood and corrected to move forward. GOD Based Magnetism explains it all.

  2. “Genes, but no other units in life’s hierarchy, make exact copies of themselves in a pool of such copies.”

    Uh, no. Genes don’t make copies of themselves. No molecule does. Genes are copied by an elaborate, carefully controlled, orchestrated process involving numerous molecular machines acting in concert. Individual genes are largely passive players in the replication dance.

    Dawkins’ unhealthy fascination with keeping up his “we are just genes” meme blinds him to biotic reality, which is why he keeps pounding on about how genes are really it in the face of mounting evidence to the contrary. (Add to this the fact that the concept of “genes” as discrete sections of particular code is itself coming into question.)

    This, however, is more interesting: “To say that genes improve the survival of groups of squirrels is a mighty stretch.” It is true that the survival of the fittest has to operate, initially, at the individual level. Whether that can be extended to a group or population is, in my view, an interesting open question. A lot of the evolutionary “explanations” for organismal behaviors that benefit the larger group seem pretty strained to me when they point to survival of the group as the reason the trait persisted.

  3. “Good” genes become numerous at the expense of “bad.”

    Nice philosophical speculation based upon a conclusion that was reached in advance, but how about some hard science concerning the probabilities or empirical evidence that random errors can turn bad genes into good ones, with such creative power that this process can turn a primitive single cell into me, in 10^17 seconds, with hopelessly inadequate probabilistic resources?

    The supposed creative powers of the Darwinian mechanism of random errors filtered by natural selection will go down in history as one of the most stupid ideas ever proposed in the name of science. Future generations of legitimate scientists will shake their heads in disbelief that that this idea was taken seriously in the information age of the late 20th century.

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