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← A New Flea: The Selfish Genius: How Richard Dawkins Rewrote Darwin's Legacy by Fern Elsdon-Baker

A New Flea: The Selfish Genius: How Richard Dawkins Rewrote Darwin's Legacy by Fern Elsdon-Baker - Comments

ods15's Avatar Comment 1 by ods15

Kudos for a rather funny book title, I must say. :)

Sun, 12 Jul 2009 10:43:00 UTC | #378182

Michigatheist2's Avatar Comment 2 by Michigatheist2

The whole article is bizarre. The author seems to be under the impression that "Origin of species" is the Holy book of biology and that Darwin is the infallible prophet, so no criticism is allowed.
Perhaps I misread Dawkins, but I didn't think his dispute with Gould was over the speed of evolution, or even the value of punctuated equilibrium. Not am I sure how horizontal gene transfer is supposed to argue against the Selfish gene. If anything, I would have thought it strengthens the concept. The epigenetics reference also seems to be overstating the point

Sun, 12 Jul 2009 11:04:00 UTC | #378194

Jos Gibbons's Avatar Comment 3 by Jos Gibbons

So much rubbish, so little time.
Horizontal gene transfer does not change the fact that the selfish gene extended phenotype model is the correct one to predict what phenotypes are seen in the world.
While epigenetic mutations do permit offspring to be slightly better suited to the environment into which they are born than might be otherwise, these mutations are strictly short term updates with on/off switches, rather than anything that yields trends over evolutionary timescales, be they Darwinian, Lamarckian or whatever.
There never was a consenus on what a gene is; indeed there cannot be because, as RD points out, the exact length of DNA that qualifies has grey blurs at both ends. The fact that cistrons are neither the biggest nor smallest self-replicators doesn't discredit anything RD has said, any more now than it did when he started.
Whether it is Ball or Elsdon-Baker who has conflated saying everyone before Darwin was wrong with saying he was right about everything, it's clear that these are different statements. As for the charge that RD gets the history wrong to make it look like science got things right faster, I have never noticed him doing that. Indeed, he stresses the proven-wrong element of science quite a bit.
Finally, something Ball said: "The criticisms of Dawkins’s comments on religion — that they are alarmist, dogmatic, polarising, alienating, philosophically suspect, indiscriminate and unrepresentative of scientists generally — are not unjustified, but they have all been made elsewhere." Not unjustified? I'll leave the rest of you to have fun with that one, since that's going off into religion again rather than science stuff.

Sun, 12 Jul 2009 11:09:00 UTC | #378197

Danish's Avatar Comment 4 by Danish

So the author chooses to launch an attack on Dawkins instead of simply writing a book on evolution and presenting his own views. That's just plain pointless. I doubt anybody with a genuine interest in science will want to read this book.

If he really wants to contribute something helpful to science, he should write a book on modern evolution. If it's a good, scientific treatise of evolution supported by evidence, then it might be worth reading.

Sun, 12 Jul 2009 11:19:00 UTC | #378200

Cartomancer's Avatar Comment 5 by Cartomancer

Not only does this remark imply (wrongly) that Darwin somehow escaped the limitations of his context to voice a pure and timeless truth, but it squashes curiosity about the history of ideas and asks us to see science only in terms of those ideas deemed correct today. This Whiggish view still prevails among the old wave of science popularisers, some of whom view with horror attempts to contextualise the evolution of scientific thought, and Elsdon-Baker is right to call time on it.
But Richard is not an historian of ideas. He is a scientist, rationalist and populariser of science. Being interested in what is actually true about the world and being interested in what people thought was true in the past are two different things. Interest in one does not preclude interest in the other, but the distinction is important.

I am an historian of ideas. I am finishing off my DPhil thesis on thought about the soul in England in the late twelfth and early thirteenth centuries. Does this mean I am not interested in what is actually true about human origins, human psychology and human behaviour? No. Does this mean I have any respect for the ideas I study qua their objective truth value? Of course not. If you were to ask me when thought on the areas I study started getting things right in any real way I would have to say the mid twentieth century.

It is a common gripe among contemporary historians of ideas that historians of science exhibit a Whiggish tendency to assume that what matters is how close people were to the Right Answer. It is bad history to use that as your fundamental focus, because it distorts the evidence into an inevitable narrative arc and obscures the complex reality of what was going on. I repeat again, however, that Richard is NOT an historian of science, and he writes science rather than history. What this Fern Eldson-Baker seems to be doing is lazily slapping a criticism that is frequently made about proponents of her own academic discipline onto someone whose discipline is rather different and does not admit of criticism on such grounds.

Sun, 12 Jul 2009 11:22:00 UTC | #378201

Jos Gibbons's Avatar Comment 6 by Jos Gibbons

Comment #395566 by Danish

I agree with you, except that "he" is a she. Fern is a very slippery name. I only knew for certain FE-B is female because Ball says so. (Well, he'd better be right!)

Sun, 12 Jul 2009 11:24:00 UTC | #378202

Shane McKee's Avatar Comment 8 by Shane McKee

Horizontal gene transfer and epigenetics pose no threat whatsoever to a gene-centred view of evolution, so one has to wonder what this author is on about, and whether she really understands the issues (assuming we can judge this from the review).

I am very frequently disappointed by the intellectual ablities, scientific understanding and integrity of some so-called "philosophers and historians of science". All too often they show a startling lack of insight into what they think they are studying. John Lennox (who wrote the dismal "God's Undertaker") is another such. Yet these are often the folks who are called upon to comment on scientific advances. Best leave that to the scientists themselves, dearies. Before you try communicating ideas to the public, it helps if you actually *understand* them.

Sun, 12 Jul 2009 11:34:00 UTC | #378207

oliverbeatson's Avatar Comment 7 by oliverbeatson

Einstein's ideas of physics were totally non-Newtonian, and violate Newton's eternal laws that work on absolutely every level! Even though Newton was unaware of many vital parts of the puzzle about which he hypothesised. Amongst screams of 'heresy' and 'reductionism', I'm somewhat confident that Darwin would accept the gene-centric view in light of the birth and development of genetics. Although Newton, on the other hand, was a tricky bugger.

Sun, 12 Jul 2009 11:34:00 UTC | #378206

Szymanowski's Avatar Comment 9 by Szymanowski

I really don't see how horizontal gene transfer invalidates the "selfish gene" model. I think that criticism of Dawkins has been made before. As has "Whiggish": it usually goes hand-in-hand with "patriarchal", "19th-century", and "arrogant"...

The reviewer seems to be a good science writer so it'd be nice if he showed something specific: a piece of Dawkins's science writing which he deems to be objectively wrong with an accompanying criticism.

Sun, 12 Jul 2009 11:37:00 UTC | #378208

robotaholic's Avatar Comment 10 by robotaholic

Dawkins is a genius, but I havn't noticed him being overly selfish. I would consider this book an unintentional compliment to Richard by a publically self-incriminating fool. lol

Sun, 12 Jul 2009 11:41:00 UTC | #378211

ComradePorkie's Avatar Comment 11 by ComradePorkie

So her main criticism is that he diverged from what Darwin thought? Surely that's how science works; you modify the theories of others to take into account new evidence. And if the selfish gene model is incompatible with new evidence like horizontal gene transfer (I can't see how it is, personally) then the model needs to be modified to take into account the new evidence. Theories are modified all the time as new evidence emerges. I strongly doubt that Richard (or any other decent scientist for that matter) would ignore new evidence "because he is disenchanted with the mess they have made of his neat picture".

I have to say though, I did find the title somewhat amusing.

Sun, 12 Jul 2009 11:42:00 UTC | #378213

Lisa Bauer's Avatar Comment 12 by Lisa Bauer

Here's another review of the book which is considerably more negative (and which even mentions the 'flea' comparison, even though it goes on to dismiss): http://www.3ammagazine.com/3am/the-selfish-genius/

An interesting -- and perhaps very telling -- paragraph from it:

Like many of Dawkins’s critics, Elsdon-Baker has a strong focus on the tone, rather than the content, of his arguments: ‘I am not too concerned about the quality and validity of Dawkins’ ideas… What does worry me is the style of presentation.’ She criticises Dawkins’s ‘highly charged, political style of political advocacy’ which ’seeks to polarise’ and ‘can be very divisive and ultimately counter-productive.’ The way forward is ‘respectful communication’ - or perhaps, like Lafayette Proulx, we should just make endearing noises.


Also:
When Elsdon-Baker gets to the substance of Dawkins’s views on religion, she struggles. In a chapter headed, predictably, ‘The Church of Dawkins,’ she argues that Dawkins ‘reduce[s] the intense geopolitical situation to a clash of cultures - us versus them, the modern rational West versus medieval Islam’ and supports this by referencing an article Dawkins wrote on 9/11 that, as you can see, contains no trace of this Huntingdonian narrative and instead attacks religion as a whole. The difficulty with painting Dawkins as a kind of twenty-first century rational imperialist is that he strongly opposed the war on Iraq: his critics tend to work around it, and most do a better job than Elsdon-Baker does here.

Sun, 12 Jul 2009 11:55:00 UTC | #378221

AfraidToDie's Avatar Comment 13 by AfraidToDie

…a biophysicist turned theologian and psychologist turned deacon


Talk about going backwards!!!

Sun, 12 Jul 2009 12:17:00 UTC | #378223

Carl Sai Baba's Avatar Comment 14 by Carl Sai Baba

If the review is accurate (taking a leap here), this book is mainly a copy of that nasty issue of New Scientist, in which they declared that "Darwin was wrong" because of horizontal gene transfer. That's mere hyperbole, even if it is misleading.

But to say that horizontal gene transfer resembles Lamarck's theory is pure stupidity. It could not be more obvious that Lamarck thought acquired characteristics to be acquired via behavior and environmental effects related to their needs, NOT by random insertion from viruses or by bacteria picking up loose DNA from deceased fellow bacteria.

Gene survival via horizontal transfer is one of the most blatant demonstrations of genes (not populations, not organisms, and not even whole genomes) being the star of evolution.

Dawkins talks more about "Darwinian natural selection", and his add-on "selfish" genetics, than anything else, and horizontal transfer does not replace either of those. Horizontal transfer is a replacement for mutation, or maybe even just a form of mutation if one is to be strict about normal replication being the only non-mutant process.

If Dawkins could be accused of "remaining silent" on this to any degree (and I don't know that he can), it is only a failure to argue in support of his own arguments, not a failure to confess anything. Personally, I see most criticism of Dawkins right here on his own website, including this (the second such abuse of horizontal transfer which I can recall).

Sun, 12 Jul 2009 12:30:00 UTC | #378228

Squigit's Avatar Comment 15 by Squigit

Okay...maybe you guys can help me, I'm an archaeologist, not a biologist, so my understanding of evolution at the cellular/genetic level is a bit...umm...well, it's been a while, but:

What else would natural selection act on but the gene? I mean, correct me if my understanding is wrong, but it doesn't act on facial structure, it acts on the genes that determine facial structure and the resulting jawline (or whatever) is the result of the modification of the genes, right?

Sun, 12 Jul 2009 12:32:00 UTC | #378229

Dr. Strangegod's Avatar Comment 16 by Dr. Strangegod

No matter what this book actually says, simply by having such a parasitic title, like the many other fleas, it shows that its contents alone are not enough for people to buy it. It can only be marketed as an anti-Dawkins book, and its safe to assume that the author was far more interested in making money than making a good argument. No big surprise, just another pseudo-intellectual sucking at the teat of genius.

Sun, 12 Jul 2009 12:32:00 UTC | #378230

digibud's Avatar Comment 17 by digibud

No single book on evolution that is geared toward popular consumption can provide all the viewpoints and hypothesis of current evolutionary thought. Of course there are probably some evolutionary processes that Dawkins misses. Some he may get wrong. Of course his book is incomplete. But so would any such book by any of the other researchers be. Our understanding is incomplete. I'm sure RD would agree.

Sun, 12 Jul 2009 12:34:00 UTC | #378231

kaiserkriss's Avatar Comment 18 by kaiserkriss

Afraid:

Think Mo in this clip from the Simpsons..jcw

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=faRlFsYmkeY

Sun, 12 Jul 2009 12:35:00 UTC | #378232

Duff's Avatar Comment 19 by Duff

Would someone, anyone, please, please tell me how, and in what way, Professor Dawkin's ideas on religion are "philosophically suspect"! Some specifics, please.

Sun, 12 Jul 2009 12:53:00 UTC | #378238

Follow Peter Egan's Avatar Comment 20 by Follow Peter Egan

This review ruined my breakfast when I opened the times this morning. I blasted off a stiff comment online but they have not posted it.

No matter what this book actually says, simply by having such a parasitic title, like the many other fleas, it shows that its contents alone are not enough for people to buy it. It can only be marketed as an anti-Dawkins book, and its safe to assume that the author was far more interested in making money than making a good argument. No big surprise, just another pseudo-intellectual sucking at the teat of genius.


That's essentially the point my comment had made.

Elsdon-Baker admits that her title, an allusion to Dawkins’s epochal The Selfish Gene (1976), is nothing more than a little wordy mischief. She doesn’t suggest that he is any more selfish than the next person


which rather undermines the credibility of the whole book. It suggests (any may well be) nothing but an ad hominem attack. How vulgar.

But while he himself has been mostly silent about these newly revealed complexities in the workings of the genome — perhaps because he is disenchanted with the mess they have made of his neat picture


They've clearly not seen the third edition of the Selfish Gene then, with copious footnotes?

Would someone, anyone, please, please tell me how, and in what way, Professor Dawkin's ideas on religion are "philosophically suspect"! Some specifics, please.


And that's more or less word for word what I shouted at my newspaper this morning.

Sun, 12 Jul 2009 13:19:00 UTC | #378244

louis14's Avatar Comment 21 by louis14

What else would natural selection act on but the gene? I mean, correct me if my understanding is wrong, but it doesn't act on facial structure, it acts on the genes that determine facial structure and the resulting jawline (or whatever) is the result of the modification of the genes, right?


Yup - you got it.

Sun, 12 Jul 2009 13:21:00 UTC | #378245

Carl Sai Baba's Avatar Comment 22 by Carl Sai Baba

Comment #395595 by Squigit:
"What else would natural selection
act on but the gene?"


I know how you feel. It almost seems silly to suggest otherwise. But I learned about evolution long after Dawkins' book, so I couldn't be sure that it would seem so obvious to me if I had not been studying books written after his influence, though none of the school texts ever mentioned him by name.

Sun, 12 Jul 2009 13:25:00 UTC | #378247

Dragon Slayer's Avatar Comment 23 by Dragon Slayer

does anyone know if Dawkins has made any reply to or comment on this book? i had a quick read through it whilst in waterstones the other day.

In response to Duff I am quite puzzled on how people can call Dawkins' attacks on religion as philosophically suspect. Having read some articles on Dawkins by philosophers I get the impression that they don't like fact that he doesn't go into too much detail when discussing the arguments for the existence of God. With the 'five ways' for example you could talk about them in great length and praise them as a major contribution the the philosophy of religion but still easily refute them. Dawkins, as he should, treats them in a scientific manner and doesn't bore the reader with unneeded detail.

In short Dawkins attacks are not philosophically unsound, its just that some professional philosophers don't want the final nail in the coffin on these arguments.

Sun, 12 Jul 2009 13:30:00 UTC | #378248

louis14's Avatar Comment 24 by louis14

She accuses Dawkins of appropriating and, in the process, distorting Darwin’s message.


Darwin's message? Once again the implication is that Darwin is looked apon as some kind of deity, whose utterances are sacrosanct. They are not, nor are Dawkins'. There's been 150 years of science done since 'On the Origin of Species', and 30 since 'The Selfish Gene'. The science will continue to be updated.

Sun, 12 Jul 2009 13:33:00 UTC | #378250

mmurray's Avatar Comment 25 by mmurray

She accuses Dawkins of appropriating and, in the process, distorting Darwin’s message


What about


She accuses Einstein of appropriating and, in the process, distorting Newton’s message


weird isn't it.

Michael

Sun, 12 Jul 2009 13:44:00 UTC | #378251

Aza's Avatar Comment 26 by Aza

One of the hazards of being a public intellectual is that sooner or later someone will write a book disputing everything you’ve said.

It's the "my gun is faster than yours" Syndrome

Sun, 12 Jul 2009 13:57:00 UTC | #378253

phil rimmer's Avatar Comment 27 by phil rimmer

Worthless flea book from what we can discern. She should be drummed out of the phylum Pteridophyta and reclassified as Siphonaptera.


Next to worthless review too.

Sun, 12 Jul 2009 14:00:00 UTC | #378255

jpgj's Avatar Comment 28 by jpgj

Havn't read her book so mabe this is unfair.

It seems that for every bible thumper looking for a gap in the fossil record there is a metaphysically inclined philosopher looking for a Concept to criticise.

The whole of science just isn't upset when an interesting but banal discovery like gut bugs trading plasmids for drug resistance cannot be deduced from the concept of vertical gene transmission.

Could someone tell her that modern scientists like RD aren't 18th century German philosophical System builders ?

Sun, 12 Jul 2009 14:28:00 UTC | #378261

j.mills's Avatar Comment 29 by j.mills

Ya can't on the one hand complain that Dawkins is 'distorting Darwin's message', and on the other hand complain that Dawkins doesn't take into account horizontal transfer and epigenetics, which conflict with Darwin's message! They don't conflict with Darwin ulimately, of course, but whatsherface seems to think they do.

The reviewer says FEB upbraids RD for discarding wrong ideas (pre-Darwin), and upbraids him again for retaining wrong ideas (a model without HGT and epi) - which of course he doesn't.

But it would seem that her main contention is that RD adopts the wrong tone, on religion and other matters. If she's qualified to speak on the matter, a better response from her would be to speak on religion and evolution herself in whatever she perceives to be the right tone. There's room for many voices, from gentle-Dennett to crusty-Hitch. Instead - flea.

Sun, 12 Jul 2009 14:32:00 UTC | #378262

ukantic's Avatar Comment 30 by ukantic

Perhaps Fern Elsdon-Baker would like to attempt to explain a peacock's tail using horizontal gene transfer as the basis for an explanation. Of course you cannot and the best explanation remains the one propounded by Richard Dawkins.

Of course discoveries such as HGT may add a further level of complication to the overall picture, but they don't undermine Richard Dawkins' views in any way; if anything they simply compliment them. Therefore, to jump to the conclusion that his views are, “outmoded” seems absurd. It is a bit like claiming that the theory that the earth is round is undermined by the discovery of Everest.

Sun, 12 Jul 2009 14:45:00 UTC | #378263