Comment: The Dawkins dogma
By NEW SCIENTIST
Added: Sat, 18 Jul 2009 23:00:00 UTC
THE notion of the "selfish gene" is the most successful scientific metaphor of the past 30 years, followed not far behind by "the extended phenotype". Both were coined by Richard Dawkins and are, as it happens, the titles of his first popular science books.
The Selfish Gene's message was that evolution is about the natural selection of genes, and genes alone. Dawkins sees them as the best candidates to be evolution's units of replication. As such, the genes that are passed on are those whose consequences serve their own interests at gene level - that is, to continue being replicated - and do not necessarily serve the interests of the organism at a larger level, or at the level of groups of organisms. It is "as if" these genes are being selfish, not that they are really selfish.
The Extended Phenotype develops this idea, arguing that in their drive for survival and replication, genes extend their influence beyond the appearance, or phenotype, of an individual and into the world where it also affects their chance of survival. Think of the beaver's dam or spider's web.
For reasons to do with how science is communicated, a human love of simple narratives, and Dawkins's energetic advocacy of these metaphors, the public has been left with a view of evolution and Darwinism which does not truly reflect thinking among evolutionary biologists. This view also perpetuates the existence of "opposing camps" when there is no need. Worse, it skews popular notions of Darwinism. This is why these metaphors are so important: metaphors stretch to the heart of "what science is for" and to the kind of answers it can provide.
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