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Raiko's Avatar Comment 1 by Raiko

Why do these journalists not READ the books they talk about? I have never read any other author who is more careful about stressing that metaphors go only so far than Richard.

Sun, 19 Jul 2009 22:45:00 UTC | #380625

Thomas Byrne's Avatar Comment 2 by Thomas Byrne

Didn't take long to the comments below the article to change from the topic at hand to god did it?

The only book on evolution I read by Dawkins was The Ancestors Tale and I thought it was a wonderful explanation of evolution. He also, I think, answered the above criticism on The Selfish Gene in that book (sorry, quite a while since I read it).

Sun, 19 Jul 2009 22:57:00 UTC | #380629

Shiva's Avatar Comment 4 by Shiva

I'm afraid I haven't read the books in question yet *blush*

But I'm sure the journalist is mistaken...

Sun, 19 Jul 2009 23:13:00 UTC | #380634

stephenray's Avatar Comment 3 by stephenray

The article seems - among other things - to claim that the view that evolution by natural selection acts on the genes fails to deal with, for example, lateral gene transfer.

Which of the other views more successfully explains this phenomenon? Selection on the individual? On the species, perhaps?


Sun, 19 Jul 2009 23:13:00 UTC | #380633

DamnDirtyApe's Avatar Comment 5 by DamnDirtyApe

hmm... good to see a more interesting challenge for a change than the usual goddidit.

...Hmmm... although on closer analysis, it is kinda trolling. There is something to the lateral stuff though.

Sun, 19 Jul 2009 23:25:00 UTC | #380635

Ally01290's Avatar Comment 6 by Ally01290

I got about this far to be honest....

Pretty much every actual scientist has nothing but disdain and loathing for New Scientist and its journalistic standards.

Sun, 19 Jul 2009 23:33:00 UTC | #380637

Robert Maynard's Avatar Comment 8 by Robert Maynard

I posted this on a friend's blog when they posted a link to this article for discussion. Edited slightly:

It's pretty sensational to claim that Neo-darwinism is Dawkins "dogma", particularly when Dawkins has no actual control over research or education, and the competing frameworks she discusses are not only being researched but also taught in universities. I understand she's an atheist, but in this regard she sounds just like the Christians who can only conceive of power structures with reference to their own, and call him a priest, and evolution an object of devotion and worship. But as evidenced in her other work (she is currently promoting her book "The Selfish Genius: How Richard Dawkins Rewrote Darwin’s Legacy"), Eldson-Barker seems to have a chip on her shoulder. :P

Dawkins main famous books that she is claiming to be in a huff about (The Selfish Gene, The Extended Phenotype, The Blind Watchmaker) were published in the 1970s and 1980s, all of them over twenty years ago. Evolution science definitely seems to be shifting, and I think what she's actually whining about is Dawkins status as a public intellectual, that he is promoting a possibly overly-simple view of evolutionary process on talk shows, as if there is a new generation of science communicators just busting to start laying some epigenetic transfer onto the public, but, DAMN HIM, they are being held back.
I think what they would find, as Dawkins no doubt has in his decades as a communicator and years as the Simonyi Professor for the Public Understanding of Science, and as teachers in general have forever, is that you will get nowhere in the business of explaining if you start your explanations at the cutting edge of research. It's ass-backwards, plain and simple.

For advocacy purposes amongst non-scientists, it seems perfectly fine to me to stick to discussing heredity in a linear, "vertical" manner (the classic branching tree), without getting into how recent research into gene expression and lateral transfer may be muddying that picture.
It's routine for education on a subject to begin with a broad sweeping view of the field that then sharpens the focus (either in a top-down manner or by retracing the historical development of the theory) and fills in details and special conditions in which the broader "stereotype" of the subject learnt in previous semesters breaks down into ambiguity, until finally students reach the edge of modern research, in preparation for possible careers as researchers.

For explaining it to ignorant people (creationists) and the merely curious, you have to start at below the high school biology level of explanation. Dawkins has laboured admirably to boil evolution down to the most elementary terms, to explain what shouldn't have to be explained in five minute segments on talk shows. It leaves little room for uncertainty, or conditionals, or careful elaboration - you have to deal with absolute answers because you are dealing with children, in terms of that field (hence the 'but-why' ender that always makes me cringe: "Because of evidence"). It is a teaching moment, a moment of instruction, not a moment of elucidation or discussion. And when you boil it down, regardless of exciting new science, the essentials remain: "Living things were not created as separate kinds - they all come from other living things, with complexity and diversity receding as we travel further back in time. Therefore, it's a fucking tree. Deal with it."

Sun, 19 Jul 2009 23:34:00 UTC | #380639

bendigeidfran's Avatar Comment 7 by bendigeidfran

Downhill from their "Why Darwin was wrong" cover. I am beginning to think NS should fuck off.

edit - The next comment is pretty darn good. Hats off to Maynard.

Sun, 19 Jul 2009 23:34:00 UTC | #380638

Bueller_007's Avatar Comment 9 by Bueller_007

More trolling from New Scientist.

For all those who haven't figured it out, this was written by Dawkins' most recent flea (Fern Elsdon-Baker, the author of "The Selfish Genius: How Richard Dawkins Rewrote Darwin’s Legacy".)

Sun, 19 Jul 2009 23:45:00 UTC | #380642

aussieatheist_111's Avatar Comment 11 by aussieatheist_111

I have to admit, as a long time NS subscriber, I'm beginning to feel disillusioned by the shoddy quality of some of the work they put out.

Mon, 20 Jul 2009 00:12:00 UTC | #380648

Jos Gibbons's Avatar Comment 10 by Jos Gibbons

Comment #398043 by Bueller_07

When that review of FE-B's work was published on this website, we gave a combination of our reactions to it and of our views on doing so, with us divided on the latter regarding whether or not we should suspend judgment until we see her own presentation of her arguments. Well, now we finally have. It is my opinion that her views were accurately represented in that previous article (although that doesn't undermine anyone's previous reasons for skepticism at the time, obviously). Her arguments are what they seemed to be. Epigenetics, LGT, ... wait, there's more than that, surely? Oh wait, no, there isn't. As I've already explained, her arguments make no sense.

Epigenetics just means some on/off switches get flipped (or not) on a generation by generation basis, with a child's default being based on parental DNA, which is obviously advantageous. (It's a bit like antibodies in mothers' milk.) So, in a very limited part of genomics, mutation leans a little to the beneficial end. I don't actually think this challenges Darwinism or Neo-Darwinism (not that either denied Lamarckism anyway except to say, "It's a good thing it's unnecessary for our explanations (although compatible with them), as we can't find it anywhere)"), but it's not even RELEVANT to what the unit of selection is, or how "selfish" genes are, or how extended phenotypes are.

As for LGT, this has miniscule implications for Darwinism and Neo-Darwinism, and it has absolutely no implications for SG/EP - except, perhaps, to vindicate them! It's almost as if FE-B thinks that Darwin being a teeny weeny bit wrong is the same thing as Dawkins being at least a little wrong. Yet bizarrely, her examples are only of things that have no implications whatsoever for SG/EP (the world is filled with phenotypes caused by genes which benefit from causing them), but might have (small) problems for D/ND - in other words, these are examples of how Dawkins may be more correct than Darwin. Why she moans about RD here I cannot even start to fathom.

Mon, 20 Jul 2009 00:12:00 UTC | #380646

Bueller_007's Avatar Comment 12 by Bueller_007

re: Comment #398047 by Jos Gibbons

I agree. Reading that article I kept thinking, "this really has nothing to do with Dawkins". The epigenetics thing is more of a problem for Weissmann. LGT may be more of a problem for someone like Fisher or Dobzhansky. I don't get it. The way to disprove Dawkins is to show that complex adaptations (esp. altruistic tendencies) are often due to higher-level selection. There doesn't even appear to have been an effort made in that direction.

Mon, 20 Jul 2009 00:27:00 UTC | #380652

jaytee_555's Avatar Comment 13 by jaytee_555

In his (excellent) post 10, Joss Gibbons says;

"Why she moans about RD here I cannot even start to fathom."

By the book's title alone, it is clear she is aspiring to Dawkinsian fleadom. It has proved its worth as a way of getting inferior books noticed.

My wife complains that I spend too much time trying to research my family tree, so I'm toying with the idea of writing a book entitled 'The Selfish Genealogist'. The reviews would be really bad, but at least I'd get reviews!

Mon, 20 Jul 2009 01:10:00 UTC | #380667

Quetzalcoatl's Avatar Comment 14 by Quetzalcoatl


Don't think that that pun comment you made then deleted wasn't noticed!

Mon, 20 Jul 2009 01:14:00 UTC | #380669

Cartomancer's Avatar Comment 15 by Cartomancer


oh all right, I'll own up. It was a terrible pun.

I just suggested that someone write a book about the efforts of messrs. Hackman and Wilder to break in to the seafood trade. "The Sell Fish Gene".


Mon, 20 Jul 2009 01:16:00 UTC | #380670

bendigeidfran's Avatar Comment 16 by bendigeidfran

Comment #398073 by Cartomancer

Sorry is not enough. What was wrong with Gene Pitney anyway?

Mon, 20 Jul 2009 01:54:00 UTC | #380680

Fil's Avatar Comment 17 by Fil

So she has a book in the offing has she? What a surprise.

Instead of writing a moan about Richard why doesn't she write something positive, like maybe a book to inspire and educate people who are confused about what evolution is all know, sort of like what some of Richard's books do. Duh.

As to Nude Scientist, meh, I even deleted my bookmark for their website. Sadly though I think their antics of the last few years may stem from money worries. They certainly seem to be bottom feeding a lot. Not quite Popular Science level, but some of what they are putting out (or not if you aren't a subscriber) is very populist and shallow, almost tabloid at times. Which is a real pity.

Also, for a publication called "New Scientist" their website was down a hell of lot...oh, the irony.

Mon, 20 Jul 2009 02:08:00 UTC | #380682

Steve Zara's Avatar Comment 18 by Steve Zara

Iv'e blogged about this, but will mention some things I find interesting about the kind of thinking described in this article.

I call it 'super-gene-ism'. There is a parallel to some degree with supernaturalism. Supernaturalism is the insistence that there is something more than the natural, but when asked for explanations as to how that is supposed to work, we get nothing.

In the same kind of way, there is talk about group and species selection, but I have rarely come across any rigorous explanation as to how that is supposed to work, whereas models of gene selection are well understood.

Of course, that could just be me not keeping up with the literature, but my impression is that the further away from the gene we get as the unit of selection, the sloppier the thinking.

Mon, 20 Jul 2009 02:17:00 UTC | #380683

Duff's Avatar Comment 19 by Duff

Is it my imagination, or is this woman suggesting that Dawkins hasn't, or won't, change his ideas since writing The Selfish Gene? Surely, she can't be suggesting Richard Dawkins is convinced what he wrote in the seventies is established, unalterable fact.

Mon, 20 Jul 2009 02:23:00 UTC | #380685

SaganTheCat's Avatar Comment 20 by SaganTheCat

Haven't got round to this yet...

still a few rolls of andrex in the bathroom tho

Mon, 20 Jul 2009 02:31:00 UTC | #380688

Ian's Avatar Comment 21 by Ian

I'd have more sympathy for these people if they didn't try to pretend these results represented a paradigm shift in evolutionary science. The effects they describe are minor revisions at best.

As for New Scientist, after Darwin was Wrong, I Allowed my subscription to lapse and I do not miss it. Instead, I have been reading Scientific American and they have scientists decribing their own work; something I have missed out on.

Mon, 20 Jul 2009 02:49:00 UTC | #380695

Steve Zara's Avatar Comment 22 by Steve Zara

Comment #398098 by Ian

I'd have more sympathy for these people if they didn't try to pretend these results represented a paradigm shift in evolutionary science. The effects they describe are minor revisions at best.

Absolutely. Also to call The Selfish Gene a 'dogma' is pretty silly. Richard made it clear with his Necker Cube analogy that it is a way of looking at things, not a dogmatic insistence of the way things are.

Mon, 20 Jul 2009 02:55:00 UTC | #380698

Jos Gibbons's Avatar Comment 23 by Jos Gibbons

It’s funny really. There actually is a “central dogma” of molecular biology, the usage of “dogma” causing some controversy ... but the case made for it by Crick is much better than any FE-B makes for calling any Dawkinsian, or Darwinian for that matter, idea a dogma.

Comment #398069
Ah yes of course, the whole flea thing. Even then it seems pretty bizarre that she expects to actually *get away with it*. I’m not even a biologist – I’m a physics undergraduate – and I can still refute her. Oh, and as for spelling my name with 2 Ss, I’ve heard worse. Once in school a substitute teacher called me Ross, *as she was reading my name from the register*. The other children were right to laugh at her. Like FE-B’s own efforts, that’s the level of stupidity that leaves me as stunned for want of an explanation as the best magic tricks.

Comment #398085 by Fil
Money is enough of a worry to cause lots of awful things during this economic stagnation. I received a letter this morning informing me that a PC magazine to which I have been subscribed for some time, and which has been running for decades, is now shutting down production, and that my subscription has been automatically transferred to another, a copy of which I have also received today. I have a sneaking suspicion the replacement magazine won’t be as good. It doesn’t even come with any free software.

Comment #398066 by Steve Zara
Ah, that’s actually quite an interesting hypothesis. Super-X-ist motivations in general might be quite common, sharing with them a refusal to say what they think happens instead of X. Dark matter research is an example that I run up against, as a physics student. We all know *something* is amiss with our current account of galaxies, but what? MOND? The inverse square law? Extra invisible matter, as the name suggests? Maybe more than one. MOND is an especially “won’t tell” idea – but then, Steve, I needn’t remind you of that. Still, at least dark matter research (1) has some detailed models (albeit with few commitments), (2) has some precedence (after all, we already knew neutrinos are numerous, so their mass could be it, especially as we now know they oscillate), (3) is justified in the sense that we really do know there’s a problem. But what IS the problem in biology? Nothing, if FE-B has picked up on the most bizarre facts we have found.

Mon, 20 Jul 2009 02:57:00 UTC | #380700

hyperdeath's Avatar Comment 24 by hyperdeath

New Scientist has pretty much gone to the dogs.

(I gave up several years ago when they devoted the lead article to uncritical coverage of some hocus-pocus spacecraft propulsion system. The so-called "EmDrive" blatantly violated conservation of momentum, despite them confidently explaining to the reader that it was fully supported by known physical principles.)

The comments at the end of that "article" are something else entirely. Most of them seem to be from armchair philosophers with a pro-religion axe to grind, who strongly exhibit the Dunning-Kruger effect. Reading them is a bit like suffering from aphasia.

Mon, 20 Jul 2009 02:57:00 UTC | #380701

AdamMil's Avatar Comment 25 by AdamMil

It's pretty ridiculous to call it a "dogma". Numerous times I've heard Dawkins discuss lateral gene transfer, the effect of environment on gene expression over multiple generations, etc. I've never seen him reject them; he can discuss them intelligently when asked, and he sees them as valid phenomena complementary to but of lesser effect than classic natural selection. This is not the stance of a dogmatist.

As Maynard noted, it makes perfect sense when educating to start with a simple, clean explanation, and then drill down into the exceptions and dirty details after that's been absorbed.

Somebody should revoke New Scientist's license to use the term "scientist"...

Mon, 20 Jul 2009 03:12:00 UTC | #380705

Misc's Avatar Comment 26 by Misc

Oh my, such an article in Vague Scientist, who would have guessed that.

Mon, 20 Jul 2009 03:18:00 UTC | #380707

NewEnglandBob's Avatar Comment 27 by NewEnglandBob

Has anyone written a book yet on the DNA of exoskeleton bearing aquatic invertebrates used as food?

It could be called the Shellfish Genes.

Being a flea, I bet it would rake in a lot of clams.

Mon, 20 Jul 2009 03:42:00 UTC | #380713

Ian's Avatar Comment 28 by Ian

Thanks Steve and Misc: 'Vague Scientist' is going to stick. :)

Mon, 20 Jul 2009 03:55:00 UTC | #380716

God fearing Atheist's Avatar Comment 29 by God fearing Atheist

Ah, the flea

So lateral gene transfer and epigenetic inheritance shoot down Dawkins? Really!

Well the article admits LGT does nothing of the sort, in fact it reinforces the "selfish gene" theory. A gene is not in an irrevocable alliance with its collegues in the germ line of a species - it can jump ship and join another team.

Secondly, epigenetics just adds complexity to the genetic code. RNA makes its code with 4 bases, DNA drops one and adds another, and now we have methylation which can add or subract a chemical marker to the DNA and is under control of the organism. It doesn't stop the little f**kers being "selfish"!

The book "The Selfish Gene" was published over 30 years ago. Methylation has been known about for a decade (?). I'm not sure how long LGT has been known about, but I doubt it is new.

So Dawkins stuck his head over the parapet thirty years ago, and the "evidence" for this book (such as it isn't) has been around for a decade (?). Dawkins sticks his head over the parapet again on religion, attracts a lot of flack, and suddenly a "scientific flea" appears, attempting to gut his scientific credentuals. I smell a rat. At best, this is a selfish cash-in on Dawkins' notoriety, at worst is is a theist attempting to undermine him.

PS. I used to buy "New Scientist" regularly. After the "flaws in Darwin's theory" cover story 3-6 months ago, and its use as "evidence" by the IDers, I stopped. This crap validates my decision.

Anyone have an recommedation on "Scientific American" or other "background scientific reading" magazine?

EDIT: changed "LGT" to "epigenetics"

Mon, 20 Jul 2009 04:23:00 UTC | #380721

Chris Davis's Avatar Comment 30 by Chris Davis

Right - so: Newton is all wrong because of Einstein; and Relatively's all wrong because of QM.

Great - getting up hills is going to be much easier now I can teleport.

Mon, 20 Jul 2009 04:29:00 UTC | #380723