Poor Richard’s Almanac: Andrew Brown and the Pope go after The Selfish Gene

Over at the Guardian, Andrew Brown damns Dawkins’s The Selfish Gene with faint praise, noting as well that former Pope Benedict has criticized the book as science fiction.

The Selfish Gene, which has by now sold well over a million copies in a gazillion languages, is a seminal work, and has opened the eyes of millions to a gene-centered view of evolution and all that it explains: cooperation, conflict, and, in its brilliant central metaphor, the process of natural selection. I can’t count the number of people who have told me, either in person or on this site, that it changed their lives, opening them up to the wonders of science.

And this is what Brown says about it in his essay, “Ex-Pope Benedict says The Selfish Gene is science fiction. He’s half right.

The first thing to be said about The Selfish Gene is that it is a very fine piece of pop science writing indeed. It is not as dense and thought-provoking as Richard Dawkins’s second book, The Extended Phenotype – but without it, who would had bought or read the latter? – and it is not as accomplished as The Blind Watchmaker or Climbing Mount Improbable but those early books are much better than anything he has produced in his subsequent career. Their freshness and direct force is extraordinary.

Well, that’s not too bad, though the phrase “pop science writing” makes me quail. And I do think it was far more influential than the other two books Brown mentions. But he’s entitled to his opinion, though I think it’s a matter of record that The Selfish Gene has outstripped the others in both sales and influence. But then Brown says these things:

The Selfish Gene must have inspired thousands of people to take up biology. Beyond that, it had a huge influence on the culture of nerds. There is nothing original in the biology and some can now be seen to be wrong, but that’s the fate of any 30-year-old undergraduate text (it grew out of his lectures to students).

“Nerds”?  “Undergraduate text”? It’s not an undergraduate text, and the use of “nerds” is simply an ad hominem.  And even if Dawkins was just explicating the results of other scientists, he did it in an original and literary way, bringing to the public important science that would otherwise have remained obscure. In other words, Dawkins’s book spread wonder through the world. It was a good thing for science education.

But Brown’s piece gets worse:

But alongside the intellectual force and drive, wrapped round it and giving it shape, as histones give shape to DNA, came Dawkins’s shadow side – the fact that he is his own greatest fan and believer. You may think the competition for this position is too great for there to be any single winner but I think it’s safe to say that not even the most devoted of his groupies have their partner read out loud from his books at bedtime, as he does. But even if he does have readers more delighted in his cleverness than he is himself, they don’t have quite the same corrupting effect on his understanding.

What is that about? It seems that what Brown dislikes is not the book, but Dawkins.  And, as almost everyone knows, Dawkins’s wife, Lalla Ward, is a trained actress, and has helped coach him about how to read in public by reading his books out loud (she also, Richard says, has helped him realize that good writing should sound mellifluous when you read it aloud). It’s simply wrong, and nasty, to imply that this “reading out loud” reflects some kind of groupie-ism. It’s tutelage, and nothing more. How low of Brown to say something like this.

Finally, Brown makes the Mary Midgley-ian argument that The Selfish Gene goes astray because of the weakness of its central metaphor:

In particular, the ascription of agency to genes led him and his followers into endless confusion. The point is not merely whether genes can be selfish or generous, but whether they can be said to have any activity at all in the world. This is a point which he freely concedes and then forgets – his manner of dealing with most criticism. If a gene is defined, as he defines it, as a piece of chromosomal material subject to the pressures of selection, it is the pressures of selection which are the active and changing parts of the picture, and the DNA sequence is entirely passive.

It is still less true to imagine that genes “build” us into “great lumbering robots”. The process by which a stretch of DNA sequence becomes a protein is complicated, and determined by cellular mechanisms which are in turn reacting to pressures from their environment. The process by which proteins become bodies is even more complicated.

The Selfish Gene is a brilliant phrase. It’s also accurate, so long as you realise that “selfish” doesn’t mean selfish, “gene” doesn’t mean gene, and the definite article is a bit of an abstraction. But taken as the literal truth, it’s about as much use as “In the beginning was the word”. Given Dawkins’s hostility to everyone else’s metaphysics, this is an unfortunate weakness. “Science fiction” may not be the right term for the book but it does capture the sense in which its hold on the imagination depends on the parts that aren’t science but dazzling metaphor.

I don’t see the “endless confusion” that the metaphor caused, except by those like Mary Midgley who seemed too obtuse to realize the brilliance of analogizing the behavior of genes to some kind of “selfishness.” How many people really were led astray by this metaphor? Not many, I’d guess. And “pressures of selection” are themselves metaphorical; those are simply another word for the differential effects of different bits of DNA on reproduction—the effects that lead to natural selection. Natural selection is not an external pressure imposed on the organism, but a description of how genes replicate themselves differentially in specific environments. It’s a process of sorting among “selfish genes”.

The bit about genes not building bodies directly is, of course, something that Dawkins is aware of and has written about constantly. And it’s largely irrelevant to the whole “selfish gene” idea.  Brown’s final paragraph, which implies that the part of The Selfish Gene that’s half right is the “fiction” part of “science fiction”, is simply wrong. The book educated millions of people about how natural selection works, and what kind of behaviors it can mold. That depended on the science, not on the metaphor, as the metaphor was just a way to bring the science home. When people talk about Dawkins’s book, they talk about how it opened their eyes to the wonder of natural selection, not about how clever the “selfish gene” idea was.

Poor Richard! I can imagine how frustrating it must feel to be subject to such unwarranted attacks—attacks that not only have been rebutted years ago, but are repeated endlessly by those who dislike his atheism (or his fame).

Even the Pope got into the act. As The Independent reports, ex-Pope Benedict apparently agrees with Brown. Have a look at what Ratzinger said:

The 86-year-old discusses atheism, apparently poking fun at Odifreddi’s previous statements and condemning Richard Dawkins’ writing as a “classic example of science fiction”.

In response to Odifreddi’s 2009 declaration that the church preaches conjecture, not facts, and is therefore “science fiction”, Benedict said: “There is, moreover, science fiction in a big way just even within the theory of evolution. The Selfish Gene by Richard Dawkins is a classic example of science fiction.”

He added: “The great Jacques Monod wrote the sentences that he has inserted in his work certainly just as science fiction. I quote: ‘The emergence of tetrapod vertebrates … draws its origin from the fact that a primitive fish’ chose ‘to go and explore the land, on which, however, was unable to move except jumping clumsily and thus creating, as a result of a modification of behaviour, the selective pressure due to which would have developed the sturdy limbs of tetrapods’”.

So much for the Catholic Church being down with evolution!  As for Monod’s statement about the evolution of terrestriality in vertebrates, it’s a bit extreme but not inaccurate. Terrestriality might have arisen through a behavior in which a “fishapod” that had already evolved sturdy fins to “stand” in shallow water went looking for food (or another pond) by walking ashore, and, if that behavior was successful, could have promoted the evolution of further adaptations to live on land.  That’s “fiction” only in the sense that we don’t know it for sure, but it’s certainly not “fiction” in the sense that it’s deliberately untrue!

The idea that many major evolutionary changes begin with a change in behavior has been suggested by many, including the famous evolutionist Ernst Mayr. Flight may also have begun in a similar way in theropods that had already evolved feathers for other reasons.

100 Comments

  1. Cara
    Posted September 26, 2013 at 10:39 am | Permalink

    Subscribe.

    • jimroberts
      Posted September 27, 2013 at 7:04 am | Permalink

      me2

      • HaggisForBrains
        Posted September 27, 2013 at 2:50 pm | Permalink

        sub

  2. Posted September 26, 2013 at 10:46 am | Permalink

    It would be more interesting if joseph ratzinger would have denounced the bible as “fantasy”.

    • Diana MacPherson
      Posted September 26, 2013 at 12:01 pm | Permalink

      I know – my response to Brown about the former pope calling Dawkins’s book “science fiction” is, so what? I don’t take my good book or science advice from popes….or really any advice from popes!

      • david middle
        Posted September 26, 2013 at 1:46 pm | Permalink

        sub

      • infiniteimprobabilit
        Posted September 27, 2013 at 1:21 am | Permalink

        I didn’t know the Pope was an aficionado of sci-fi. I’m afraid to say, though, that The Selfish Gene is really very poor science fiction – not enough character development, virtually no human interest, no snappy dialogue, not even any good space battles. 😦

        • Posted September 27, 2013 at 1:45 pm | Permalink

          Queue:

          “Gene Hive” is a science-fiction short story written by English author Brian Aldiss. It was first published, as “Journey to the Interior”, in 1958 in Nebula Science Fiction #30 and first collected, as “Gene-Hive”, in The Canopy of Time (Faber and Faber, 1959) [1]
          The story has a scientific approach to the theme of gene-shifting and genetic engineering. It is notable because it anticipates the central idea of Richard Dawkins’ The Selfish Gene (1976) by nearly two decades.

          “Genes build themselves into cells and cells into the gene hive called man in order to develop their potentialities, not man’s. The idea of man’s being able to develop was purely an anthropomorphic concept.”>/blockquote>
          —”Gene-Hive”, Brian Aldiss

          /@

  3. Grania Spingies
    Posted September 26, 2013 at 10:49 am | Permalink

    And people still like to claim that the last pope was an “intellectual”. He is certainly more sophisticated and cynical than the current one, but like the best of them he just makes stuff up.

  4. gbjames
    Posted September 26, 2013 at 10:50 am | Permalink

    The fact that Andrew Brown and Ratzi dislike The Selfish Gene is pretty good evidence that it is a great book.

    If I had to pick a single book that influenced my worldview more than any other, this book is my choice. (Sorry, Jerry…. WEIT wasn’t around at that critical moment in my life!) 😉

  5. Reginald Selkirk
    Posted September 26, 2013 at 11:00 am | Permalink

    The 86-year-old discusses atheism, apparently poking fun at Odifreddi’s previous statements and condemning Richard Dawkins’ writing as a “classic example of science fiction”….

    Dawkins and Monod acknowledge which parts of their writing are speculative, and never try to pass it off as the will of God.

  6. Greg Esres
    Posted September 26, 2013 at 11:16 am | Permalink

    How many people really were led astray by this metaphor? Not many, I’d guess.

    Probably not, but I do think that using anthropomorphic terms to describe materialistic processes is confusing to some non-science people. I cringe when I hear things like “this species decided…”

    • jdhuey
      Posted September 26, 2013 at 12:04 pm | Permalink

      I think that it caused confusion with the people that read the title of the book but didn’t actually read the book.

      • Pete Moulton
        Posted September 26, 2013 at 1:13 pm | Permalink

        Like Mary Midgely?

        • moleatthecounter
          Posted September 27, 2013 at 4:46 am | Permalink

          From Brown himself in the BTL Guardian comments…

          Commenter:

          “Dawkins said recently that The Selfish Gene has always got a lot of criticism from people who objected to it on the basis of the title, without reading the important footnote to the title known as the “book”.

          The third to last paragraph of this ridiculous article can only have been written by someone who has not read – or at least understood – that important footnote.”

          Brown:

          “Look, we are familiar with this ludicrous defence of his, and the really rather disgusting attacks he has made on Mary Midgley. But it won’t stand up. Anyone who reads the book, and her attacks on it, or indeed my own Darwin Wars, will realise that the burden of the criticism is that Dawkins got confused by his own title. This confusion was only intermittent but it’s absurd to pretend it didn’t happen.”

          • Aj
            Posted September 27, 2013 at 5:30 am | Permalink

            I stopped commentating at the Guardian a few months back, due to the moderating standards, but Andrew Brown is and has always has been a troll. His entire output is (deliberately?) poorly argued and contentious click bait and we’d all be better off if everyone just ignored him.

            On the subject of Mary Midgley’s criticism of the Selfish Gene, his defence of it is ludicrous. Mary Midgely’s entire attack was based on the accusation that she knows what words means and that poor Richard Dawkins doesn’t.

            It’s fascinating to read, since you will rarely, if ever, encounter such shocking arrogance, obvious hypocrisy and stunning lack of self-awareness.

            My particular favourite bit is in the opening section where Mary Midgley declares “Dawkins, however, simply has a weak-ness for the old game of Brocken-spectre moralizing- the one where the player strikes attitudes on a peak at sunrise, gazes awe-struck at his gigantic shadow on the clouds, and reports his observations as cosmic truths.”

            I sometimes wish science would get on with building a working time machine so I could have the pleasure of going back in time and shoving a mirror in front of her face the very moment she wrote that.
            The complete bilge is here if anyone fancies a giggle;

            http://emilkirkegaard.dk/en/wp-content/uploads/Gene.juggling.pdf

            • moleatthecounter
              Posted September 27, 2013 at 9:39 am | Permalink

              Thanks for that Aj – I shall brace myself and have a look!

              Cover me – I’m going in…

      • Marella
        Posted September 26, 2013 at 5:20 pm | Permalink

        This is the big problem, too many people read the title and decide they hate the whole book without ever reading it.

        • infiniteimprobabilit
          Posted September 27, 2013 at 1:25 am | Permalink

          I have to admit being guilty of that myself. That is, I took the title literally and didn’t much care for the message, so I didn’t read it for years (though I never criticised it as I hadn’t read it). I would say that the title does lead itself to misinterpretation.

          But then, it took me years to get round to reading Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy as I thought it was a popularisation of astronomy for the masses…

          • gravelinspector-Aidan
            Posted September 27, 2013 at 4:13 am | Permalink

            I’ve got to admit that the sound quality in the HHGTTG books is somewhat better than the radio series, but you’ve got to remember that it was originally conceived and designed as a radio series, and that is still to me, far and away the best presentation of the material. I remember hearing it’s first broadcast run, and spending the rest of the week nagging the parents so I could get a tape recorder in time to record the Sunday repeat.
            The less said about the TV series and the film, the better. Sandra Dickinson was so NOT Trillian.

    • Posted September 26, 2013 at 3:06 pm | Permalink

      “….but I do think that using anthropomorphic terms to describe materialistic processes is confusing to some non-science people”
      It is regrettable that almost all “non-science” people and even most “science people” have little understanding of Evolutionary Game Theory – which is essentially the mathematical expression of what is going on in the evolutionary process. Here indeed (as with all game theory) we find processes described as STRATEGIES… the optional alternative behaviours of the possible competing entities. And “selfishness” is indeed a particularly apt description of the fundamental genetic strategy – irrespective of the fact that the term is anthropomorphic or not. Criticising Dawkins for using this term in representing genetic strategy shows a real ignorance of the overall subject.

      • moarscienceplz
        Posted September 27, 2013 at 3:23 pm | Permalink

        I guess these people have has little to no science education. Anthropomorphising is so common as to be entirely unremarkable. In Chemistry and in Electronics it is very common to say an atom “wants to” do this or an electron “likes to” do that.

        • Posted September 28, 2013 at 2:29 pm | Permalink

          It’s not just the use of an anthropomorphic term – “selfish” – for people such as Brown, it is the IMPLICATION that “selfishness” brings to any such people who are desperate to believe that there must be something inherently benign in the makeup of the universe. It’s bad enough for them that the scientific outlook leads to accepting that we exist in a universe that is totally indifferent to our being, it must certainly be even worse for them that the basis of the Evolution that has lead to our existence as a species is “selfishness” at it’s most fundamental level. No wonder they hate Dawkins for making this fact so abundantly clear.

  7. krzysztof1
    Posted September 26, 2013 at 11:20 am | Permalink

    It’s been a long time since I’ve read that book. I’d better read it again!

  8. Posted September 26, 2013 at 11:21 am | Permalink

    , and the use of “nerds” is simply an ad hominem.

    We nerds are offended that you think the word “nerd” to be ad hominem 🙂

    • Filippo
      Posted September 27, 2013 at 3:48 am | Permalink

      Some years ago “nerd” was, without a doubt, an ad hominem, though in the last few years there’s been an effort to portray it as a compliment.

      Regarding those who are inclined to use “nerd” as an ad hominem, I wonder what noun name they use to indicate its putatively complimentary opposite. I seriously doubt that they use the term “a-nerd” or “a-nerdist,” eh? (Re: Dawkins’s examples of “a-fairy-ist” and “a-Thorist” in referencing and comparing the words “theist” and “atheist.”)

      In the U.S. the apparently most-used opposite is “jock,” although I hardly see anything complimentary or desirable about being labelled “jock,” and about which I detect a strong odor of anti-intellectualism. (Re: Hofstadter’s “Anti-intellectualism in American Life” and Jacoby’s “The Age of American Unreason.”)

      For sure, it’s the “nerds” who have brought to bear their competence in and enthusiasm for “STEM” (science, technology, engineering, mathematics), thereby improving the standard of living and quality of life of “jocks” and their ilk who can’t be bothered to read a book or to learn to determine (mentally or with no more than pencil and paper) a common denominator without using a (“nerd”-conceived and -designed) calculator when adding/subtracting fractions (such as 1/2 + 1/3).

      • gravelinspector-Aidan
        Posted September 27, 2013 at 4:19 am | Permalink

        “A [recent] effort to portray [nerd] as a compliment”
        I’ve always used “nerd” as a compliment. But then, I’ve also counted myself as a nerd since I went to senior school and seriously started studying.

        • gravelinspector-Aidan
          Posted September 27, 2013 at 4:20 am | Permalink

          Damn. Closing tag fail!

          • Posted September 27, 2013 at 3:25 pm | Permalink

            Not the HTML nerd you thought you were!

            (Yes. Pot; kettle.)

            /@

            • gravelinspector-Aidan
              Posted September 28, 2013 at 6:35 am | Permalink

              There’s a “ha-ha, but serious” which is almost as venerable as Godwin’s Law, asserting that any post complaining about grammer, syntax, code style etc will inevitably contain significant errors of it’s own.

              • infiniteimprobabilit
                Posted September 30, 2013 at 1:16 am | Permalink

                I think “etc” there should have had a full stop (a.k.a. ‘period’ in USAnian).

                Yours respectfully,

                Your friendly local grammer Nazi.

              • gravelinspector-Aidan
                Posted October 2, 2013 at 4:53 am | Permalink

                Triumph! Acclaim!
                (Or, so I’m told, “Seig heil!” in German.)

              • Posted September 30, 2013 at 1:54 am | Permalink

                Guys —

                “grammer”?!

                /@

              • infiniteimprobabilit
                Posted September 30, 2013 at 3:24 am | Permalink

                😉

      • Posted September 27, 2013 at 7:29 am | Permalink

        Some years ago “nerd” was, without a doubt, an ad hominem, though in the last few years there’s been an effort to portray it as a compliment.

        This is true.

        It’s my impression that “nerd” originally meant “a social misfit with good technical skills”. The “social misfit” part seems to have been dropped as part of the rehabilitation of the word.

        • jwthomas
          Posted September 27, 2013 at 7:48 pm | Permalink

          I don’t think the social misfit tag has disappeared entirely, especially when “social misfit” may be applied to someone who’s never bothered to follow “Breaking Bad” on tv or doesn’t know who the Kardashians are.

    • eric
      Posted September 27, 2013 at 8:57 am | Permalink

      Agree. “Nerd” now gets used in a complimentary or neutral fashion as much (or even more) than it is used to insult. I read Brown’s piece to be using the word in a neutral manner.

  9. Posted September 26, 2013 at 11:24 am | Permalink

    I was “embedded” in a Sociology Department at the time “The Selfish Gene” was published and the shock and horror was unanimous (in a fairly large department with one anthropologist – me) despite the acknowledged fact that none of them had ever read the book but only the denouncements in their various newsletters and journals. The same was true for Wilson’s “Sociobiology.” No one had read it (I think it cost $75 but that wasn’t the reason), but all denounced it as deterministic and reductionist with Dawkins being the worse of two evils. Anthropologists went apoplectic and organized one of their periodic academic lynch mobs for Wilson. Dawkins was off their spectrum. Both books were books that I had apparently been looking for inasmuch as they changed everything and made sense of much of the nonsense that constitutes a lot of social science (have some postmodernism if you will).

    If a former pope who preaches historical fiction denounces a science classic as “science fiction” well, so it goes. Before Ratzinger was pope he was known as “the pope’s pit bull.” No reason to look for reason here.

    • gbjames
      Posted September 26, 2013 at 12:13 pm | Permalink

      Heh. I was in Graduate School in Anthropology at the time. Sociobiology, too, was a big influence on me. My department went less apoplectic than your Sociology department, apparently. Mostly the faculty seemed to ignore the books. I went over to the Biology Department for a seminar in Sociobiology to satisfy my interest.

  10. lanceleuven
    Posted September 26, 2013 at 11:27 am | Permalink

    A number of years ago I came to realise that, although I accepted evolution, I didn’t understand it as well as I’d assumed. My understanding was closer to Lamarckism than the truth. I realised I needed to brush up on my knowledge. Conveniently New Scientist had recently done an article about top popular science books. The Selfish Gene was recommended with regards to evolution. I’d never heard of this Richard Dawkins fella, but keenly picked up a copy on the New Scientist’s recommendation.

    When I completed the enthralling journey of reading that book I put it down and the world looked slightly different. It hadn’t changed. It was just in slightly sharper focus. It was like I’d upgraded to HD. I felt my view of the world had made a significant step closer to reality. I felt more in tune with the natural world. And I felt more affinity for the plight of my creature cousins than I ever had before. I was humbled by the spectacle of the natural world. I was awed by it. It made me smile — a long, lingering, warm, contented smile. I can’t name another book that has had an effect on me the way The Selfish Gene did.

    To summarise, I couldn’t care less what Andrew Brown’s views are. I’ve read the book for myself. I know how good it is.

    • darrelle
      Posted September 26, 2013 at 11:51 am | Permalink

      The views of Andrew Brown and Ratzinger regarding the Selfish Gene say a lot more about them than they do the Selfish Gene.

      The first thing being that either they didn’t understand much of anything in the book, they never read the book or they have ulterior motivations that have compelled them to lie about the book (perhaps to themselves, perhaps to others with intent).

    • Ken Pidcock
      Posted September 26, 2013 at 5:59 pm | Permalink

      Wonderful testimony, not least in revealing, on this forum, that New Scientist might actually do some good!

      • lanceleuven
        Posted September 27, 2013 at 12:37 am | Permalink

        Well, they did once.

        A few laters my local shop used to stock the New Scientist. I would often have a flick through to see if it was worth buying. One day I went to have a look and was astounded by what I saw. It was the infamous “Darwin Was Wrong” cover. My first thought was “Whose f*ckin’ side are you on?” My second thought was “Well, that’s the last time I buy New Scientist”. I didn’t need to bother reading it to know they’d taken a senstaionlist view on some small detail. I’d read it enough times before to know how they act. I just couldn’t believe they’d done something so monumentally stupid and handed the creationists such spectacular ammunition. Like I say, whose side are you on? I’ve never bought it since and never intend to.

      • gravelinspector-Aidan
        Posted September 27, 2013 at 4:30 am | Permalink

        I get as frustrated as the next man (or woman) at the the New Scientist’s frequent journalese and sensationalism, on the whole I think it is a better use of ink and paper than, say, a football rag. It is the closest thing to a popular science mag on the rack of most newsagents, and that is a valuable service. I learned a lot from it as I was a pupil at school, and the news and technology sections are still generally valuable. The feature pieces, less so.
        But it probably has gone downhill – like most other journalism. I still remember the visceral excitement of an early 70s item on the coealacanth, which was probably one of the things that pushed me towards geology.

    • Paul Mack
      Posted September 26, 2013 at 6:13 pm | Permalink

      Lancelouven: Kudos to you. I love your last 2 sentences and wish I’d written them myself.

    • JoeBuddha
      Posted September 27, 2013 at 5:20 am | Permalink

      ‘s what we Buddhists like to call Enlightenment. When your understanding changes, everything changes.

      Oh, and that bit about “half right” is actually correct. Mr. Brown just took the wrong half.

    • Diane G.
      Posted October 1, 2013 at 1:43 am | Permalink

      How beautifully put!

  11. NewEnglandBob
    Posted September 26, 2013 at 11:29 am | Permalink

    Andrew Brown and the pope-who-quit-instead-of-owning-up-to-criminal-cover-ups. What beacons of rational thinking that shine from that pair.

  12. Posted September 26, 2013 at 11:31 am | Permalink

    Brown: In particular, the ascription of agency to genes led him and his followers into endless confusion.

    This really should be:

    “The ascription of agency to genes led everyone except him and those reasonable enough to understand him into endless confusion.”

    • darrelle
      Posted September 26, 2013 at 12:06 pm | Permalink

      Yeah. It is hard to take seriously anyone who makes claims that this metaphor is too confusing, or that Dawkins was confused about whether or not genes had agency when all one has to do is read the book, or even just a small excerpt of it, to have it clearly explained by Dawkins what the concept of the Selfish Gene is.

      I have doubts that so many people are that stupid. In addition to laziness, I think it likely to be rhetorical tactics in many cases. Or in other words intellectually dishonest, aka lying.

      • gbjames
        Posted September 26, 2013 at 12:15 pm | Permalink

        Agreed. The only people confused about this are those who want to be confused, IMO.

  13. byran9
    Posted September 26, 2013 at 11:38 am | Permalink

    Thank you for championing Dawkins and clearly explaining the differences in interpretations and biases. I took a mammalian embryology course in 1982 that opened my eyes. I learned that the first cells to migrate and differentiate are the future gonadal cells. Seems like future reproduction is the priority of any organism. I must re-read Dawkins’ early works. Thanks for relaying all of the articles that some of us may miss.

  14. Diana MacPherson
    Posted September 26, 2013 at 12:03 pm | Permalink

    This just further solidifies my opinion that Brown is jealous of Richard Dawkins’s success. Please, The Selfish Gene was, as Jerry says, seminal. My friend (a pathologist in her 50s) read it in school!

    • Posted September 26, 2013 at 3:37 pm | Permalink

      “This just further solidifies my opinion that Brown is jealous ”

      Spot on!

      Nothing is more damaging to the vanity of an individual of mean achievement that the witness of the existence of someone of Dawkins high stature and accomplishment (eg number 1 “public intellectual”) in stark contrast to himself. I certainly attribute much of the barrage of “Dawkins hatred” to exactly this effect.
      And I suppose that taking on in opposition such a prominent individual makes the likes of Brown somehow feel somehow the equal of the great man himself….

  15. Posted September 26, 2013 at 12:13 pm | Permalink

    The only thing that could be said against The Selfish Gene is that it apparently isn’t lucid enough to help someone as unusually stupid as Andrew Brown understand evolution, even if given three decades.

    For the rest of us, it proved seminal.

    • Achrachno
      Posted September 26, 2013 at 9:22 pm | Permalink

      And why are so many public writers & commentators so much like Brown? Are they hired because of their lack of understanding?

  16. Thanny
    Posted September 26, 2013 at 12:18 pm | Permalink

    I still think that a huge number of the disagreements with the selfish gene concept come from people not realizing that the modern popular definition of “gene”, as a protein-coding segment of DNA, is not the correct historical definition, and certainly not the one used by Dawkins.

    They correctly understand that making proteins is only part of the story, and conclude that a focus on “genes” must be missing something important. They don’t realize that the proper definition of genes includes all regulatory segments of DNA as well.

    So it’s kind of ironic that Brown seems to understand that Dawkins is not using the protein-coding definition of a gene, but considers that a weakness, and still gets virtually everything wrong.

  17. Gregory Kusnick
    Posted September 26, 2013 at 12:36 pm | Permalink

    Brown’s idea that “the DNA sequence is entirely passive” is ludicrous. It’s like saying that computer software is entirely passive because it’s just bits in memory and the CPU does all the real work. Without DNA, the cellular machinery would have no work to do.

    And dismissing ideas you don’t like as “science fiction” is bad form no matter who’s doing it. So Odifreddi deserves just as much blame for using it against the Church as Ratzinger does for using it against Dawkins. (Now if Odifreddi has said that Scientology is science fiction (and bad SF at that), he might have a case.)

    • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
      Posted September 26, 2013 at 1:28 pm | Permalink

      Well, as posterior it would be “fantasy” (say, Eden or Flood) if it didn’t purport to describe the world and its features. So “science fiction” seems apt.

      Considered as prior, sure. (Though then you could still term it “fantasy”, since it is a myth.)

      • Gregory Kusnick
        Posted September 26, 2013 at 1:50 pm | Permalink

        A detective pursuing the wrong suspect is not engaged in writing crime fiction; he’s just doing his job badly.

        A work of history that gets the facts wrong does not thereby become a historical novel.

        Similarly, a myth is not the same as a fantasy novel, and a failed hypothesis is not a science fiction story. Calling it such is a cheap shot, not a reasoned argument.

    • Posted September 27, 2013 at 9:37 am | Permalink

      It isn’t just him – Richard Lewontin (in _Biology as Ideology_, which is an interesting but very diverse book) also makes claims like DNA is “just an inert molecule”, it doesn’t self-replicate because one needs to have it in a cell with cytoplasm and surrounding nucleotides, etc. Ok, don’t call that self-replicating or call it inert if you want, but then *almost everything* we call a replicator isn’t. A photocopy machine needs paper. A human needs food. Etc.

  18. Graham
    Posted September 26, 2013 at 1:12 pm | Permalink

    I thought Old Pope had agreed to retire from public life and let New Pope get on with it? That didn’t last long.

    • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
      Posted September 26, 2013 at 1:32 pm | Permalink

      Ratzinger is bound to the Vatican to retain immunity. The sect is concerned about the consequences of all the pedophilia and rape crimes that he is documented as aiding and abetting.

      So hopefully he feels like the prisoner he should be.

  19. Steven Obrebski
    Posted September 26, 2013 at 1:50 pm | Permalink

    I vaguely remember that what Ratzinger was elected Pope the NY Times noted that he was known as a brilliant philosopher (or maybe theologian?). This was followed by a quote in which he declared that Darwin’s theory of natural selection was too negative and that people needed a more uplifting, positive or hopeful view of nature (or something to that effect).

    At the time I threw the paper down in disgust deciding brilliance in come circles bordered on low brow idiocy.
    Perhaps someone can resurrect some of this somewhere. somehow.

    • Cliff Melick
      Posted September 26, 2013 at 4:39 pm | Permalink

      Ring any recently heard bells? Like in Virginia Hefferman and her stories contest between Darwin and the Bible?

  20. Richard Olson
    Posted September 26, 2013 at 2:07 pm | Permalink

    Metaphors are a figure of speech in which an expression refers to something that it does not literally denote in order to suggest a similarity between actual subject and familiar object. Used effectively, they create powerful and lasting images and ideas.

    In the final paragraph above by Brown, after acknowledging Dawkins’ skillful employment of Selfish Gene as ‘dazzling metaphor’, a sentence later describes how, if taken literally, the notion of selfish gene doesn’t really mean what it sounds like and would actually be some sort of ‘weak metaphysics’.

    Too obvious a red herring, A. Brown. You write how stellar a metaphor the phrase is, yet instantly expect me to forget that and instead associate it with an erroneous claim the book’s author does not even make? You will have to devise a more clever ruse than this.

    Brown concludes the paragraph by noting that he’s not saying Dawkins’ book contains “science fiction.” No, that isn’t what he means to say at all. What he is saying instead is that, sure, there is some science to be found in the text. But is the book’s appeal, its hold on the imagination, perhaps due less to the science and perhaps more to ‘dazzling metaphor’?

  21. Greg Peterson
    Posted September 26, 2013 at 3:02 pm | Permalink

    I just finished listening to “The Selfish Gene” as an audiobook read by Richard and his wife, with some new additions and edits. It is definitely a “pop” work–Richard intended it to be. But apart from that, the description is unrecognizeable as being of the same work. At every point, where Brown says, for example, that the central metaphor fails, Richard has anticipated the criticism and headed it off. How many times must he outline the limitations of his analogies, so useful in allowing laypersons like me understand, before naysayers will quit whining that x does not PRECISELY equal X?

    • Posted September 27, 2013 at 9:41 am | Permalink

      Linguistic essentialists sure are annoying. There’s no such thing as a “correct meaning” of a word, taken under the aspect of eternity – just various current and historical uses. And these can be introduced in several ways, including by stipulative definition, which is what TSG does, IIRC. There may be matters to complain or debate about (e.g., is gene-centrism the/a fruitful way to look at evolution), but the “oh, it is just a metaphor” has to be about the most inane objection to it all.

  22. Posted September 26, 2013 at 3:12 pm | Permalink

    “From the beginning, Christianity has understood itself as the religion of the logos, as the religion according to reason. It has always defined men, all men without distinction, as creatures and images of God, proclaiming for them the same dignity. In this connection, the Enlightenment is of Christian origin and it is no accident that it was born precisely and exclusively in the realm of the Christian faith. It was and is the merit of the Enlightenment to have again proposed these original values of Christianity and of having given back to reason its own voice.” — Ratzinger

    Dear Benny: Your fiction will forever be without science, sir.

    • Posted September 27, 2013 at 9:42 am | Permalink

      Notice all of this is compatible with Christianity being ridiculously false, too.

      Cf. Marx’s claim that capitalism is a necessary stage before communism.

  23. DrDroid
    Posted September 26, 2013 at 3:38 pm | Permalink

    The Selfish Gene was certainly one of those books that illuminates and explains so much about the world. I was browsing the bookstore back in the 70s looking for something interesting to read when I ran across TSG and decided to buy it even though biology and the life sciences were not part of my normal reading menu. The book gave me a whole new way to look at the world, one that will stay with me the rest of my life I’m sure. I recall that I even wrote Richard a letter saying how much I enjoyed the book, and explaining my (brilliant) idea that perhaps our junk DNA contains a record of our evolutionary history.

    With regard to the Pope calling TSG sci-fi, perhaps he should be careful (the old pot and kettle problem). Let’s see: talking snakes; people rising from the dead; walking on water; 3-in-1 ghosts;…. Sounds like plain old fiction to me.

  24. Lianne Byram
    Posted September 26, 2013 at 4:59 pm | Permalink

    “The Selfish Gene” made me see the world in a whole new way, and really turned me on to science. It answered questions that I’d been wondering about for a long time. I’m inclined to wonder if Mr. Brown even read the book.

  25. MAUCH
    Posted September 26, 2013 at 5:04 pm | Permalink

    What’s with Andrew Brown? His work has devolved into his signiture ad hominem attacks that are no more than fits of jealousy. It’s time that he prove that he is still capable of quality writing.

  26. bacopa
    Posted September 26, 2013 at 5:44 pm | Permalink

    Oh, this is just plain crap! It’s a metaphor. Dawkins has written about how it’s a metaphor, most eloquently in Unweaving the Rainbow, which was written at the peak of his abilities by my reckoning, at a time when his wife’s advice had the most influence over his prose.

    The beauty of TSG comes from the clear use of metaphor to talk about what people had been doing in population genetics for few decades in a way the average educated reader could understand.

  27. Paul Mack
    Posted September 26, 2013 at 5:46 pm | Permalink

    A friend gave me a copy of the Selfish Gene in 1991 when I was teaching high school biology. I now have a Ph.D in Evolutionary Biology – my friend, and Richard Dawkins, are the primary reasons why that happened. I constantly thank them both.

  28. Ken Pidcock
    Posted September 26, 2013 at 6:14 pm | Permalink

    I suspect that many biologists underestimate the extent to which The Selfish Gene has influenced their thinking, simply because it’s regarded as popular, as opposed to disciplinary, science. Just yesterday, I was teaching how, thankfully, vancomycin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus isolates are quite rare, remarking that, apparently, for S. aureus, vancomycin resistance, in the absence of vancomycin, is not an evolutionarily stable strategy. If I’m not mistaken, I got that phrase from the book.

  29. Anthony
    Posted September 26, 2013 at 6:42 pm | Permalink

    “Terrestriality might have arisen through a behavior in which a “fishapod” that had already evolved sturdy fins to “stand” in shallow water went looking for food (or another pond) by walking ashore, and, if that behavior was successful, could have promoted the evolution of further adaptations to live on land. That’s “fiction” only in the sense that we don’t know it for sure”

    I’m often confused when creationists are incredulous about how sea life came to inhabit the land … And scientists – like Jerry in this post – often lose a chance to mention that there’s a wonderful living example – the mudskipper. Invoking a “fishapod” rather than saying something like “It’s not hard to imagine sea life growing legs and colonizing the land; you don’t need to imagine anything, just look at the mudskipper.”

    (Obviously the mudskipper didn’t exist back when the “fishapod” first came ashore … it is a recent evolutionary re-invention just as eyes have been independently re-invented so many times.)

    Am I missing some reason why mudskippers are not used more often as a slam dunk of evolutionary explanations showing how colonization of land could have started?

    • Achrachno
      Posted September 26, 2013 at 9:03 pm | Permalink

      I always thought that fish-like and gill-breathing tadpoles turning into leg-hoping and air-breathing toads (in as little as 2-3 weeks!)make the creationist incredulity about the water to land transition look stupid.

      • Leo
        Posted September 27, 2013 at 6:08 am | Permalink

        That’s not how it would’ve worked, though.

        • Achrachno
          Posted September 27, 2013 at 6:52 am | Permalink

          Of course not — the “impossible” transition happens much faster, and in the life of a single individual, in the case of a toad. That’s part of what makes the creationist claim so stupid. I’m sure there are millions of differences of detail, tadpoles are not fish, but the developmental changes are parallel to the evolutionary ones in outline. Why is evolution from fish to amphibian so incredible when something similar happens millions of times every summer?

  30. Posted September 26, 2013 at 7:51 pm | Permalink

    Dawkins is not his own biggest fan, I am. How dare anyone say different if they don’t know me and other dawkins fans.

  31. Posted September 26, 2013 at 8:10 pm | Permalink

    I am not a theist or atheist. Francis point that Dawkins “Selfish gene” represents unoriginal pop science is true. The idea as just a simplified/ oversimplified model remains based on original work done by Haldane, Price & Hamilton in which they incorporated multi level selection within the one gene centric, mathematical tautology : rb>c. This inequality treats individual genes as if they were fully fledged Darwinian individuals competing against each other in the same adult body when nothing could be further from the truth. If you include the missing variable e for heritable genetic epistasis which combines individual genes (loci) into selectable groups allowing a minimum group size of 2 loci the rule becomes: (r^e)b>c. Now Haldane needs to lay down his life four 4 brothers related 0.5 IBD not just the two, making the rule minimally 100% in error. As the number of genes per selectable epistatic gene group increases relatedness IBD geometrically decreases to insignificance making the rule inoperable. The revised central dogma of biochemistry is a well tested falsifiable proposition which underwrites all of genetics. It clearly states that DNA is only selectable via the polypeptide it codes for, never directly. IOW genes are only selectable via their phenotypes in which more that just the one polypeptide is combined to form a protein emphasising the overriding importance of deleted epistasis within Hamilton’s model on which Dawkins “selfish geneism” remains 100% predicated.

    Incorrectly allowing IBD gene to gene relatedness to replace organism to organism relatedness provides the unacceptable contradiction that using IBD we are not at all related to chimps but non IBD, ie normal organism to organism gene relatedness, we are over 99% related. Dawkins & the gene centric Neo Darwinist establishment cannot have it both ways.

    regards,

    John Edser
    independent Researcher

    edser@ozemai.com.au

    • Dominic
      Posted September 27, 2013 at 3:43 am | Permalink

      Well what way do YOU want it?

    • gbjames
      Posted September 27, 2013 at 6:34 am | Permalink

      “I am not a theist or atheist”

      This sentence suggests to me that what follows is unlikely to be informative.

  32. Posted September 26, 2013 at 8:10 pm | Permalink

    I am not a theist or atheist. Francis point that Dawkins “Selfish gene” represents unoriginal pop science is true. The idea as just a simplified/ oversimplified model remains based on original work done by Haldane, Price & Hamilton in which they incorporated multi level selection within the one gene centric, mathematical tautology : rb>c. This inequality treats individual genes as if they were fully fledged Darwinian individuals competing against each other in the same adult body when nothing could be further from the truth. If you include the missing variable e for heritable genetic epistasis which combines individual genes (loci) into selectable groups allowing a minimum group size of 2 loci the rule becomes: (r^e)b>c. Now Haldane needs to lay down his life four 4 brothers related 0.5 IBD not just the two, making the rule minimally 100% in error. As the number of genes per selectable epistatic gene group increases relatedness IBD geometrically decreases to insignificance making the rule inoperable. The revised central dogma of biochemistry is a well tested falsifiable proposition which underwrites all of genetics. It clearly states that DNA is only selectable via the polypeptide it codes for, never directly. IOW genes are only selectable via their phenotypes in which more that just the one polypeptide is combined to form a protein emphasising the overriding importance of deleted epistasis within Hamilton’s model on which Dawkins “selfish geneism” remains 100% predicated.

    Incorrectly allowing IBD gene to gene relatedness to replace organism to organism relatedness provides the unacceptable contradiction that using IBD we are not at all related to chimps but non IBD, ie normal organism to organism gene relatedness, we are over 99% related. Dawkins & the gene centric Neo Darwinist establishment cannot have it both ways.

    regards,

    John Edser
    independent Researcher

    edser@ozemai.com.au

    • Filippo
      Posted September 27, 2013 at 4:04 am | Permalink

      “I am not a theist or atheist.”

      Would you care to say what if anything you are?

    • Leo
      Posted September 27, 2013 at 6:05 am | Permalink

      It was the former pope, not the current one, who called The Selfish Gene science fiction.

      But anyway. “…individual genes as if they were fully fledged Darwinian individuals competing against each other in the same adult body…”? As you say, “nothing could be further from the truth”, and that is exactly what Dawkins says in TSG.

  33. luisesant
    Posted September 27, 2013 at 12:10 am | Permalink

    Benedic is not a Pope, just an ex Pope – and I get the impresison that this whole fuzz is partly aimed at taking the provocative statements of the actual Pope (about the obsession of catolic church for our sexual lives and the need to come back to the original mandate of ‘caring for other people’) out of the limelight…
    As for Brown’s piece, I am amazed by the amount of people critizicing Dawkins out of dislike for him or his fame, but covering their ad homine attacks with “academic criticism” to look less disgraceful.

  34. Posted September 27, 2013 at 1:34 am | Permalink

    I read it in 1994 and experienced a major firmware upgrade.

    “Ahhh…so *that’s* the meaning of life…”

    TSG was intellectually foundational for not just me, but for several of my friends. And none of us are scientists.

    • infiniteimprobabilit
      Posted September 27, 2013 at 6:02 pm | Permalink

      “a major firmware upgrade.”

      Nice! 🙂

      I got the same thing, but from Blind Watchmaker.

  35. Andrew Brown
    Posted September 27, 2013 at 1:44 am | Permalink

    The reference to Lalla Ward reading to him was not in the context of teaching him to write better, but simply a way of relaxing – it came out in an interview he did a few years ago, but she had told friends about it before then.

    • Posted September 27, 2013 at 3:53 pm | Permalink

      I think Jerry gave you a little more to respond to than that, Mr. Brown!

      /@

    • Posted September 29, 2013 at 7:41 am | Permalink

      What, Mr. Brown–you are party to private conversations? This is odious and unacceptable hearsay.

  36. madscientist
    Posted September 27, 2013 at 2:26 am | Permalink

    So god’s penis on earth called science “science fiction” – he wasn’t half wrong, he was entirely wrong – what he was (and still is) is a half-wit like Andrew Brown.

  37. Dominic
    Posted September 27, 2013 at 3:32 am | Permalink

    This really is ONLY an excuse for Brown to once again lay into RD. Detractors accuse him of ‘smugness’, but I think that is partly because he – mostly – keeps calm in his demeanour.

    Well, there is a long queue of Dawkins haters unfortunately, both god & anti-god, & I think it stems from a fundamental insecurity in the attackers – they do not like the message of the Immortal Gene (as it was almost called).

    I expect he would say “listen to the message”, which is that the universe is neutral – indifferent to humans – but that natural selection working on the level of the gene has given humans the ability to go beyond their biological destiny in a way that no other life that we know of can.

  38. kelskye
    Posted September 28, 2013 at 2:27 am | Permalink

    There’s a couple of sentences in TSG that are a bit contentious – where the metaphor suspiciously morphs into statements that seem like the fallacy of composition (one that comes to mind is along the lines of “we must teach altruism because we are all born selfish”), but the book is quite clear about the metaphorical nature, and constantly urges the reader to take the language used as just that.

    The idea that the critics know better than the author as to what was intended is a form of automorphism. Even worse, it’s throwing away the principle of charity in the interpretation. Just what good does that serve?

  39. Posted September 28, 2013 at 7:21 am | Permalink

    Any 10 year old can understand what Dawkins meant by “the selfish gene,” assuming he wants to understand. The Midgleys of the world, on the other hand, would still have been “confused,” even if he’d made the title 500 words long. Their “confusion” is a transparent pose, but is at least a useful indicator of the level of intellectual integrity they bring to the debate.


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