An advocate for gene-centrism recently wrote that the concept is a reductive mechanism for the understanding of evolution.
The first part of that statement is correct; it is reductive, and is therefore lacking those qualities that are necessary for properly understanding a “big-picture” process such as evolution.
The second part of the statement is not correct. Gene-centrism did not develop as an explanation of evolution; it began as, and has remained a political movement within evolutionary biology, the goal of which is to destroy group selection as a credible evolutionary process.
I refer to it as a political movement because it presented not an evolutionary view, but a world view, as John Maynard Smith admitted in his review of The Selfish Gene.
And of course, the publication of The Selfish Gene was the opening salvo in the war against group selection that swept all before it with extraordinary success. But, in a beautifully ironic twist, a movement based on selfish genes could not stand up to scrutiny once the initial excitement died down, and so we have witnessed the evolution of the movement itself, from the fantasies of selfish genery to the supposedly more rational gene-centrism.
So is it more rational?
Barely. The movement is still having to contend with group selection after all these years, so they are attempting to cage group selection, to tether it within the limits of a gene-centric framework.
But let’s have a brief look at it’s history.
The Selfish Gene, published in 1976, was inspired by Adaptation and Natural Selection, written by GC Williams in 1966, and the nonsensical propositions found in The Selfish Gene can be found in Williams. For example, Richard Dawkins’ description of organisms as “survival machines” constructed by genes is a re-wording of Williams’ belief that “the succession of somatic machinery and selected niches are tools and tactics for the strategy of genes.”
But more importantly, it was Williams who put purpose back into evolution after Charles Darwin had removed all traces of such mysticism.
Here’s some more examples of Williams’ misunderstandings.
He stated that a function or adaptation is something which “is produced by design and not by happenstance.” Intelligent Design, perhaps?
He stated “Every adaptation is calculated to maximise the reproductive success of the individual, relative to other organisms.” Calculated by whom, we might ask?
He stated “Each part of the animal is organised for some function tributary to the ultimate goal of the survival of its own genes.” A goal requires purpose. Whose goal, and whose purpose we might ask?
And as if to declare publicly that gene-centrism is a cult based on ideology, he stated that non-kin altruism is a “biological error.” There can be no such thing in nature. This is ideology at its worst. He might as well have said “Non-kin altruism does not fit with my view so it must be a biological error, because my view cannot be wrong.” And Richard Dawkins gave the ideology traction by repeating this arrogant nonsense in The Selfish Gene with the rhetorical flair that Williams lacked.
Despite stating more than once that genes are not conscious and do not show purpose, everything else Dawkins wrote pushed the opposite line, the line of GC Williams; that genes have purpose. For example “For our purposes, the word allele is synonymous with rival.” The only way that a gene could have a rival, and hence a purpose, is if the gene is alive, which is clearly not the case. And as genes cannot have purpose as Dawkins already concedes, then they cannot have rivals. So what are “our purposes” exactly, I wonder? (Do not be fooled by those apologists who claim that such uses of language are legitimate “short-cuts” to the truth as they call them. These short-cuts are an abuse of language, designed to deceive.)
Has the mystical “purpose” of selfish genes been left behind as the idea evolved into gene-centrism? Not at all.
A student of Dawkins, Alan Grafen, now prominent in the field, in lecturing group selectionists on their lack of careful thought, rather condescendingly made this remarkable and helpful comment to get group selectionists back on track; “Two excellent ‘self-help’ guides are books by G C Williams (1996) and R Dawkins (1976).” Yes, we’ve seen how helpful they are. And we also see from this that gene-centrism will never abandon its roots.
And as late as 2010 Grafen co-authored a paper titled Capturing the Superorganism : A Formal Theory of Group Adaptation, which, you might assume from the title, is a welcome move towards a more holistic approach by gene-centrics to evolutionary theory. Unfortunately, it was nothing of the sort. As if to placate cult members who might be alarmed by the title, the paper began with a re-assuring quote from Dawkins :
I have characterized inclusive fitness as ‘that property of an
individual organism which will appear to be maximized
when what is really being maximized is gene survival’...
One might generalize this principle to other ‘vehicles’. A
group selectionist might define his own version of inclusive
fitness as ‘that property of a group which will appear to be
maximized when what is really being maximized is gene
survival’! Dawkins (1982, p. 187)
The implied message to the true believers, a message intended as a defence against a charge of heresy, was “Never fear, no matter how much evidence emerges for group selection, it’s still all about genes.”
Then came this revealing titbit in the very first sentence of the introduction :
“Darwinism is a theory of the process and purpose of adaptation.”
Purpose? So, as you can see, in 2010 Williamsian mysticism was alive and well in the minds of the faithful. All that has evolved is the name.
So why this regression? Why was the mystery injected back into evolution after Darwin went to so much trouble to eject it?
I see a couple of reasons, both tied to human psychology.
It’s something of a paradox that despite our bodies being comprised primarily of fluid, despite relationships being fluid, despite life itself being fluid, despite fluidity being the prime quality of existence itself, there are many among us who cannot come to grips with that reality. They crave solidity, a crutch, even if that crutch is no more than mere prejudice. So for the timid and insecure, the discovery of genes was a blessing. Here was something they could hang their hats on, something that provided substance in a world of anarchic chaos. The random nature of natural selection and evolution was no longer quite so unpredictable. Suddenly, with a little imagination and self-deception, they could see purpose. Purpose and mystery combined in one delightful package, what more could the timid and fearful ask for?
Just a little more, actually. They turned the package into a religion. They portrayed genes as powerful and immortal. Powerful, immortal AND invisible? Sounds like Someone we all know!
If you doubt the religious aspect to gene-centrism, consider the glowing references to William Paley (of “Natural Theology” fame) by both Williams and Dawkins. Why would they do that? Paley’s adapation-by-Designer argument for the existence of God, ruled supreme until The Origin of Species appeared. Its downfall was swift, its reputation reduced to tatters. But Williams and Dawkins resurrected the concept by simply changing the name of the designer, hence their regard for Paley. Instead of God as designer we were given genes as designer. Yes, you guessed it; designer genes. (Remember the “tools and tactics for the strategies of genes”? Just what a designer needs!) The philosopher David Stove in his discussion of this, wryly observed that just as the many gods of earlier times were replaced by God, so we might eventually see many genes replaced by Gene. Amazingly, this tongue-in-cheek prediction actually came to pass. (http://www.science20.com/darwin_20/selfish_gene_confusion_and_its_interdisciplinary_roots)
The other psychological aspect to this is equally disturbing.
Ever since humans first saw that mathematics could explain natural phenomena, numbers have been assumed to have magical qualities. So it’s no coincidence that because the two pioneers of gene-centrism, R A Fisher and W D Hamilton, were mathematicians before they were biologists, both developed aspects of gene-centrism based on mathematics, and consequently numbers have assumed the highest rank in the gene-centric view of evolution. (When Dawkins talks of maximising gene survival, all he’s talking about is numbers.)
The problem with this is that gene numbers are not evolution, just as a map is not a landscape, and the price of sugar is not sugar. The spread of genes in a population is just one outcome of natural selection. It is not an explanation of natural selection, just as ash is one outcome of fire but is not an explanation of fire. Here’s a definition, the significance of which will be immediately recognised; “Numerology is any study of the purported divine, mystical or other special relationship between a number and some coinciding observed (or perceived) events....The term numerologist is also used derogatorily for those perceived to place excess faith in numerical patterns and draw scientifically unsound inferences from them, even if those people do not practice traditional numerology.”
So, scratch a gene-centric and watch a numerologist bleed.
It’s important to note that gene-centrism was a fringe position with little credibility until Hamilton’s inclusive fitness equation was dusted off and thrown into the mix. It is still regarded with reverential awe by numerologists today, despite being an equation about almost nothing. (http://www.science20.com/gadfly/hamiltons_rule_or_hamiltons_folly)
But inclusive fitness did conjure up the appearance of another deity to add to the pantheon – the fabled but elusive altruism gene. Well, not so much deity as poltergeist, really. Just as some of the gods of ancient cultures were troublesome busy-bodies, so the altruism gene has driven gene-centrics to distraction as they try to fathom its mysterious machinations, its spiteful interference in their otherwise well-ordered universe.
So are genes important in natural selection and evolution?
Of course! Just as every other link in the chain is important. (Please excuse that most unfluid-like metaphor.)
The main problem with gene-centrism is that genes are not central to anything. All a gene does is synthesize a protein, which it does not do independently. A protein is not a trait, it merely contributes to a trait. And that protein can have different outcomes depending on other inputs. We can really put the alleged “centrality” of genes in perspective by considering the medical condition known as PKU which afflicts a small minority of humans who happen to have a genetic predisposition to it. They are only afflicted if they have a particular diet. So what causes the problem, genes or diet? We cannot say, but what we do know is that genes are not central to it.
Evolution can be seen as linear, we go from A to B to C after all, but it is a process derived from a network of influences. If one influence in the network changes, the outcome changes, so the only thing central to evolution is life itself. How often in discussions of evolution do we see life treated in depth? Never. Life is feared because they do not understand it.
In the interval between writing this and publishing it, the advocate for gene-centrism referred to in the opening paragraph has become a serial offender. (http://www.science20.com/alpha_meme/intelligent_design_science_curriculum-95465) He wrote;
Design, according to some, needs a designer. However, famous biologists and neo-Darwinists such as D. Dennett say that evolution “designs” by natural selection. If we accept that usage of the term, “design” does not by definition imply an intentional act.
Nowhere in the piece that followed was there a rejection of that proposition. It was Richard Dawkins all over again, denying intent while implying intent. If a suitable term can found, why use an unsuitable one? So I’ll do the hard work for them, I’ll find the suitable terms. Here’s the process, for those who might be understandably confused by his statement. Environments eliminate those organisms that become less fit as environments change. If that elimination is on a large enough scale across a population, evolution could occur. That’s it. Evolution is merely change over time. And in the process as I’ve explained it there is clearly no designer, so the use of the word is not an aid to clarification, it is the first step towards misunderstanding.
The misunderstandings continued later in his article with this; However, natural selection needs some background, some statistical ensemble on which selection can happen.
This is a great example of the influence of numerology on gene-centrism. I can make that assumption because the statement is false. It’s false because selection does not need the magic of numbers in order to occur, it needs variation. Variation, as we’ve seen in the case of PKU, comes from environments as much as genes. (Genes are numbers to a numerologist.) Gene centrism, like selfish gene theory before it, aims to give to genes a significance in evolution beyond that which exists in reality.