My recent article The Origins of Virtue sparked a discussion in which Josh Witten has assumed that Gerhard Adam and I are confused as to the subject of genic selection. The confusion lies entirely with Josh, but the matter deserves clarification for readers.
Gerhard and I (I hope I’m not putting words into Gerhard’s mouth that he would find unpalatable!) have no problem with the purely technical aspects of genic selection. The problem arises when conclusions are derived from these studies that are of a purely personal nature, mere opinions and prejudices with no scientific basis. As a self-styled champion of the scientific method, Josh should be supporting us in this endeavour, unfortunately the opposite is the case.
Genic selection becomes selfish gene theory when positions such as the following emerge; the implied assumptions that genes are living entities, that genes are independent, that genes have purpose, that they strive for evolutionary success, and the explicitly stated positions that genes self-replicate and that selection takes place primarily at the gene level. None of those are factual. Gene functions are controlled by the cell, and when genes malfunction the cell puts in place control mechanisms.
So selfish gene theory is not genic selection.
Josh is also confused as to the importance we place on clarifying the situation. He thinks we are overstating the influence of selfish gene theory, and that Richard Dawkins is irrelevant to current debates on evolutionary theory. Dawkins may well be irrelevant in certain circles, although the number of citations he gets seems to disprove that view. But he is far from irrelevant in other professions. Psychology, for example. Consider this, from The Times March 4, 2006
Yes, genes can be selfish
To mark the 30th anniversary of Richard Dawkins’s book, OUP is to issue a collection of essays about his work. Here, professor of psychology at Harvard University, wonders if Dawkins’s big idea has not gone far enough
Review by Prof. Steven Pinker
I AM A COGNITIVE SCIENTIST, someone who studies the nature of intelligence and the workings of the mind. Yet one of my most profound scientific influences has been Richard Dawkins, an evolutionary biologist... The significance of Dawkins’s ideas, for me and many others, runs to his characterisation of the very nature of life...
Then we have this, from the field of psychiatry, the Journal of Consciousness Studies no less;
How Selfish Genes Shape Moral Passions
Randolph M. Nesse
Professor of Psychiatry at the University of Michigan.
Selfish gene theory, as you can see, has inserted itself into the global consciousness, and it’s all based on deception.
Is it any wonder we are concerned?