selfish genes: give Dawkins due credit

arlin at ac.dal.ca arlin at ac.dal.ca
Tue Feb 23 22:50:42 EST 1993


Based on my present understanding, I feel that Dawkins is being short-shrifted,
but (in fairness to Dawkins and myself) I am not the ideal defender, since I am
really not that familiar with the totality of his work.  Please, therefore,
correct me if I'm wrong, using logic or evidence from TSG, as Ben Jones has
done.  Jones quotes the new edition of _The Selfish Gene_ (TSG):

>(p.11:)  ...I shall argue that the fundamental unit of selection, and
>therefore of self-interest, is not the species, nor the group, nor
>even, strictly, the individual.  It is the gene, the unit of
>heredity."

and concludes. . .

>Sounds pretty gene-centered to me.
>
>It seems it never occurred to Dawkins that *NONE* of the "levels of
>selection" need be the "fundamental" one.  In reality they all go on
>at once, independently of each other.  If the conditions at a
>particular level of grouping permit, then there is selection. If not,
>then there isn't. But since Dawkins feels that there must be a

But the quotation out of context may be misleading.  It seems to me
from the book as a whole that, contrary to Jones's claims, a) Dawkins
had spent considerable time considering the question of whether or not
there was really a single "fundamental level"; and b) he didn't
*conclude* that the gene was *the* fundamental level.  In the passage
quoted, Dawkins says "I shall argue" thus and so, much as a defense
lawyer would preface the case that he makes to a jury: he doesn't
assert that his argument is God's own truth; he simply describes the
outline of the argument, and asserts that he will argue it as best he
can.  Dawkins argued in favor of the benefits of looking at things
from a gene-centered view. In fact, as Jones's example suggests, he
wrote an entire book about it.  It was not an error of omission or
sign of systematic bias that Dawkins didn't devote half of his book to
arguing the individual-centered view: at the time Dawkins's book was
published, several such books had already been written (e.g., _The
origin of species_).

Dawkins gives examples of cases in which he thinks that the
gene-centered view makes a prior evolutionary problem less paradoxical
(e.g., sex, and also what we now call "selfish DNA" on pp. 46-47 of
1976 edition of TSG) and, in rare cases, he goes as far as to suggest
that the units of selection are "best regarded . . . as some small
unit of genetic material which it is convenient to label a 'gene'" (p.
42). However, Dawkins never drew a recognizable conclusion to the
effect that the gene-centered view is *right* and that other views are
*wrong*. Although he often suggested that his way of looking at things
was easier or more fundamental, he didn't say that he was presenting a
theory that could explain certain observations that alternative
theories were unable to explain.  Instead, he presented a point of
view, an interpretive framework, a "state of mind," if you will (not a
rival theory).  If someone can find evidence that I am wrong about
this, please draw it out (like I say, I am not that knowledgeable
about Dawkins's work).  In the end, what Dawkins does argue
*explicitly* is that it is *possible* to translate things into the
terms of the gene-centered view, that the insights gained from this
are rewarding, and that certain problems are more easily confronted.
He wasn't exactly advocating revolution, which is the way
evolutionary biologists usually talk when they come up with a Big New
Idea (cf. Gould).

I am in favor of the proper attribution of credit, but I disagree
strongly with those who have cited Haldane and Hamilton and argued
that Dawkins did not propose anything new.  Dawkins's unique claim was
that it is possible to formulate an internally consistent view of
genetic evolution based entirely on the gene's perspective (even if
you don't fully accept its truth, this was indeed his claim) .  He did
not claim to have discovered any new mechanisms or processes of
evolution, though he quite clearly stimulated investigation into such
things as selfish DNA (when I asked Doolittle recently about the
possible influence of Dawkins on "selfish DNA," he responded
immediately, "page 47," referring to that page in the 1976 edition of
TSG-- see for yourself).

Dawkins himself has nothing but effusive praise for Hamilton's
"inclusive fitness" papers, which he says are among the most important
in the field of evolutionary ethology. However, I don't think it is
correct to suggest, as Don Forsdyke has, that Hamilton was "an early
proponent" of the "selfish gene idea," implying that he invented and
promoted the idea prior to Dawkins.  Hamilton's papers do not reveal
to me the unified gene-centered view present in Dawkins's work.  [BTW,
I don't know about G. Williams-- perhaps he proposed the gene-centered
view first, as Ben Jones has suggested.]  For Hamilton, altruistic
behavior (whose evolution can be explained in terms of inclusive
fitness) was an exception to the general rule that adaptive traits
evolve by selection for increased fitness of the individual as such.
That is, adaptive evolution (metaphorically speaking) works to benefit
individuals and (sometimes) kin groups, as opposed to other entities.
I did not see any implication in Hamilton's work that adaptive
evolution sometimes works through selection on genic fitness-- much
less that adaptive evolution might *always* work this way, which is
Dawkins's argument.

In short, Dawkins does not deserve credit for proposing new mechanisms
or processes of evolution-- this is simply not what he was about.  If
you argue that Dawkins is just popularizing Hamilton's inclusive
fitness, then I would suggest that you might be a) somewhat unfamiliar
with Hamilton, or b) so skilled at employing the gene-centered view
that you can immediately translate inclusive fitness into genespeak,
so that it is hard to understand the initial novelty of it.  What
Dawkins did, and what he deserves credit for, is to translate the
mechanisms and processes proposed in the individual-centered
perspective by Haldane, Hamilton, Maynard Smith and others into one
internally consistent gene-centered perspective.  As I said before, I
think we should give Dawkins credit for this perspective (unless, as
someone has suggested, G. Williams thought of it first).

Arlin Stoltzfus



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