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"selfish genes" vs. "selfish DNA"

Ben Jones jonesbb at BELOIT.EDU
Tue Feb 23 00:37:25 EST 1993

Xuhua Xia writes:
>> Perhaps it is no a good idea to use the word "vicious". I think that Gould
>> is mercyless, but not vicious.

Arlin S. responded:
>Vicious was the wrong word, I'll admit.  However, "mercyless" obscures
>the point that Gould wasn't actually fair.  One of the naughty things that
>he did was to argue that Dawkins gave primacy to the gene-centered view in
>_The Selfish Gene_, which wasn't true.

I shall not argue that Gould was completely fair throughout his critique,
but concerning the gene-centered view of evolution, here is another quote
from the New Edition of The Selfish Gene, p 10:

"If selection goes on between groups within a species, and between species,
why should it not also go on between larger groupings?  Species are grouped
into together into genera, genera into orders, and orders into classes. 
Lions and antelopes are both members of the class Mammalia, as are we. 
Should we not then expect lions to refrain from killing antelopes, 'for the
good of the mammals'?  Surely they should hunt birds or reptiles instead,
in order to prevent the extinction of the class.  But then, what of the
need to perpetuate the whole phylum of vertebrates? ....

(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."

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 fundamental level, he claims
it must be the gene.  His main criterion is "indivisible particulateness"
of heredity, and he claims the gene approaches this ideal.  I think he
didn't go far enough.  He never considered the exon or the codon.  By his
criterion, in fact, the *base pair* is really the fundamental unit, and all
other levels are mere group selection.  ;-)

Arlin S. continued:
>Furthermore, Gould repeatedly hinted that
>there is some inner circle of evolutionary savants (either Gould is a 
>member of this group, or he is otherwise privy to their thoughts) that had
>already thought of everything that Dawkins said, but had decided
>that the idea of selfish genes wasn't worthy of seeing the light of day in 
>print.  Then Dawkins came along and printed their cast-off ideas.  This
>was mean-spirited, unfair, and probably very inaccurate. Although it is 
>possible--even likely-- that a genetical reductionist view of the units of
>selection had been vaguely considered prior to Dawkins, Gould should give 
>credit where it is due: Dawkins drew out the implications of this line of 
>thinking, provided excellent thought-provoking examples and discussion,
>and presented all of this for the thinking world to evaluate in print.  
>If Gould or someone else would like to point out a prior source for Dawkins, 
>they are welcome to do so.  Gould did not do this in his review.

As Dawkins acknowledges in "The Selfish Gene", he was heavily influenced by
George Williams' 1966 book "Adaptation and Natural Selection".  That is a
well-written reaction (in my opinion an over-reaction) to the fuzzy
thinking expressed by V.C. Wynne-Edwards in *his* 1962 book "Animal
Dispersion in Relation to Social Behavior".  Wynne-Edwards used lots of
"for the good of the species" arguments in his book, which is what inspired
Dawkins' passage obove.  Williams' ideas were not cast-offs.  His book is
still a very good exposition of the orthodox gene-centered point of view
circa 1966, still useful even to evolutionary biologists.  Many people
disagreed with some of his points, probably including Gould, but it
generated debate rather than the kind of controversy that Dawkins' book
did.  Many people did and still do hold his views.  However, the language
of "The Selfish Gene" goes against a long tradition of trying to avoid
ascribing motivations to the genes or organisms being selected.  His genes
have motives and strategies.

(That's it!  What's REALLY going on is that the selfish genes put Dawkins
up to it.  They're trying to take over!  There's a Selfish Gene Liberation
Front that is conspiring to brainwash us and eventually seize power.  There
will be selfish genes masquerading as senators, presidents, and even the
people who really have power:  secretaries.  They've got us by the gonads.)

Ben Jones                  BioQUEST / Department of Biology
jonesbb at beloit.edu         Beloit College, Beloit, Wisconsin

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