July 24, 2009 | David F. Coppedge

Selfish Gene Mutates, Dies a Metaphorical Death

Richard Dawkins proposed in his book The Selfish Gene that a gene, being the target of natural selection and unit of replication, is the entity most likely to get passed on to posterity; as such, it is “selfish” in that the rest of the organism is really only incidental to its immortality.  Dawkins expanded this into the “extended phenotype” – the idea that the gene extends its influence over the rest of the organism to ensure its own survival.  Fern Elsdon-Baker, writing an opinion piece called “The Dawkins dogma” in New Scientist, called this the most successful scientific metaphor in the last 30 years – but now argues it is obsolete.

For reasons to do with how science is communicated, a human love of simple narratives, and Dawkins’s energetic advocacy of these metaphors, the public has been left with a view of evolution and Darwinism which does not truly reflect thinking among evolutionary biologists.  This view also perpetuates the existence of “opposing camps” when there is no need.  Worse, it skews popular notions of Darwinism.  This is why these metaphors are so important: metaphors stretch to the heart of “what science is for” and to the kind of answers it can provide.

In particular, Elsdon-Baker thinks Dawkins’ view of heredity has been challenged by the increasingly apparent role of epigenetics and lateral gene transfer.  “LGT may not completely bring down the neatly branching tree of life as Darwin envisaged it, but at the very least it raises questions about what is happening at the roots” (see 07/23/2009).  While not overthrowing Dawkins’ selfish gene metaphor, it makes it only “a small part of a much bigger picture.”

Scientific metaphor should be about the best interpretation of evidence and about opening up new research vistas.  The selfish gene metaphor claims that only genes or replicators are inherited and are essentially immortal, and it offers an interpretation of evolutionary biology in that light.
    We are testing that empirical claim and finding that things are a lot more complicated and subtle.  This must mean that as an organising interpretation of evolutionary biology, the metaphor of the selfish gene and, by extension, that of the extended phenotype, are insufficient.  They are now problematic because what they claim or offer is no longer as good as the alternative analyses.

Elsdon-Baker went on to criticize Dawkins as an advocate of a narrow-focus view of evolution. 

It paints an inflexible picture not only of the evolutionary sciences, but also of how science works.  This in turn closes off dialogue in both public and academic spheres.  It can, at worst, constrain future research.  Nowhere is this more evident than in theories about environmentally driven acquired characters, which have long had a reputation as Darwinian “heresy”.

What’s the solution?  Evolutionary science needs to be communicated without the “rhetoric and sweeping advocacy” inherent in the metaphors Dawkins employed.  There needs to be a more “more nuanced exploration of the complexity involved.”

H. L. Mencken said, “Complex problems have simple, easy to understand, wrong answers” (see Thumb’s Second Postulate).  If you haven’t felt the propaganda impact of metaphor, you haven’t met a force like it.  Metaphors bewitch you (07/04/2003).  We must scrutinize them, not be mesmerized by them.
    So the Darwinians themselves have found another useful lie that has outlived its usefulness.  Add this to the useful lies about the alleged chimp-human 1% difference (06/29/2007), the fossils in the Martian meteorite (08/06/2006), the Miller-Urey lightning in the soup (05/02/2003), Piltdown Man, Nebraska Man, Archaeoraptor, Ida, and all the rest of the Evolutionary Hall of Shame.  Another simplistic, easy-to-understand wrong answer in the Darwinian arsenal of metaphors has been exposed.  Keep up the good work.

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