The selfish gene debate: The power of stories in science and society

| March 14, 2014
The Selfish Gene
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Late last year, science writer David Dobbs wrote a long-form piece for Aeon with the title “Die, Selfish Gene, Die.” Violence of the title aside, his point was not that we should go out and gather up all the copies of biologist Richard Dawkins’s seminal book and burn them. Instead, he argues that in light of the myriad biological phenomena that take pace outside the simple one-to-one gene-makes-trait paradigm, we might want to devise a new narrative. A new story that more easily accounts for the ability of grasshoppers to become locusts without altering their DNA, or for culture to act as a mechanism of cross-generational inheritance.

In his Dobbs’s words:

“[The Selfish Gene is] a gorgeous story… As both conceptual framework and metaphor, the selfish-gene has helped us see the gene as it revealed itself over the 20th century. But as a new age and new tools reveal a more complicated genome, the selfish-gene is blinding us.”

While fully acknowledging the good it has done, Dobbs and several of the scientists he consults argue that the selfish-gene concept as broadly understood may now have become oversimplified and ossified; an obstacle to a richer understanding of evolutionary science.

Ultimately Dobbs proposes some sort of “social genome” framework for further development.

This pissed a lot of people off. Not least among them famed science communicators including neuroscientist Steven Pinker, population geneticist Jerry Coyne, and Dawkins himself.

Pinker called Dobbs “another confused journalist who hates genetic evolution but doesn’t understand it” and asked “Why do sci journalists think it’s profound that genes are switched on/off? Do they think that all cells produce all proteins all the time?”

Before we unpack Pinker’s response, I ask that you indulge me in an anecdote.

Reading The Selfish Gene was an inflection point in my intellectual and professional life. At the time, I was fresh out of college with a degree in zoology and suffering a crisis of identity. Dawkins’s book crystalized for me that there is an avenue to participate in the thought-work and storytelling of science while inviting understanding and collaboration from more than a limited cadre of experts with vaguely Feudal titles. The best thinking of science need not be hidden behind the covers of expensive technical journals.

So it is that Steven Pinker’s response rather disgusts and confuses me. He’s a famed voice in popular science, he’s as renowned as a TED talker and author as he is as a traditional scientist, yet his response indicates that he still sees “sci journalists” as rather stupid people outside of his field, not allies. Dawkins, too, disappoints. In Dobbs’s account:

Dawkins, after graciously acknowledging that I ‘made scarcely a single point’ that he would not have been glad to make himself, rather less graciously accused me of writing about well-established facts, ideas, and dynamics as a way of ‘manufacturing controversy’.

Pinker and company miss the point entirely. What Dobbs understands so well — and we science writers might in fact understand better than some scientists-turned-writers apparently — is the power of metaphor and story and the important role it plays both within science proper and without.

Aeon recently revisited Dobbs’s story, gathering four experts and Dobbs himself, to take stock of the debate now that the dust has somewhat settled. I highly recommend you read the whole thing, as well as Dobbs’s revised article, and the many explosions it set off across the Web.

The panel Aeon assembled includes primatologist Robert Sapolsky, genetic counselor Laura Hercher, biologist Karen James, and philosopher of science John Dupré. Each offers a lengthy and thoughtful contribution. Though there’s hardly perfect agreement (the most productive discussions never have any), a few common threads emerge.

First, Dobbs’s isn’t guilty of horribly botching any facts, of sensationalism or of anything that would be considered a major crime in journalism. Second, everyone agrees that the selfish gene was a useful metaphor, so no one is trying to take anything away from Dawkins or his most famous idea. Third, most of the responses focus on the question or whether or not the gene is a necessary, immortal vessel of inheritance.

Regarding the importance the importance of the gene:

James, as biologist, makes a very one simple point: evolution requires heritability to work, and the only stable form of heritability we’ve yet uncovered is through the gene. Even the broader picture Dobbs paints, she argues, ultimately circles back to the gene as a fundamental necessity for evolutionary inheritance.

Dupré directly counters this by re-emphasizing the importance of other forms of heritability like the cultural transmission of ideas or the inheritance of wealth in human populations, all of which have measurable effects on reproductive success.

Saplosky writes that “Dobbs correctly de-emphasises genes as the Code of Code. But in doing so, he incorrectly turns the genome into that instead; he remains trapped in the gravitational pull of DNA, rather than recognising what regulates the gene regulators.” That something is the environment, and it “ultimately makes no sense to ask what a gene does, only what a gene does in a particular environment.”

These are fascinating points, since none of the panelists actually seem to be wrong in any significant way here, it’s all about varying perspective. This is where the fourth response, from Hercher, hits home.

She, as a genetic counselor, is in the unique position of needing to communicate both the power of genes and their non-deterministic nature to patients dealing with genetic screening results. Hers is perhaps the most humanizing voice in this debate. She sees the kerfuffle raised in the wake of the article, including the opposition of Pinker, Coyne, and Dawkins — and to a lesser extent, I suspect, by her peers on the Aeon panel — as distracting from the real concern raised by Dobbs’s piece. “There is a pressing need,” she writes, “to create a language in which to discuss the complex relationship between genes and traits, which is accessible to the non-scientist.”

This is where Dobbs’s response and my own synch up perfectly. Science, he rightly notes, is built on stories. The facts are merely the beats the story must hit, the parameters it must be told within, but always science is trying to find the best story (read: hypothesis, idea, theory) to make sense of the world as we understand it.

Whether or not it’s time to dethrone the selfish gene as the reigning metaphor seems to me slightly irrelevant. It’s more important that we be willing to have the conversation. What the more vitriolic response to Dobbs’s piece showed — especially the dismissive and condescending response from some of the people we hold up as leaders in science communication — is that the real ossification is not in the ideas of the selfish gene but in the people who defend it as holy ground.

I’ll leave you with Dobbs’s own final words on the matter:

“Science does not advance by insisting that certain of its stories are immortal. It moves by allowing stories to evolve. And sometimes by letting them die.”

UPDATE, 3/17/2014: Dobbs was gracious enough to pick up my post and blog about it. There was also a bit of Twitter chatter centered around my account (@Rickken) over the weekend that you may have missed. I encourage you to read Dobbs’s summary and keep an eye on Twitter, both @Rickken and @GeneticLiteracy, for further conversation.

Kenrick Vezina is Gene-ius Editor for the Genetic Literacy Project and a freelance science writer, educator, and amateur naturalist based in the Greater Boston Area.

The GLP featured this article to reflect the diversity of news, opinion and analysis. The viewpoint is the author’s own. The GLP’s goal is to stimulate constructive discourse on challenging science issues.

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