Viewpoint: Rethinking scientist Richard Dawkins’ classic book ‘The Selfish Gene’

richard dawkins

Richard Dawkins’ 1976 book The Selfish Gene, which topped a poll last year for the most inspiring science books of all time, has set the agenda for how we think about genes and DNA. ‘We are,’ he famously said, ‘all survival machines for the same kind of replicator – molecules called DNA.’

I will go out on a limb and say that I don’t believe anyone has ever observed a gene, as a discrete and autonomous unit, make an exact copy of itself, whether or not it is in a pool of such copies. It is not clear that a gene can be considered, from a chemical point of view, a replicator.

Dawkins’ language, both here and elsewhere, conveys the sense of genes as individual units swimming in a broth of other units and competing with one another. The notion that genes are ‘selfish’ relies on that image. But what gets made through DNA replication (copied, with errors, in the case of clonal reproduction) is an entire genome. Nothing useful is otherwise accomplished in biological terms.

It’s very hard to find everyday language and imagery apt for the complex process of evolutionary genetics. The result is that our linguistic choices here are not neutral; that Dawkins has admitted he could just as well have called his book The cooperative gene tells you that. It’s doesn’t mean this classic work is wrong, but it reveals a particular choice about how to tell the story.

Read full, original post: Why Richard Dawkins’ The selfish gene is only part of the story

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