Monday, September 30, 2013

The Problems With The Selfish Gene

Lots of people fail to understand that the "selfish gene" is a metaphor. They criticize Richard Dawkins for promoting the idea that genes can actually take on the characteristics of selfishness.

Andrew Brown and Mary Midgley are prominent examples of people with this kind of misunderstanding and Jerry Coyne has set them straight in Poor Richard’s Almanac: Andrew Brown and the Pope go after The Selfish Gene and “Selection pressures” are metaphors. So are the “laws of physics.”

However, there are two other problem with the metaphor. The first is rather trivial, it refers to the fact that it's actually alleles, or variants, of a gene that are "selfish." Dawkins knows this. He explains it in his book but I don't think he puts enough emphasis on the concept and in most parts of the book he uses "gene" when he should be saying "allele." I grant that The Selfish Allele is not a catchy title.

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