In “The descent of Edward Wilson” (Prospect, May 24, 2012), Richard Dawkins strikes back at Wilson’s The Social Conquest of Earth, payback, presumably, for Wilson retracting his own kin selection theory.
What Dawkins offers, in the age of epigenetics, is a long rant for genetic fundamentalism:
The essential point to grasp is that the gene doesn’t belong in the hierarchy I listed. It is on its own as a “replicator,” with its own unique status as a unit of Darwinian selection. Genes, but no other units in life’s hierarchy, make exact copies of themselves in a pool of such copies. It therefore makes a long-term difference which genes are good at surviving and which ones bad. You cannot say the same of individual organisms (they die after passing on their genes and never make copies of themselves). Nor does it apply to groups or species or ecosystems. None make copies of themselves. None are replicators. Genes have that unique status.
Evolution, then, results from the differential survival of genes in gene pools. “Good” genes become numerous at the expense of “bad.” But what is a gene “good” at? Here’s where the organism enters the stage. Genes flourish or fail in gene pools, but they don’t float freely in the pool like molecules of water. They are locked up in the bodies of individual organisms. The pool is stirred by the process of sexual reproduction, which changes a gene’s partners in every generation. A gene’s success depends on the survival and reproduction of the bodies in which it sits, and which it influences via “phenotypic” effects. This is why I have called the organism a “survival machine” or “vehicle” for the genes that ride inside it. Genes that happen to cause slight improvements in squirrel eyes or tails or behaviour patterns are passed on because individual squirrels bearing those improving genes survive at the expense of individuals lacking them. To say that genes improve the survival of groups of squirrels is a mighty stretch.
The remarkable thing is that readers are actually beginning to question the dogma. One says, in Wilson’s defense and contrary to Dawkins’ claim that his controversial retraction paper was not peer-reviewed,
Dawkins is no mathematician and doesn’t understand this but this seminal paper went through a completely rigorous peer review process (befitting the world’s top scientific journal) and although many biologists didn’t like the results no-one has ever refuted them.
See also: Is Richard Dawkins truly an “embarrassment” to new atheism? Or an accurate representation?