From Philip Ball at Chemistry World:
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.’ Battles have been fought over whether this is a good use of metaphor (and as with the ‘selfish gene’ itself, metaphor was all it was ever meant to be). But the fundamental premise on which it is built – DNA as replicator – seemed always to be sound.
Not from what we know today.
However, once you accept that genes are not autonomous replicating units – which is the only meaningful notion of a replicator I can imagine – you lose any plausible sense of selfishness, even metaphorically. I rather fear that The selfish gene, while doing a marvelous job of explaining the basis of the modern synthesis of genetics and Darwinism, has left many readers with the impression that this synthesis posits a pool of genes battling it out: the one for hydrogenase, say, landing furious punches on the one for keratin. In The extended phenotype and other books, Dawkins expanded on that view; but I’m not sure the fact that it’s actually alleles, not genes, that ‘compete’ is noticed.
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. I was reminded of that when in his new book Enlightenment now Steven Pinker – a champion of selfish genes – tells us ‘we are born into a pitiless universe… that is ruthlessly competitive’. As with all literature, we are then entitled to ask the author: so, why this story?More.
The problem isn’t getting thoughtful people to think about these questions. The problem is helping hordes of science teachers and popular writers, who are as sure of the selfish gene as a four-year-old is of the Easter Bunny, to learn and tell a different story, one more closely related to reality.
Best wishes to Philip Ball. So much of Dawkins’s ultra-Darwinism is really just culture now, which – ironically – makes it hard to dislodge.
That said, 1976 was a long time ago. People who haven’t dusted off their thinking since then, really should.
See also: Wannabe a biologist? Better study math and computing, not Selfish Gene defense 400 (2016)
Dawkins’s Selfish Gene turns 40 – on life support