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What's wrong with The Selfish Gene?

The Selfish Gene by Richard Dawkins is a highly persuasive presentation of the neo-darwinist gene-centred view of evolution. I have analysed it in detail in an article published in 2011:

Noble D, (2011) Neo-Darwinism, the Modern Synthesis and selfish genes: are they of use in physiology? Journal of Physiology, 589, 1007-1015.

Available here: http://musicoflife.website/pdfs/Selfish%20Genes.pdf

As with all of Dawkins’ books, the writing is impressive. The Selfish Gene is colourful, convincing and unforgettable – until one tries to analyse it by the standard philosophical and scientific criteria. Then it unravels.

First, it unravels because there has been confusion over whether the title was or was not meant to be metaphorical. It is clear that when it was first written in 1976, and even as late as 1981, Dawkins’ position was “that was no metaphor. I believe it is the literal truth”.

Dawkins R (1981). In defence of selfish genes. Philosophy 56, 556–573 http://www.jstor.org/discover/10.2307/3750888?uid=3738032&uid=2&uid=4&sid=21102396324337

I strongly believe that was indeed the case. It is hard to read The Selfish Gene without supposing that its author was intent on conveying hard and incontestable scientific truth. The book exudes that kind of confidence in its message. So, why couldn’t it be ‘the literal truth’? The reason is provided by Dawkins himself in his 1981 article. He tries to explain why it is literal truth by explaining that it is a metaphor! The sentence I quoted above continues “provided certain key words are defined in the particular ways favoured by biologists”. A metaphor is precisely ‘certain key words defined in particular ways’. The whole point of a metaphor is that the meaning of the word is changed from its normal literal meaning.

This confusion is symptomatic of a deeper confusion. As pure metaphor, the idea suffers from the difficulty that no experiment could ever distinguish between the selfish gene view and opposing metaphors, such as co-operative or prisoner genes. In my 2011 article I attempt to find a way out of this problem by asking whether there are ways of unpacking the metaphor to give the idea some empirical leverage, so that it could at least become testable. One way of doing that is to conflate the terms “selfish” and “successful”. A selfish bit of DNA is then the one that succeeds in increasing its frequency in the gene pool. But what this does is to make the hypothesis empty, circular. The only prediction of the hypothesis, i. e. success in increasing frequency in the gene pool, is also the definition of the hypothesis’ central entity. As I say in my 2011 article “It is a strange hypothesis that uses its own definition of its postulated entity as its only prediction.” Joan Roughgarden has also spotted that conflating “selfish” and “successful” makes the hypothesis empty: “But that vacates the meaning of selfish. "Selfish gene" and "successful gene" are not the same thing.”

Roughgarden, JE (2009) The Genial Gene. Deconstructing Darwinian Selfishness. Berkeley, University of California Press

We have to live therefore with the uncomfortable fact that it “is clearly metaphorical metaphysics, and rather poor metaphysics at that since, as we have seen, it is essentially empty as a scientific hypothesis, at least in physiological science” (Noble 2011).



  The MUSIC of Life: Biology Beyond the Genome                                                                                                                                 ©Denis Noble