Saturday, December 7, 2013

The “selfish gene” lives on…

– despite the express desire of David Dobbs and a few biologists he interviewed to “lay it to rest.” Dobbs (of “orchid kids” fame) describes their scheming in another great article on epigenetics in Aeon, “Die, Selfish Gene, Die.” In it, he explains why some biologists have offered a revisionist view, seeking to dethrone the “selfish” gene as the lead actor in the evolutionary show. Instead, they have tried to represent it as a member of a larger cast – featuring prominently epigenetic mechanisms. Richard Dawkins and other evolutionary hardliners, however, have refused to budge. Perhaps Dawkins’s fundamentalist stance on this shouldn’t be surprising since his reputation and personal fortune are so heavily invested in the “selfish gene” meme he let out of the bottle. What does seem a bit surprising, though, is the fervor with which in the comments below the article supporters of Dawkins and his fellow travelers accuse Dobbs, readers who like his article, and – be extension, the dissident scientists he quotes – of misunderstanding the gene-centric theory. They argue that the theory merely states that the gene is the elementary unit which gets selected and transmitted in evolution, nothing more than that. So should we conclude that the revisionist biologists who have converted to the epigenetics paradigm are similarly dumb?

I am not sure about that, but I do suspect believers still lining up behind Dawkins are overly smart. Their unrelenting focus on the gene as the main unit of evolutionary analysis seems to reflect the mental spotlight, even tunnel vision, typical of individuals with a nerdy analytic mindset – who often seem incapable of grasping larger contexts, patterns, and constellations of forces. This tendency, as I have pointed out elsewhere, may itself be just the tip of the “weird” iceberg – a peculiar neurophysiological and mental adaptation to the pressure cooker of the modern sociotechnological milieu, advanced education, and heavy-lifting varieties of “knowledge work.”

In this sense, Dawkins – whose express ideas may smack of “social Darwinism” – looks like a paradoxical soul mate to Arendt (see below). He tries to solve evolution the way she tries to solve the holocaust – by applying a reductionist formula. Which reminds me of the ambition of a physicist to “solve the city” by distilling its apparent amorphousness into mathematical equations. He was profiled a few years back by discredited science writer Jonah Lehrer – who noted that for this kind of people “the world is always most compelling at its most abstract.” This astute observation seems quite applicable to Arendt and Dawkins, too – though she has no use for advanced math, and he only has it in the back of his mind as it has provided a neat rationalization for the theory he espouses.