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Re: The Ancestor's Tale


Richard Dawkins is an ethologist at Oxford. In 1976 he published a book called the Selfish Gene, followed by The Extended Phenotype (1982) and the Blind Watchmaker (1986). These books promoted a view of evolutionary biology that focused very much on natural selection acting at the gene level, and were enormously popular.

I didn't say I didn't like him (don't know the guy), but I felt his work focused too much on population level phenomena, and ignored larger scale evolutionary processes. More to the point, I felt he was sometimes disingenuous in the claims he made for the explanatory power of his 'selfish gene' view of selection. Don't get me wrong, like most evolutionary biologists I think that most evolutionary phenomena do occur at the 'popultion genetics' level, and that natural selection is the primary agent for most evolutionary chnage. But I also believe that evolution occurs at some other levels - processes that are often called 'macroevolutionary', and that natural selection is not the only agent of change. I think Dawkins allowed people to believe that the 'selfish gene' could explain abosultely everything of interest in evolutionary biology, and that he was aware of doing this.

At the time (1980s) evolutionary biology was healthily debated on both sides of the Atlantic. The 'selfish gene', punctuated equilibirum, and a host of other conflicting (and not so conflicting) ideas of how to view Darwin's great idea spilled over into some very readable popular books - read anything by Dawkins or Steve J Gould from the time. To make a huge generalisation, the debate occasionally polarised into the pointy-headed evolutionary ecologists (Dawkins) who argued that natural selection could explain everything and that all evolutionary processes could be explained by looking at microevolution in a Drosophila lab, and the 'everything's interconnected' East Coast Marxist palaeontologists who would give status to fuzzy macroevolutionary phenomena.

Niles Edridge's 'Reinventing Darwin' (1995) gives one side of the story of those exciting times. My personal experience was that the 'selfish gene' view completely dominated the biology departments at UK universities in the early 1990 (I did an honours degree in evolutionary ecology) to the extent that it was stifling (a bit like cladistics in vertebrate palaeontology?).

That's a quick summary. You could do a thesis on the social and scientific impact of "The Selfish Gene"....

The reason for my little barb is that some of what Dawkins seems to be talking about in the new book reminds me of the themes that Gould used to go on about (see, for example, Wonderful Life). I'm sure Steve is chuckling to himself somewhere out there......


pheret wrote:

dorky me.  who is richard dawkins and why do we not like him?  feel free
to email me privately so as not to get into a big to-do on the list!

pheret (the ignorant)

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