It’s in our DNA

Genes are amazing things. They are storehouses of information. They are also able to copy themselves (with some help), and they are the reason I am here typing. In the 1970s, evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins had an insight that propelled him to write a book called The Selfish Gene. It was a brilliant, carefully thought-out theoretical and philosophical breakthrough in biology. It was also badly misunderstood. In the years and decades that followed publication, people who had not actually read the whole book complained that genes are not really selfish, since they have no minds to entertain such notions, and anyway, the term selfish is a negative one, and it makes evolution seem like an evil doctrine (which creationists already agreed it was).

The book makes it quite clear that our concept of selfishness has nothing to do with the point. What Dawkins is saying is that genes are the key components of the evolutionary process that involves selection of the most fit varieties of life. And since genes are the ultimate controllers and determinants of all the characteristics of all living organisms, what we end up with are genes that create the best possible cellular structures and features to allow those genes to keep on existing.

In other words, the selfish gene concept was actually a distilled and targeted demonstration of the root mechanism of evolution – natural selection. This is possible because genes do two things extremely well, and these happen to be the two most important things in biology: they replicate themselves with a very high degree of accuracy, and they code for all of the phenotypic characteristics of the cell that are the target of natural selection.

Think of a school board that is trying to decide between two textbooks. They do an experiment in which one class of students uses one text, and another class uses the other text. The students who used the first book do better on an exam than did those who used the second. So the School Board decides to order more of book 1. The books are the genes, the students’ knowledge are the phenotypes, the exam is the environment, and the school board is natural selection. Textbook 1 (which the school board didn’t even read) survives and becomes the only book in use. Nothing selects the genes themselves, but when the information in the genes is translated into the phenotype of the cell, the selection of the better phenotype leads to the selection of the better gene.

Dawkins’ view is that while the bird with the better eyesight might be better adapted and outcompete its rivals, what is successful is really the gene in that bird that coded for the better protein that produced the better eyesight. The phenotype (including later, the extended phenotype) is only a means to the gene’s ability to survive and continue to prosper.

It really is a very nice, consistent, logical and convincing idea. It’s also probably wrong.

At least that is the conclusion I have recently come to. I have always been pretty much a gene-centric kind of guy. As I said in my last post, I took the side of the replicator-first faction in origin-of-life discussions. I worked with genes and DNA, and I loved the way all of biology seemed to make good scientific sense if one simply ignored all the rest of life and just focused on genes. But alas, I can no longer support that view.

Part of the reason I am undergoing a conversion to a non-gene-centric view is the kind of new data and concepts about the extended evolutionary synthesis that I have discussed here before. Another part is that the idea of the gene as the absolute master of all of biology is just too simple, and biology is never, ever simple. The resurgence of the Lamarckian heresy; the importance of epigenetic effects, which can even be inherited (more heresy); and all of the results on niche construction, genomic engineering, and, of course, gene expression, have exerted their influence on my thinking.

I am not comfortable with all of this non-genic stuff. It makes everything more complicated and a lot harder. But if it is actually true that there is more to life than genes, I suppose there is no avoiding this. I have more to say about the whole subject, and I will in a later post. Meanwhile, it might be time to retire that well-known phrase “He has to do it that way. It’s in his DNA”. The big question now is, what do we replace it with?

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15 Responses to It’s in our DNA

  1. SheilaDeeth says:

    So… will your later post answer the big question? Either way, I’m really looking forward to reading it.

  2. Jon Garvey says:


    Possibly we might find it necessary to go back to the global, unified answers we used to use, such as “He had to do it – it’s in his nature” (assuming it’s inborn) or “He chose to do it – it’s in his character” (assuming acquired characteristics). In both cases the keyword is “he” – as an indivisible whole, rather than a set of components.

    On either version, the “genetic component” might be equivalent to “he had that book in his library, and consulted it.” And that raises the (not completely answerable) question: “Is my mind formed by my library, or is my library formed by my mind.”

    Now try clapping with one hand …

  3. I think one answer to that question, the same answer that James Shapiro would give about genomes and their cells, is both. Its an interaction between the two. The library was formed by the mind, which then informed the mind, which then reformed the library, and so on. Actually this appears to be the way that gene regulatory networks work also, and maybe a lot of other things. I will leave it to you, Jon, to see how this might apply to our souls, and the Holy Spirit, but I have a sense that it might.

    • Jon Garvey says:

      It’s one to think through – but there seems to be some reason to suppose that interactivity of that kind might be a pattern in such other areas. I’ll think about it when I’m rehearsing saxophone this evening!

  4. Wait, I thought you played guitar. Are you learning, or have I missed that you play sax?. (I am learning tenor. For the second time, and very slowly).

    • camelhump says:

      Sy – really good to hear you’re learning sax. We must have a jam sometime.

      I started on guitar back in ’68. My Dad was a sax player (mainly tenor) and I acquired his instruments (alto, tenor) when he got too old. I’ve played seriously for about 10 years, and since moving here played sop in a sax choir (for which I arrange, too), tenor and lead guitar in my previous band and mainly guitar in the new one. And acoustic guitar in church.

      More here if you’re interested (some music’s on there too)

  5. Jon Garvey says:

    Sy – I posted a comment about sax which has disappeared – maybe it’s in moderation? Meanwhile a more serious one.

    Currently neutral theory seems to be utterly flavour of the month for gene evolution, but seems to me to leave a huge hole in the stuff that’s interesting – how endless forms most beautiful develop and do astonishing things. Neutral theory, having demolished most natural selection as “purifying” then just seems to allow for a bit, as an afterthought, to explain the entire history of life.

    Does the idea of the genome as read-write database help here? if some other process is what gives evolution its coherence, then “what books happen to be in the library” is relatively arbitrary. By analogy, no two scientists will have the same personal, or even academic, library, but will be able to pursue similar interests nevertheless using what they happen to have acquired.

  6. Right, neutral theory knocked lots of the stuffing out of the adaptationist paradigm, but it isnt really very exciting (unless one is a mathematician, which I am decidedly not). Shapiro’s read write metaphor is OK, but also leaves me cold, mostly because I think I am coming to the conclusion that no metaphors are very good in biology. That said, I do like your library analogy for how evolution might work. The “similar interest” part may be what’s behind convergence, and what they happen to have around, is exactly the mechanism by which some of the same new features seem to appear from very different starting points.

    Of course the really interesting part of all this, is the incredible “appearance” (as Dawkins puts it) of conscious will (which is the reality for the academic scientists, looking in their libraries) in the entire process. No wonder ID is so popular, it certainly makes sense. My own view is that it does so only on the surface, but as I think you agree, it also isnt quite right to say that natural selection produces nothing more than the “appearance” of will. To be direct. I am becoming quite convinced that teleology is in fact at the heart of terrestrial life, and is the actual driver of evolution on our planet.

    • Jon Garvey says:

      Sy – Lamarck didn’t see a problem with “will” – because he didn’t see the basic metaphysical problem! It’s interesting that nothing has changed there in 200 years.

      Teleology is less fundamental a problem than will, but just as alien to current science. But it is beginning to look more and more part of the picture of life.

      OK – looks like my other post was lost, so I’ll fill in that. It’s good to hear you’re a sax player too. We must have a jam session some time. Though I’ve played guitar since ’68, my Dad was a semi-pro (mainly) tenor player and gave me his instruments in the late 80s. I still paly his 1930 Selmer alto and 1937 martin tenor. I’ve played sax seriously for around 11 years, and since retiring here have played sop and sopranino in a sax choir, tenor and lead guitar in a soul band, and in the new band mainly guitar because there are 4 saxes already (S.A.T.B.). I also play my first instrument, acoustic guitar, in the church band. If you’re interested more here ( where there are also some songs under the “music” tab.

  7. Ethan Ortega says:

    This is fascinating stuff. I’m very much a novice about biology but am interested in the developing theories in evolutionary history. I love that teleology is starting to reveal itself.
    Sy, will your presentation from last week be available in audio or video format in the near future?

  8. Ethan

    Thanks for your comments, and yes the presentation and the discussion that followed was captured on video, which I have seen. It should be posted soon on the ASA web site. I will post a link, and send out a tweet when I get it. Thanks for asking.

  9. Albert J. Leo says:

    “It’s in Our DNA” (6/27/16) greatly interested me, especially your comments regarding “resurgence of Lamarkian heresy , especially the importance of epigenetic effects which can be inherited.” I think this would make teleology respectable in scientific circles. I wondered if you had read Mary Jane West-Eberhard’s “Developmental Plasticity and Evolution” and if so, had any comments on it. It quickly exceeded my comprehension of modern biology, but what caught my eye was her statement: “Anthropologists, for example, have good reason to question the explanations of a strongly gene-centered sociobiology. Human behavior is essentially circumstantial.” I have tried to fit this in with a Worldview that sees the relatively sudden appearance of modern Homo sapiens (‘Great Leap Forward’ by Diamond, Dawkins) as a type of “brain programming” (Dawkins description) that occurs in creating new neural circuitry in the neonatal brain during the critical first two years of life.

    I just discovered your blog and posts. I am enjoying them.
    Al Leo

  10. Hello Al, its good to see you here, and I hope all is well. I am not familiar with Ms. West-Eberhard, but her work sounds interesting and I will try to get to it. As far as teleology, I agree with you, and have a submitted a paper on the subject. If it gets accepted for publication I will announce it here. All the best.


    • Albert J. Leo says:

      Hi Sy. Ms. W-E’s book is quite a tome–almost 800 pages. You may be one of a dozen who could understand most of it. Her last chapter on sexual reproduction appears a little unusual, perhaps because of her female perspective. If you have any problem getting the book, I would be happy to give (or lend) you mine. The middle 600 pages are simply beyond my comprehension.

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