Monday, December 30, 2013

Dawkins dogmas are now known to be scientifically untenable

Noble, Tarnita and Nowak (But they haven't met yet alas)
From a scientific  PoV Dawkins offered a well-written popular exposition of evolutionary theory as it was understood in the late 1970s. This was based on the "Modern Synthesis" often described as "Neo-Darwinism" in which genes were the omnipotent driving forces of evolution. Mutation was random and information could only flow from the genome to the organism. Sexual selection was known about but very much downplayed (male biologists didn't much care to think about the fact that females choice of mates was a massive driver of evolutionary change). Bill Hamilton's idea of "inclusive fitness" seemed to offer a handy formula which would explain everything.

There were of course dissenting voices. The great Barbara McClintock discovered genetic transposition in the 1940s and 50s but it was so against the orthodoxy that she stopped publishing her work. Her Nobel Prize in 1983 was a final vindication of her work, and in 1984 she wrote that "the genome is an organ of the cell". However of course this was after The Selfish Gene was published - though even in the 30th Anniversary Edition she doesn't rate a mention.  However in the last few years two scientific hammer-blows have been delivered to Dawkins-ite othodoxy:
  1. Inclusive Fitness is at best an approximate rule of thumb. Martin Nowak and EO Wilson first showed in their famous Nowak, Tarnita and Wilson 2010 paper which made the front cover of Nature that "Inclusive Fitness" was at best a working approximation or a rule of thumb and neither necessary nor sufficient to explain the evolution of Eusociality. This provoked howls of outrage but no-one could fault their mathematics. The Allen, Nowak and Wilson  2013 PNAS paper "Limitations of Inclusive Fitness" puts a further nail in the coffin by showing that "to analyze whether mutations that modify social behavior are favored or opposed by natural selection, then no aspect of inclusive fitness theory is needed."
  2. Every dogma of the Modern Synthesis has been shown to be false. Denis Noble's Presidential Address to the International Union of Physiological Societies and his companion paper in Experimental Physiology conclusively show that "all the central assumptions of the Modern Synthesis (often also called Neo-Darwinism) have been disproved. Moreover, they have been disproved in ways that raise the tantalizing prospect of a totally new synthesis; one that would allow a reintegration of physiological science with evolutionary biology." It is worth quoting the abstract of this paper in full:
"The ‘Modern Synthesis’ (Neo-Darwinism) is a mid-20th century gene-centric view of evolution, based on random mutations accumulating to produce gradual change through natural selection. Any role of physiological function in influencing genetic inheritance was excluded. The organism became a mere carrier of the real objects of selection, its genes. We now know that genetic change is far from random and often not gradual. Molecular genetics and genome sequencing have deconstructed this unnecessarily restrictive view of evolution in a way that reintroduces physiological function and interactions with the environment as factors influencing the speed and nature of inherited change. Acquired characteristics can be inherited, and in a few but growing number of cases that inheritance has now been shown to be robust for many generations. The 21st century can look forward to a new synthesis that will reintegrate physiology with evolutionary biology."
This is NOT in any way to say that "evolution is not true" or that "Darwin was wrong". Of course Darwin was wrong about many of the details of evolution but in fact he was never anything like as rigid as the "neo-Darwinists" - he was a deeply subtle thinker and would have been contemptuous of the simplistic approach of Dawkins and co.  He reiterated that he didn't think Natural Selection was the only factor in evolution, and complained about the misrepresentation of his views in this respect.

Other aspects of the intellectual bankruptcy of the Dawkins worldview deserve a longer post than I have time to write. Beauty and Truth cannot be reduced to selfish genes, whatever "just so" stories may be told.  The link between "selfish genes" and Enron-style selfishness is well established culturally and even if Dawkins himself is against money-grubbing in theory (though remarkably willing to hang on to most of his royalties, his "Foundation" has only a paltry sum) it is clear that his ideas basically encourage an extreme "survival of the fittest" mentality and a contempt for other people who are, after all, nothing but "lumbering robots".

But the fundamental point is that the dogmas Dawkins espouses are now known to be scientifically untenable. They may be useful approximations in many situations for working scientists but they certainly are not true. There is far more going on in biology, and in life, than the simplistic nostrums that Dawkins peddles.  These facts haven't yet reached popular culture - but they will.

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