Genetics: Dawkins, redux

Nathaniel Comfort in Nature:

DawkinsA curious stasis underlies Dawkins's thought. His biomorphs are grounded in 1970s assumptions. Back then, with rare exceptions, each gene specified a protein and each protein was specified by a gene. The genome was a linear text — a parts list or computer program for making an organism —insulated from the environment, with the coding regions interspersed with “junk”. Today's genome is much more than a script: it is a dynamic, three-dimensional structure, highly responsive to its environment and almost fractally modular. Genes may be fragmentary, with far-flung chunks of DNA sequence mixed and matched in bewildering combinatorial arrays. A universe of regulatory and modulatory elements hides in the erstwhile junk. Genes cooperate, evolving together as units to produce traits. Many researchers continue to find selfish DNA a productive idea, but taking the longer view, the selfish gene per se is looking increasingly like a twentieth-century construct. Dawkins's synopsis shows that he has not adapted to this view. He nods at cooperation among genes, but assimilates it as a kind of selfishness. The microbiome and the 3D genome go unnoticed. Epigenetics is an “interesting, if rather rare, phenomenon” enjoying its “fifteen minutes of pop science voguery”, which it has been doing since at least 2009, when Dawkins made the same claim in The Greatest Show on Earth (Transworld). Dawkins adheres to a deterministic language of “genes for” traits. As I and other historians have shown, such hereditarianism plays into the hands of the self-styled race realists (N. Comfort Nature 513, 306–307; 2014).

His writing can still sparkle. He excels at capturing the scenes behind a scene, deftly explaining a scientific principle, capping a story with an amusing anecdote. His tale of palaeoanthropologist Richard Leakey hauling his legs (amputated after a plane crash) to Kenya in his hand luggage for burial is funny and touching. Dawkins also makes an important case for the “poetic” side of science, arguing that the imperative to justify research in terms of potential medical or financial benefits bleeds the beauty out of it. Amen. At such moments, one feels transported to a tweedy evening at Oxford, pouring the sherry as a charming senior faculty member holds court. But too often, the professor rambles. He quotes friends' and colleagues' tributes from dust-jackets and afterwords. He mentions the fish genus Dawkinsia. He repeatedly slams his late rival, Gould (“whose genius for getting things wrong matched the eloquence with which he did so”). His digressions often come off as twee and self-indulgent. Mentioning the limping family dog, Bunch, in an apt example of an acquired characteristic that cannot be inherited, he is reminded of an unfinished poem his mother wrote after Bunch died, which he prints. “If you can't be sentimental in an autobiography, when can you?” he asks.

For a time, Dawkins was a rebellious scientific rock star. Now, his critique of religion seems cranky, and his immovably genocentric universe is parochial. Brief Candle is about as edgy as Sir Mick and the Rolling Stones cranking out the 3,578th rendition of 'Brown Sugar' — a treat for fans, but reinscribing boundaries rather than crossing them.

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