Dawkin - Work - Evolutionary Biology

Evolutionary Biology

Further information: Gene-centred view of evolution

In his scientific works, Dawkins is best known for his popularisation of the gene as the principal unit of selection in evolution; this view is most clearly set out in his books:

  • The Selfish Gene (1976), in which he notes that "all life evolves by the differential survival of replicating entities".
  • The Extended Phenotype (1982), in which he describes natural selection as "the process whereby replicators out-propagate each other".

Dawkins has consistently been sceptical about non-adaptive processes in evolution (such as spandrels, described by Gould and Lewontin) and about selection at levels "above" that of the gene. He is particularly sceptical about the practical possibility or importance of group selection as a basis for understanding altruism. This behaviour appears at first to be an evolutionary paradox, since helping others costs precious resources and decreases one's own fitness. Previously, many had interpreted this as an aspect of group selection: Individuals are doing what is best for the survival of the population or species as a whole. British evolutionary biologist W. D. Hamilton had used the gene-centred view to explain altruism in terms of inclusive fitness and kin selection—that individuals behave altruistically toward their close relatives, who share many of their own genes. Similarly, Robert Trivers, thinking in terms of the gene-centred model, developed the theory of reciprocal altruism, whereby one organism provides a benefit to another in the expectation of future reciprocation. Dawkins popularised these ideas in The Selfish Gene, and developed them in his own work.

He has also been strongly critical of the Gaia philosophy theory of the independent scientist James Lovelock.

In June 2012 Dawkins was highly critical of fellow biologist E.O. Wilson's 2012 book The Social Conquest of Earth.

Critics of Dawkins's approach suggest that taking the gene as the unit of selection (a single event in which an individual either succeeds or fails to reproduce) is misleading; the gene could be better described, they say, as a unit of evolution (the long-term changes in allele frequencies in a population). In The Selfish Gene, Dawkins explains that he is using George C. Williams's definition of the gene as "that which segregates and recombines with appreciable frequency." Another common objection is that a gene cannot survive alone, but must cooperate with other genes to build an individual, and therefore a gene cannot be an independent "unit". In The Extended Phenotype, Dawkins suggests that from an individual gene's viewpoint, all other genes are part of the environment to which it is adapted.

Advocates for higher levels of selection (such as Richard Lewontin, David Sloan Wilson, and Elliott Sober) suggest that there are many phenomena (including altruism) that gene-based selection cannot satisfactorily explain. The philosopher Mary Midgley, with whom Dawkins clashed in print concerning The Selfish Gene, has criticised gene selection, memetics, and sociobiology as being excessively reductionist; she has suggested that the popularity of Dawkins's work is due to factors in the Zeitgeist such as the increased individualism of the Thatcher/Reagan decades.

In a set of controversies over the mechanisms and interpretation of evolution (what has been called 'The Darwin Wars'), one faction is often named after Dawkins, while the other faction is named after the American palaeontologist Stephen Jay Gould, reflecting the pre-eminence of each as a populariser of the pertinent ideas. In particular, Dawkins and Gould have been prominent commentators in the controversy over sociobiology and evolutionary psychology, with Dawkins generally approving and Gould generally being critical. A typical example of Dawkins's position is his scathing review of Not in Our Genes by Steven Rose, Leon J. Kamin, and Richard C. Lewontin. Two other thinkers who are often considered to be allied with Dawkins on the subject are Steven Pinker and Daniel Dennett; Dennett has promoted a gene-centred view of evolution and defended reductionism in biology. Despite their academic disagreements, Dawkins and Gould did not have a hostile personal relationship, and Dawkins dedicated a large portion of his 2003 book A Devil's Chaplain posthumously to Gould, who had died the previous year.

Dawkins's book The Greatest Show on Earth: The Evidence for Evolution expounds the evidence for biological evolution, and coincided with Darwin's bicentennial year.

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