Silence and selfish genes

August 15, 2013

While it may be true that “sustained practices of silence are profoundly transformative…of one’s spiritual and ethical perspective” (“Giving but not yielding”, Features, 8 August), apparently they do not necessarily improve scientific reasoning.

Equating cooperation with mutation and selection as a “third principle” in evolution is a straightforward misunderstanding of evolutionary theory that will hinder rather than aid our understanding of the evolution of complexity. Mutation generates variation, selection filters it, and together these two processes cause change. Complexity and cooperation are inevitable products of such change, not agents of it. To criticise Richard Dawkins’ “selfish” gene metaphor for implying that cooperation is unimportant is, likewise, a misunderstanding. Genes are selfish in the sense that there is selection, period. Cooperation evolves as a result of selection among genes, not in spite of it. Logically, it could not be otherwise, and Dawkins’ critics have merely obfuscated this simple point. Unfortunately, the tendency to confuse clarity of argument with oversimplification continues.

Robert Barton
Evolutionary Anthropology Research Group
Durham University

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