This article was last modified on December 12, 2011.

Gould contra Dawkins re Selfish Genes

Stephen Jay Gould struck out at Richard Dawkins in 1980, saying the latter had “raised my hackles”. [Gould 1980: 86] He further finds “a fatal flaw in Dawkins’s attack from below.” [Gould 1980: 90]

Gould summarizes Dawkins’ views on evolution by saying, “For Dawkins, evolution is a battle among genes, each seeking to make more copies of itself. Bodies are merely the places where genes aggregate for a time. Bodies are temporary receptacles, survival machines manipulated by genes and tossed away on the geological scrap heap once genes have replicated and slaked their insatiable thirst for more copies of themselves in bodies of the next generation.” [Gould 1980: 89]

Gould rejects this, stressing, “Selection simply cannot see genes and pick among them directly. It must use bodies as an intermediary. A gene is a bit of DNA hidden within a cell. Selection views bodies. It favors some bodies because they are stronger, better insulated, earlier in their sexual maturation, fiercer in combat, or more beautiful to behold.” [Gould 1980: 90]

Furthermore, “The image of individual genes, plotting the course of their own survival, bears little relationship to developmental genetics as we understand it. Dawkins will need another metaphor: genes caucusing, forming alliances, showing deference for a chance to join a pact, gauging probable environments. But when you amalgamate so many genes and tie them together in hierarchical chains of action mediated by environments, we call the resultant object a body.” [Gould 1980: 91]

In summation, “If most genes do not present themselves for review, then they cannot be the unit of selection.” [Gould 1980: 91]


Gould, Stephen Jay. The Panda’s Thumb: More Reflections in Natural History W. W. Norton and Company, 1980.

Also try another article under Miscellaneous
or another one of the writings of Gavin.

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