He crossed plants bearing wrinkled peas with those bearing smooth peas, producing 29, plants altogether. When he was done and he had run the numbers, he had exposed the gene. And this conceptual gene, revealed in the tables and calculations of this math-friendly monk, seemed an agent of mathematical neatness.

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Inheritance appeared to work like algebra. Anything so math-friendly had to be driven by discrete integers. It was beautiful work. This recognition was the Holy Shit!

It seemed to explain everything. And it saved Darwin. Darwin had legitimised evolution by proposing for it a viable mechanism — natural selection, in which organisms with the most favourable traits survive and multiply at higher rates than do others. But he could not explain what created or altered traits.

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Genes created traits, and both would spread through a population if a gene created a trait that survived selection. That much was clear by Naturally, some kinks remained, but more math-friendly biologists soon straightened those out. This took most of the middle part of the 20th century. Biologists now call this decades-long project the modern evolutionary synthesis. And it was all about maths.

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Fisher, Haldane and Wright, working the complicated maths of how multiple genes interacted through time in a large population, showed that significant evolutionary change often revealed itself as many small changes yielded a large effect, just as a series of small nested equations within a long algebra equation could. The second kink was tougher. If organisms prospered by out-competing others, why did humans and some other animals help one another?

This might seem a non-mathy problem. Yet in the s, British biologist William Hamilton and American geneticist George Price, who was working in London at the time, solved it too with maths, devising formulas quantifying precisely how altruism could be selected for. Some animals act generously, they explained, because doing so can aid others, such as their children, parents, siblings, cousins, grandchildren, or tribal mates, who share or might share some of their genes.

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The closer the kin, the kinder the behaviour. Thus maths reconciled Mendel and Darwin and made modern genetics and evolutionary theory a coherent whole. With fancy maths, they argued that we should view any organism, including any human, as merely a sort of courier for genes and their traits.

This flipped the usual thinking. It made the gene vital and the organism expendable.

Our genes did not exist for us. We existed for them. We served only to carry these chemical codes forward through time, like those messengers in old sword-and-sandal war movies who run non-stop for days to deliver data and then drop dead. This notion of the gene as the unit selected, and the organism as a kludged-up cart for carrying it through time, placed the gene smack at the centre of things. It granted the gene something like agency. At first, not even many academics paid this any heed. This might be partly because people resist seeing themselves as donkey carts. Another reason was that neither Hamilton nor Williams were masterly communicators.

But 15 years after Hamilton and Williams kited this idea, it was embraced and polished into gleaming form by one of the best communicators science has ever produced: In his magnificent book The Selfish Gene , Dawkins gathered all the threads of the modern synthesis — Mendel, Fisher, Haldane, Wright, Watson, Crick, Hamilton, and Williams — into a single shimmering magic carpet.

These days, Dawkins makes the news so often for things like pointing out that a single college in Cambridge has won more Nobel Prizes than the entire Muslim world, that some might wonder how he ever became so celebrated. The Selfish Gene is how. To read The Selfish Gene is to be amazed, entertained, transported.

Dawkins reveals the gene as not just the centre of the cell but the centre of all life, agency, and behaviour. He replicates in prose the process he describes. He gives agency to chemical chains, logic to confounding behaviour. He takes an impossibly complex idea and makes it almost impossible to misunderstand. He reveals the gene as not just the centre of the cell but the centre of all life, agency, and behaviour. Along with its beauty and other advantageous traits, it is amenable to maths and, at its core, wonderfully simple.

As both conceptual framework and metaphor, the selfish-gene has helped us see the gene as it revealed itself over the 20th century. But as a new age and new tools reveal a more complicated genome, the selfish-gene is blinding us. They do so even though they agree with most of what Dawkins says a gene does.

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In many cases, the other cogs drive the gene. The gene, in short, just happens to be the biggest, most obvious part of the trait-making inheritance and evolutionary machine. But not the driver. Mendel ran experiments that happened to reveal strong single-gene dynamics whose effects — flower colour, skin texture — can seem far more significant than they really are. As with grasshoppers, a new environment can quickly turn a plant into something almost unrecognisable from its original form.


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If Mendel had owned an RNA sequencing machine and was in the habit of tracking gene expression changes, he might have spotted these. When something has so many parts, evolution will act on all of them. Other ways may actually do more.


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  8. Like what other ways? What significant and plausible evolutionary dynamics stand in tension with a single-gene-centred model? Such epigenetic changes may provide a way to pass heritable traits down through at least a few generations without changing any actual genes. To be sure, this research is still unproven as a significant evolutionary force. But while it is clearly important enough to pursue, many defenders of the selfish-gene model dismiss it out of hand.

    Of these genomic dynamics, perhaps the most challenging to the selfish-gene story are epistatic or gene-gene interactions. Epistasis refers to the fact that the presence of some genes or their variants can have profound and unpredictable influences on the activity and effects generated by other genes. Think Jerry Garcia playing with different musical partners. Epistasis is hardly a new concept. In fact, geneticists have been arguing about its importance ever since R.

    Fisher and Sewall Wright bickered about it in the s. Individual bees morph from worker to guard to scout by gene expression alone, depending on the needs of the hive. This is not merely a matter of one gene muffling or amplifying another, though both these things happen. To draw on P. Not something to count on. And a two of hearts is a far more coherent thing than is a gene. Even as a technical term, the word carries at least a half-dozen meanings, and more are added as science finds new tools for exploring the genome.

    This alone makes it either a poor candidate for a popular meme — or, if you value flexibility over exactitude, perhaps a perfect one, since its meaning can be defended or reshaped or expanded to suit the occasion. These regulatory networks challenge the selfish-gene model first because they include DNA elements not conventionally defined as genes. More important, some researchers believe these networks challenge the selfish-gene model because they often seem to behave not like selfish entities balancing their separate agendas, in selfish-gene style, but like managerial teams regulating the behaviour of individual genes for the interest of the organism.

    In other cases they seem to have effects but be exempt from selection pressure. These regulatory elements now appear to grossly outnumber the actual genes, possibly by as much as 50 to 1. These issues are not merely academic; resolving them could help solve mysteries about cancer and other diseases. Such dynamics have emerged only in the last decade or so, as researchers have been able to examine the genome more closely. And this is the crux of this entire dispute: The point is not whether the findings of a genomic age or of anthropology refute the selfish-gene model, invalidate its theoretical details, or debunk the modern synthesis.

    The selfish-gene model is roomy enough to host many of these findings. It has shown a uncanny ability to do so.