World-class heart researcher Denis Noble demolishes the “Selfish Gene” – With Grace and Wit
Just as modern astronomy has shown us there is no definite “center of the universe” (and it is most certainly not the earth), in his book “Dance to the Tune of Life: Biological Relativity,” Oxford Professor Denis Noble shows that in biology there is no “starting point of the organism.” (And it is most certainly not the gene!)
Denis Noble is the man who worked out the details of the cardiac rhythm, which made pacemakers possible, as well as the drug Ivabradine.
The book begins with a history of astronomy, where ideas that the earth is not the center, and not even our sun or galaxy are at the center, were met with great resistance.
Noble says making the gene the immortal center of evolutionary biology is at least as great a mistake as earth-centric astronomy!
This is because it has negatively impacted fields as diverse as economics, theology, sociology, politics and literature.
Noble is a strong historian and his book uncovers the detailed history of the language and development of the ideas behind modern evolutionary theory.
“Neo-Darwinism is a product of nineteenth-century scientific thought in the last decades before the revolutions in physics leading to quantum mechanics and relativity theory.”
“Since Neo-Darwinism has dominated biological science for over half a century, its viewpoint is now so embedded in the scientific literature, including standard school and university textbooks, that many biological scientists may themselves not recognise its conceptual nature, let alone question incoherencies or identify flaws.”
“the language of Neo-Darwinism is itself a powerful barrier to the development of a more inclusive theory… it is the whole conceptual scheme of Neo-Darwinism that creates the difficulty. Each concept and metaphor reinforces the overall mind-set until it is almost impossible to stand outside it and to appreciate how beguiling it is.”
He shows how the entire field has become a prisoner of its own circular reasoning, and of an unjustified antagonism towards teleology, or purpose in nature. He explains how it is manifestly impossible to understand something like a heart if you will not acknowledge that it exists for the purpose of pumping blood, and doing so in a very particular manner.
He shows that you can only understand the behavior of a heart at a certain level of the system and that, at other levels of the system, the same behavior may appear random or invisible or incomprehensible. He shows that biology is systems within systems within systems, and that every system has a relationship to other systems.
Note that even randomness itself only exists with respect to other events.
Noble shows that you cannot pinpoint any particular starting or ending point to a living organism. Each effect flows from multiple causes and each cause produces multiple effects.
This reminds me of a statement made by Gary Fugle, an author and biologist who said, “there is no single place in nature where you can say ‘Aha – THERE is the hand of God, you can see it right there!’”
Although people who espouse God-of-gaps arguments take comfort in such things, those gaps have a way of migrating elsewhere in the face of growing scientific knowledge.
Noble is making a complementary statement, but aimed at scientific reductionists instead: There is no one all-encompassing, explanatory, simplistic Final Answer In Nature that says “this is the spot where everything starts.”
Rather, says Noble, goals are contextual, and just like randomness, only have meaning *with respect to something else.* He says, “It is in this context that we can understand why many prominent Neo-Darwinists are also prominent atheists. That also is a statement of faith. Part of that statement of faith is that creative purpose, consciousness and intentionality are all mirages, epiphenomena without significance or effect.”
Thus his argument for “Biological Relativity.” Every system, every goal and behavior is relative to others around it, both smaller and larger scales and levels of systems. This book will be liked by anyone who creates for a living and instinctively knows that nothing in nature is as simplistic as Dawkins’ just-so explanations and stories.
He rigorously demonstrates new models of evolution via the work of several researchers including Conrad Waddington: In direct defiance to Neo-Darwinism, learned traits are inherited, and Lamarck was right 200 years ago: organisms direct the evolution of their progeny.
Noble devotes time to describing the evolutionary toolbox of Horizontal Gene Transfer, Epigenetics, Symbiogenesis and Transposition. He shows that many evolutionary events are grand movements of large-scale sections of DNA.
He gives Neo-Darwinism credit for a number of fields of study such as population genetics. But he also shows how it has slowed discovery in other fields for 50+ years. He blames some of this on the ever-narrowing scope of scientific categories, fragmentation of disciplines, increasingly unable to see the whole for the parts.
Some memorable quotes:
“I saw a film of a living unicellular organism, an amoeba. It could hardly have been more different from the two-dimensional sections of dead cells that I had drawn as a student. Nothing stood still. Everything was streaming this way and that as the organism moved around. When it found an object that was sensed (I assumed chemically) to be food the movements became beautifully co-ordinated as two extrusions called pseudopodia (false feet) encircled the object, eventually allowing it to be taken in as a membrane coated vesicle to be digested.
“This tiny organism had a ‘nose’: the chemical receptors on its membrane surface. It had ‘muscles’: in fact formed of protein molecules, some of them very similar to those in our cells, only not organised into separate muscular organs. It clearly had a ‘nervous system’ to connect the two together, although it had no nerves as we know them. It had a clear goal: to feed itself. As we will see later when we discuss the cell cycle, it knows when and how to reproduce itself in an intricately co-ordinated activity when it makes its genes dance as they and their predecessors have done for at least one billion years.”
“Those working on a systems approach were openly denigrated as not doing ‘real science’, not being ‘where it is at’. Later, in the 1970s when I became a member of research grant committees, I was to hear that phrase often. Being ‘where it is at’ was committee-speak for excluding any other approach. Sadly that exclusion was so successful that very little integrative research remained. Molecular biology and genomics sucked up most of the funding.”
“Neo-Darwinism is incomplete as a theory of evolution. It also suffers from deep conceptual confusions, and is not compatible with the wider range of experimental evidence we now have.”
“Why are scientists like me apparently in such a small minority? There is a simple answer to that question. We are only apparently a minority. I have discussed extensively with evolutionary and other biologists in the course of lecturing to audiences, large and small, all around the world. Exceedingly few of the tens of thousands involved have seriously defended the orthodox Neo-Darwinist view as a complete explanation.”
On the benefits of updating our evolutionary models:
“Whole areas of economics, sociology and philosophy are based on interpretations of selfish gene viewpoints. No field of human endeavour will remain untouched since the implications affect even our concept of humanity.”
This field of “Extended Evolutionary Synthesis” is growing rapidly and it’s great that a person of Noble’s stature has taken the time to write such a careful book. Just as Neo-Darwinism has leaked poison into many fields, Biological Relativity has the potential for bringing new insights into economics, sociology and many other disciplines. Noble is mature enough and well-enough read to speak to these other disciplines.
Noble is no stranger to this debate. He has every qualification necessary to critique evolutionary biology from the outside. Noble organized the first debate about Richard Dawkins’ bestseller “The Selfish Gene” in 1976 and again between Dawkins and Lynn Margulis in 2009. He was on Dawkins’ PhD review committee at Oxford. He’s an Emeritus professor at the University of Oxford.
He’s a Fellow of the Royal Society, the oldest scientific body in the world. He organized the Royal Society’s November 2016 Conference “New Trends in Evolutionary Biology” and chaired the 2nd day of the conference.
At the London conference, the overwhelming consensus from both presenters the 300 in attendance was that Neo-Darwinism is due for a major upgrade and perhaps needs to be replaced entirely.
He’s written over 500 scientific papers and he’s President of the International Union of Physological Sciences, the global umbrella organization for physiology. His keynote talks to physiologists worldwide regularly include critiques of Neo-Darwinism, and he often hears complaints from members that the evolutionary biology clique refuses to publish their papers.
He’s one of the pioneers of the field of Systems Biology and he is also editor of the Royal Society’s cross-disciplinary publication “Interface Focus.”
The book is very readable, it’s in middle-school to high school level English, and the glossary and explanations take pains to explain complex ideas in simple language.
If you’re hot on the trail of new evolutionary developments – the Extended Evolutionary Synthesis and systems like Natural Genetic Engineering and Symbiogenesis; if you’re fascinated by the Post-Dawkins evolutionary frontier, this book is a must-read.
It is part of a growing body of works that provide alternatives to the classical, textbook version of evolution that is repeated ad nauseum in the media. Other books include my own “Evolution 2.0” of course; “Evolution: A View from the 21st Century” by James Shapiro; “COSMOSAPIENS” by John Hands; “The Music of Life” also by Denis Noble, and “Acquiring Genomes” by Lynn Margulis and Dorion Sagan.