Steve Jones - The Selfish Gene at 40

Richard Dawkins’ landmark book, The Selfish Gene, was first published in 1976. I caught up with geneticist Steve Jones for an overview.
08 August 2016

Interview with 

Steve Jones, UCL


Kat - "The genes are the immortals, or rather, they are defined as genetic entities that come close to deserving the title. We, the individual survival machines in the world, can expect to live a few more decades. But the genes in the world have an expectation of life that must be measured not in decades but in thousands of millions of years. In a sexually reproducing species, the individual is too large and too temporary a genetic unit to qualify as a significant unit of natural selection. The group of individuals is an even larger unit. Genetically speaking, individuals and groups are like clouds in the sky or dust-clouds in the desert. They are temporary aggregations or federations. They are not stable through evolutionary time."  That's a quote from The Selfish gene, Richard Dawkins' landmark book that was first published in 1976. I caught up with fellow genetics author - and emeritus professor of genetics at UCL - Steve Jones, to find out how the book, and the ideas in it, were received when it first came out.

Steve - I have to say, rather in an embarrassed way, I didn't read it for many years after that. In fact, I think its initial impact was much less than its medium term impact. I should also say perhaps in my own defence that I didn't read the Origin of Species which I have become obsessed with until I was in my 30s. But yes, I read it. I think the most important thing about it was that it was written in 1976. And that was the prehistory of genetics. I mean, that was the Precambrian of genetics. We didn't know any genetics at all basically. We knew Mendel's Laws and we knew a bit about the mechanisms and we knew about DNA. But genetics has moved so fast forward since 1976 that you can't expect all Dawkins's claims to have stood up. I mean, no scientific theory could stand up in the face of such a torrent of new information which isn't to deny the fact that it's a very important book in the public perception of genetics.

Kat - From what I feel, it was one of the first public books really writing about Neo-Darwinism, trying to get Darwin's ideas about natural selection along with genetics and what we understood about evolution.

Steve - Yes, there were some semi-popular books before then. John Maynard Smith had written one. Speaking as an author and you yourself of course are an author, it's extremely hard to predict which books become best sellers and which aren't. publishers know that for well. I mean, more than half the books they publish make a loss, but they know that very occasionally, something will explode and this one did. I think it deserve to explode because it's a very engaging book. It's certainly if you look at the effect it's had on the public interest in biology, I think it had a sudden effect on that. I'm certainly not putting Dawkins up at the Darwin level. I don't think he would either. He's a reasonably modest man but I think he played a large part in persuading the public that genetics and evolution had a lot to do with each other. Now that fight had gone on throughout the 1920s but for quite a long time, there was this feeling that somehow genetics disproved Darwinism - that evolution happened with giant leaps which had big mutations so therefore, really have been beneath the public radar. What Richard Dawkins did was to bring it in to the public eye. I don't actually think and I think he himself would probably agree that all his ideas have stood up. And there's still a lot of controversy about them.

Kat - So, let's explore some of the ideas in the book and the book is called The Selfish Gene and there's a lot to unpack there about what do we mean by selfishness because this isn't a conscious gene going, "Ooh! I'm going to be selfish today." What did he actually mean by that?

Steve - Yes. Well, one said to him, "You could have called that book "The Effect of Kin Selection on Sex Ratios"."

Kat - Catchy!

Steve - And there are books which have got titles like that. I think he did talk about changing it at one time at the 30th anniversary 10 years ago. I think he said as far as I remember that he had preferred to call it the Immortal Gene.

Kat - Yeah, it's in the preface.

Steve - And if he'd called it that, he would've sold one tenth as many copies. So, I think as a popular science book as I often say, the first line in the United States Army's mule training manual - How to Train a Mule - is first, catch the animal's attention by striking it smartly between the eyes with a stout stick. And that's what he's doing with that title. He's striking the potential purchaser smartly between the eyes - The Selfish Gene - with a stout stick. So the purchaser will take it out of the shelf, open it up and then buy it. the problem is that what's happened really is it's sort of got into a circular boring argument about what you mean by 'selfish'. Bits of DNA aren't selfish. They don't drive sentient beings. I mean, sentient beings could be selfish, but the word isn't quite right. But I don't think that's crucial.

Kat - Let's explore what that actually means. So, what was the central idea that he proposed in the book?

Steve - Well, the central idea was Haldane's idea - you can dig it out in the ancient literature - that it would pay him to leap into the Thames to save two brothers or eight cousins. The point was that he would destroy his own genome by drowning in the Thames. But if he saved eight cousins, each of which shared one-eighth of his genome by definition then there would be no genetic loss. So, if he saved 9 cousins, or 10 cousins, or 20 cousins will actually pay him to drown. And Haldane being Haldane, just threw that off, but in fact, it makes an important point.

Kat - It's this idea that it's the genes that are what's being selected for. It's the genes that get passed on at the expense of the organism and I think the phrase that he uses, it's all about the replicator, about copying your genes rather than the vehicle - the flesh robot that they have a copy in.

Steve - Yeah, in the end, it comes down to theology okay. Christians have got this thing called the soul. Now, nobody knows what the soul is. But the soul somehow survives where it's the selfish soul. It survives where its agent - you and I, don't. When you try to track down by what you mean by the replicator, it's by no means clear in modern genetics context. One of the startling things about modern genetics is of course you're aware, is the discovery there are far fewer genes in the human genome in traditional sense than we ever imagined. While I was a student in Edinburgh which is a very big centre of genetics in those days which still is to a degree - in the '60s, we used to assume, I used to assume that to make anything as magnificent and handsome and sexy as myself would take a million genes, a million protein coding loci. It's an incredibly complicated machine. Well in the end, we only got 23,000 of them. You're left with the fact that 98.5 per cent of the genome is not coding replicators. What it is, we don't know. The other thing which again, I don't think the simplistic idea of the selfish replicator stands up well against is the discovery of the so-called missing heritability where you take something like human height where you know from the points of view of families - we're using family studies and adoptions and all these things - it's extremely clear that about 80 per cent of the variation in human height in any population is due to genetic variation. It's a highly heritable concept. But when people try to look for the genes behind that high heritability, it's not that they don't find it. They find too many. The last time I looked and I have looked for a while, there was about 150 or 200 different gene loci had been implicated in the inheritance of variation in human height within a population. But it only explained about 10 per cent of the total variation. So, it's quite conceivable that all genes affect all phenotypes. That's probably getting a bit too grand but it's not inconceivable that every gene affects everything and everything is affected by every gene. Now in that case, the idea that you can disentangle individual replicators as being selfish begins to look very murky.

Kat - I have seen some people trying to take Dawkins's ideas of the Selfish Gene and apply them to political and social ideas as well. Tell me a bit about how that's panned out.

Steve - Well, that hasn't panned out at all well, that's the problem. It's a very old problem. I go back to Darwin again. My favourite quote from Darwin which really summarizes a history of genetics from the beginning is that ignorance more frequently brings confidence than does knowledge. In other words, if you don't know something, it's tell me, is it to be 100 per cent confident on what you say and you can see that throughout the history of genetics. Now, Francis Galton, Charles Darwin's cousin who founded the Galton Lab at UCL where I work. He wrote a book - of course, you know - called Hereditary Genius. Galton was a very, very clever man. There's no question to that, interested in human qualities. His argument was that there was a terrible problem we face because people of low quality - people who went to King's College London let's say - were reproducing more than people of high quality went to University College London and we should do something about that. He wrote a quite bizarre letter to Nature which has been forgotten which is called Africa for the Chinese. He basically recommends that the Africans just go away and die and let the Chinese come in because the Chinese were biologically superior to Africans. Now, that of course, as we go through the nineteenth and into the twentieth century, that had a big effect. Plenty of people when I was a lad, would regard Africans as being subhuman. It had a terrible effect as of course we know in the eugenics movement which began in Britain with Galton and the Galton laboratory and was very strong at UCL. We look back into the 1930s. What did we know about human genetics? Zero. 0.601 per cent of what we know today. And yet, people were going out, sterilising people with complete confidence. The attempts to use biology of any kind to explain human society are all like that.

Kat - You're a writer of popular genetics books. I absolutely loved reading your books and found them incredibly informative. I'm now a writer of books - one book and I do a lot of public communication about genetics. It really feels like the Selfish Gene was the first book to pave the way for this kind of communication.

Steve - I'm not putting it down. I mean, I think it was. On a couple of occasions, I've had students come to me and say, "I came into genetics because of the Selfish Gene." I think that's true and that's a very important effect it's had. On two occasions, I've had a rather amusing experience of having students come up to me with a copy of the Selfish Gene and asking me to sign the book. What I've done on both of those occasions is to write, "I did not write this book - Steve Jones." As I was writing that sentence, it struck me. That's the saddest sentence I've ever written because it sold more than a million copies - I wish I had written the book! In the history of the perception of biology, it's an extremely important book. I'd be the first person to say that and to welcome that.

Kat - That's writer and geneticist Steve Jones, from UCL.


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