Denis Noble debates Richard Dawkins:
Is it time to retire the Selfish Gene?
High-level thinkers at Oxford University prodded Richard Dawkins to defend his Selfish Gene theory for years. He finally relented and debated Denis Noble in June 2022 at the UK’s How the Light Gets In festival.
Denis Noble, 85, was on Dawkins’ PhD Thesis review panel in the 1960s. Noble, an eminent physiologist and Fellow of the Royal Society, sharply disagrees with Dawkins’ Selfish Gene theory. “Selfish Gene” is the title of the world’s best selling evolution book by Dawkins, who says that the gene is the Master Of Everything, and all evolution serves to preserve genes.
Noble proved experimentally that this couldn’t possibly be the case when he knocked out genes that control heart’s rhythm. His results were radically different from what traditional evolutionary theory predicted.
(Noble was the first scientist to model a human organ on a computer; he achieved international fame 60 years ago for this, when he discovered the controlling factors of the cardiac rhythm. This made pacemakers possible and led to the development of the drug Ivibradine. Everyone who is alive because of a pacemaker owes their life to Noble’s research.)
Noble is now leading the charge to reform evolutionary biology, insisting that genes are overrated; and our lack of attention to the cognitive abilities of the organism is sabotaging our efforts in fighting disease and cancer.
Noble points out that the Human Genome Project, while very worthwhile, delivered FAR less than originally promised. It has not lived up to the hype and scientists are overly obsessed with genes. Noble advances his model of “Biological Relativity” which says that life is systems within systems within systems. There is no single point of master control. In his words: “There is no privileged level of causation in biology.”
For example: we know that genes build cells; but cells also build and modify genes. Like a hand drawing a hand in this M.C. Escher print.
Denis Noble organized a revolutionary meeting at the Royal Society in 2016 “New Trends in Biological Evolution.” I was there, and this is my report on the event:
Like the 2016 Royal Society meeting, this 2022 debate with Dawkins was polite and cordial. It was not at all sullied by the bitterness and bad blood that has been almost universal in evolution discussions before now.
In my personal opinion Dawkins did not defend his model very well. At numerous points I couldn’t help but note significant gaps in his knowledge. Now having worked in the cancer-evolution field for 3 years, I believe that “Selfish Gene” has hindered research because of its rigidity and self-reinforcing viewpoints. Its adherents have great difficulty interpreting life any other way.
This is anything but an academic, pedantic debate. It has axis-shifting consequences for health care and treating disease.
Watch the action here:
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