Oxford Professor Denis Noble takes down “The Selfish Gene”

The Selfish Gene was the best selling science book of the 20th century. But The Selfish Gene got cause and effect backwards, assigning agency to natural selection instead of the organism itself. It embraced the greatest errors of the Modern Synthesis while downplaying much of what it got right. 

“It crowned the gene king of biology, even though genes are only servants of the cell. Gene-centric duality caused genomics to promise far more than it could, or ever can deliver, since it cannot distinguish between correlation and functional causation. 

“That failure has been at great cost to health care by promising miracle genetic cures that have not met the greatest challenge to health services for ageing populations caused by complex multi-factorial diseases that cannot be reduced to genetic causation.

“Thus did The Selfish Gene turn Neo-Darwinism into a pop religion with its own dogmas, dressed up as science, but without the gold standard of a scientific hypothesis: an empirical test independent of the central assumption of the theory.

“To challenge its rigid dogmas was considered heresy, so that many science careers were lost by those who questioned it. Their discoveries were ignored or, at best, sidelined. These misunderstandings have set back treatments in cancer and infectious diseases by many decades. This is why The Selfish Gene is one of the greatest mistakes in the history of science.”

Denis and Ray Noble, “Origins and demise of selfish gene theory” from the science journal Theoretical Biology Forum 

Witness Denis Noble’s speech at South Korea’s 21st Century Human Values Forum 2023 Closing Ceremony

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8 Responses

  1. Eli Smithson says:

    Have you read this review article on Hubert Yockey’s book? https://wasdarwinwrong.com/kortho33.htm

    What do you think of it?

    • Well, let’s just take one sentence:

      if ‘decoding’ is defined as information in DNA is translated into proteins; and ‘encoding’ is defined as information in proteins is translated into DNA, then encoding does not exist in nature. So, contrary to engineering systems, there is no encoding process in the biological world. DNA is only decoded.

      He’s not reading Yockey carefully. Yockey is saying that DNA -> messenger RNA is encoding and mRNA -> amino acids is decoding.

      Then later he says

      A priori, it is not clear what Information theory has to do with the origin of life. The origin of life seems to be chemical problem, not of information theory.

      That’s his own circular reasoning. What he’s saying here is “Chemistry doesn’t recognize information, but since chemistry does account for origin of life, information must not be important.” He can’t see his way out of his materialistic biases.

      The way I have always dealt with this is to insist on empirical evidence rather than armchair philosophical debates. This is why the $10M prize exists.

      The author is correct that Yockey sits uncomfortably in some level of agreement with the ID people, even though he most certainly is not one. My website here has me quoting Yockey as far back as 2005 and I have always been very careful not to overstate Yockey’s position.

  2. Eli Smithson says:

    Hi Perry,

    So I decided to start reading Yockey’s book on origin of life and tried to do more research about him. I know you like his work, but I found this comment today made from a stubborn atheist:

    “Yockey fundamentally misunderstands chemical and biological processes, so his probability calculations are virtually meaningless.

    His probabilities are based off the erroneous ideal that a specific protein/amino acid sequence is required. This is not how life works. It’s a bottom up process, not top down. His model is effectively irrelevant at this point but there’s more.

    Similarly, he treats the process as if it’s complete random – which is also false, he doesn’t account for selection pressures, potential biases, advantageous sequences, spontaneous formation of certain strands/compounds/sequences so not every chain has to be built from scratch, much more and he accounts for none of it.

    Even just one or two of the above behaviors/properties would reduce his probability by orders of magnitude but then need to consider the process isn’t linear either, reaction/synthesis can occur in parallel with our stepwise/linear progression, consequences can form in parallel and than join and present a function or benefit – reducing probability exponentially.

    He also used dated principles in constructing his models and assertions. He makes claims about the impossibility of protein synthesis, even though this has been demonstrated, and argues about information flow without understanding there are non enzymatic pathways to synthesis nucleotides and other molecules and it’s not required a protein develop first but we do have multiple prebiotic pathways for polypeptide synthesis from chemical to geotechnical. (Which he does acquiesce the genetic code could have evolved from earlier doublet code)

    Oh yeah and he leaves out that amino acids sequences aren’t 1 to 1 mappings, many different sequences can produce the same function and even more sequences can produce similar or good enough function. I mean. His model is beyond meaningless now”

    I don’t know if you’ve Yockey’s works on probability calculations, but what are the errors made in the comment above?

    Thanks

    • Eli,

      I have not researched the specific issues brought up here. But in some sense that does not matter anyway, because Yockey makes a number of other statements that are absolutely correct, independent of any probability calculations:

      “The reason that there are principles of biology that cannot be derived from the laws of physics and chemistry lies simply in the fact that the genetic information content of the genome for constructing even the simplest organisms is much larger than the information content of these laws. The existence of a genome and the genetic code divides living organisms from nonliving matter. There is nothing in the physico-chemical world that remotely resembles reactions being determined by a sequence and codes between sequences.

      The above is just a re-statement of information problem in origin of life. We’ve never gotten a prize submission that begins to come close, and we’ve gotten a submission every few weeks now for about 5 years.

      This person’s statement that life is bottom-up, not top down, is something he needs to prove. Nobody gets to just assume this because they want to. There are many processes in biology that are top-down, as Denis Noble’s books and papers abundantly show.

      Insist that they prove their statements with experiments.

      • Eli Smithson says:

        Thanks for your comment.

        This part:

        “The reason that there are principles of biology that cannot be derived from the laws of physics and chemistry lies simply in the fact that the genetic information content of the genome for constructing even the simplest organisms is much larger than the information content of these laws.”

        I found that Yockey never went into much detail with this. What is the information content in physical laws and how do we calculate it?

        • Imagine a physics book with a list of every one of Newton’s laws, laws of chemistry etc in compact equation form.

          Anyone who’s taken a lot of physics classes knows you could probably list ALL of them in a few thousand pages, if not a few hundred.

          The information in strand of DNA in a chicken or apple tree vastly exceeds that.

      • Eli Smithson says:

        “ This person’s statement that life is bottom-up, not top down, is something he needs to prove. Nobody gets to just assume this because they want to. There are many processes in biology that are top-down, as Denis Noble’s books and papers abundantly show”

        Could you link some of Dr. Noble’s papers?

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