Richard Dawkins is a master mythmaker. His best fiction is that of the selfish gene. His great book of that title, published 35 years ago, described human beings as lumbering robots driven by immortal genes. It even had a brilliant, final twist. Sometimes, the myth promised, we can overcome the tyranny of the biological imperative inside us. Inevitably – though perhaps more quickly than many anticipated – his myth is going the way of the world. It spoke powerfully of what was taken to be truth for a time. But subject to the inexorable shifts of human knowledge, the myth is now starting to look outdated.
A crucial moment came in August 2010, when Martin Nowak, Corina Tarnita and Edward O Wilson published an article in Nature. They argued that the mathematics behind the idea that Dawkins had so successfully popularised doesn't stack up. It was wrong, Wilson insists – and he should know as one of the few people who originally did the maths. He now prefers evolutionary theories that speak about altruism, based upon group selection. The next generation awaits a mythmaker of Dawkins's stature to tell us this new story about life.
Now, I know what you are thinking. Is it not overly provocative to refer to the selfish gene as a myth, even though the dictionary definition of "myth" seems quite precise? My dictionary includes definitions such as "false belief" and "fictitious thing". It will be thought inflammatory because, unfortunately, naming something a myth carries these pejorative overtones in our times. It is as if myths are straightforwardly untrue, and those who believe them are ignorant and foolish.