By Jonathan Webb, Science reporter, BBC News
As The Selfish Gene notches up 40 years in print, BBC News asked Richard Dawkins whether his most famous book is relevant today (answer: yes), whether he has any regrets about public spats over religion (no), and whether he is quitting Twitter (sort of).
“I’d so much rather talk about this than about politics.”
This, from a thinker most famous as a fearless firebrand, sounds rather incongruous. But as Prof Dawkins hunches over his laptop to dig up examples of biomorphs – the computer-generated “creatures” he conceived in the 1980s to illustrate artificial selection – it is transparently, genuinely felt.
Later, we touch on the fact that he sees public debate as a scientist’s responsibility. Right now, he wants to talk about molluscs.
“I don’t know whether you know the classic book by D’Arcy Thompson, On Growth and Form? He showed that all mollusc shells are a tube, which is enlarging as it coils around. You only need three numbers to specify a mollusc shell.”
Those three numbers can be plotted inside a cube, Prof Dawkins explains. “Evolution is then just a walk through this cube of all possible shells.”
In a computerised game he wrote in 1996, people could construct their own such walk by choosing for themselves which offspring would “breed” in successive generations of shells.
This game has now been resurrected online to mark the 20th anniversary of the book it arose from, Climbing Mount Improbable.
Its mollusc shells are presented alongside an ancestral explanatory exercise: the biomorphs. These were first programmed 10 years earlier, when Dawkins wrote The Blind Watchmaker. He clearly remembers getting lost in the work.
“When I discovered that I could actually start getting something that looked like an insect, I got really obsessed with the idea of breeding insects.”
As the biomorphs grow from simple, branching stick-shrubs into more elaborate and occasionally familiar shapes, they make an important point – and one that is better grasped by being involved than by hearing it explained.
“You get much more of an idea of what it’s like to breed dogs from wolves, or to breed cauliflower from wild cabbage,” Prof Dawkins says, clearly enjoying the sight of the spindly shapes evolving again on his screen.
Like Darwin long before him, Dawkins settled on artificial selection – selective breeding for desirable characteristics, such as speed in race horses – to explain an important point about natural selection.
For Darwin, it was the idea that variations within a population, or herd, can persist and shape future generations if they are favoured by the breeder. If we humans can coax domestic dogs into their astounding variety of breeds then nature, with vastly more time at its disposal, can produce all the variety of life on Earth through a similar, slower selection process.
For Dawkins, the focus was the notion that has underpinned so much of his work: this process has no need for an architect. Slow, subtle preferences for one form over another will gradually produce complexity.
The Blind Watchmaker, many scientists and writers agree, was Prof Dawkins at his finest. His arguments are made with infectious enthusiasm and powerful imagery.
Ten years earlier again, Dawkins’ pioneering account of the “gene-centric” view of evolution, The Selfish Gene, also won huge acclaim.
It crystallised an argument that had been brewing since Watson and Crick’s beautiful DNA structure marked a new peak in our understanding of inheritance: these sequences would tend to accumulate and propagate mutations that were beneficial to the gene itself. Any given gene “wants” to be passed on to as many future offspring as possible.
Forty years on, however, this concept faces some opposition among today’s biologists.
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