The Selfish Gene Myth is Bust: Richard Dawkins is an Invented Originator
Further As to the "selfish gene"
I thought you would be interested in some additional details which I have found regarding this issue of the selfish gene.
In the 30th anniversary edition of Dawkins book, he writes on page xi the following:
Personifying genes, if done with due care and caution, often turns out to be the shortest route to rescuing a Darwinian theorist drowning in muddle. While trying to exercise that caution. I was encouraged by the masterful precedent of W. D.
Hamilton, one of the four named heroes of the book. In a paper of 1972 (the year in which I began to write The Selfish Gene) Hamilton wrote:
A gene is being favoured in natural selection if the aggregate of its replicas forms an increasing fraction of the total gene pool. We are going to be concerned with genes supposed to affect the social behaviour of their bearers, so let us try to make the argument more vivid by attributing to the genes, temporarily, intelligence and a certain freedom of choice. Imagine that a gene is considering the problem of increasing the number of its replicas, and imagine that it can choose between .. .
That is exactly the right spirit in which to read much of The Selfish Gene.
Note that Dawkins cites the year of publication of Hamilton's paper as 1972 when in point of fact, it is cited as 1971 everywhere else you can look to find where that particular paper of Hamilton's is cited, including your own correct citation of it as being published in 1971. That paper happens to be titled Selection of Selfish and Altruistic Behaviour In Some Extreme Models (as you have duly noted). See, for example, page 339 of Scott Boorman's book The Genetics Of Altruism or page 182 of The Altruism Equation by Lee Alan Dugatkin to see the paper was cited as from 1971. Why would Dawkins cite it as 1972 then? A mistake? Or something else.
Well that particular paper of Hamilton's was printed in its entirety in the book The Collected Papers of W.D. Hamilton, The Narrow Roads of Gene Land Volume I so one can see for oneself the contents of that paper. On page 272 of that book, you can verify Dawkins had indeed quoted a passage from Hamilton's 1971 paper. Earlier in that paper, page on 203 of The Collected Papers of W.D. Hamilton Volume I, this passage occurs:
When such equilibrium occurs it is likely that selection of modifiers that cause a changed reaction when like meets like will eventually resolve it; that is, will allow the selfish gene to complete its spread.
One could claim it was either a typo in the book or a slip on the part of Dawkins but 1972 happens to be very conveniently the year Dawkins claims he began writing his book The Selfish Gene. For in that very selfsame paper of Hamilton's from which Dawkins pulls the passage which he includes on page xi of the 30th anniversary edition of The Selfish Gene, the very phrase selfish gene appears. 1971 would date the appearance of the phrase before Dawkins began writing his book and, since Dawkins not only knew of the existence of the paper, he also had to have read it in order to pluck out the passage he did from it. And yes, from what I have seen, Hamilton is not properly credited.
Also on the note of sound scholarship which Dawkins hammers at in his book The God Delusion, if you realized what Dawkins left out in supposedly making his case, you would know there is considerable cherry-picking on his part in order to not contradict his own claims. Yet he accuses others of cherry-picking to support their own bias. (i.e. page 15 of The God Delusion: Does it seem that Einstein contradicted himself? That his words can be cherry-picked for quotes to support both sides of an argument? No.)
Incidentally, Dawkins states that Einstein was an atheist scientist. [Exact quote from page 13 of The God Delusion: Einstein sometimes invoked the name of God (and he is not the only atheistic scientist to do so…..)] But Einstein throughout his life repeatedly stated he was not an atheist and this was made eminently clear in both quotations of Einstein's and also statements from those who knew and had conversations with Einstein that he was not an atheist. This information appeared in Max Jammer's book Einstein and Religion, a book which Dawkins states in The God Delusion was his main source of quotations from Einstein himself on religious matters. If you bother to read other well researched books on Einstein, you will see basically the same information, that is, Einstein was not an atheist. But as Dawkins cited Jammer's book, the fact he omitted statements which would contradict his own claim that Einstein was an atheist is quite interesting to say the least.
I could go on and on but will leave it at that.
A word of caution
Dear Dr Sutton,
I enjoyed your blog and your thoroughness as well as your bravery and persistence.
The following may or may not be helpful:
Hamilton cited his own 1969-paper in an article entitled “Selfish and Spiteful Behaviour in an Evolutionary Model” (Nature (1970) 228, 1218-1220); received February 6; revised July 16, 1970. http:
//dx.doi.org /10.1038 /2281218a0 Hamilton also cites his 1971-paper (the same one you cited) in an article entitled “Geometry for the Selfish Herd” (J. Theor. Biol. (1971) 31, 295-311); it was received 28 September 1970. http: //dx.doi.org /10.1016 /0022-5193(71)90189-5; this paper has been cited well over a thousand times.
Eric Charnov co-wrote a paper entitled “Optimal prey selection in the Great Tit (Parus major)” (Anim. Behav. (1977) 25, 30-38). The other three authors were from the Animal Behaviour Research Group, Department of Zoology, University of Oxford, which is where Richard Dawkins was based also. In the article’s Acknowledgements the authors thanked Marian Dawkins who “criticized the manuscript”; she was, of course, married to Richard Dawkins at the time. The paper was received 26 March 1976; revised 5 May 1976; MS. number: 1520. http:
//dx.doi.org /10.1016 /0003-3472(77)90064-1
Charnov also wrote another paper in 1977 entitled “An Elementary Treatment of the Genetical Theory of Kin-selection” (J. Theor. Biol. (1977) 66, 541-550); received 15 October 1976. http:
//dx.doi.org /10.1016 /0022-5193(77)90301-0 Charnov’s correspondence address was Animal Behaviour Research Group, South Parks Road, Oxford, England. In this paper Charnov makes many references to “Hamilton’s rule” (the quotation marks are Charnov’s) and Hamilton’s model. In Section 2A he wrote:
2. A Simple Diploid Model
The assumptions in the model are as follows for a simple diploid organism.
(1) A single locus, two alleles; A is an altruist gene, a is selfish. [my underlining](2) Discrete generations, panmictic mating, near infinite population size.
The paper further cites Hamilton’s 1969-paper as well as the aforementioned 1970-Nature paper by Hamilton. Interestingly, at the end of the paper Charnov wrote:
This paper began with my attempts to explain the genetics of kin-selection to a graduate class in population biology. That failure led to the sexual haploid model. John Maynard Smith and Brian Charlesworth stimulated the diploid treatment. Richard Sibly, Mike Orlove and Richard Dawkins provided some much-needed criticism. The work was done while I was a visitor with the Animal Behavior Research Group at Oxford. I wish to thank David McFarland, John Krebs and K.G. Lark for making this visit possible; and the Biology Department, University of Utah, for paying the bills. [the formatting is my doing]
The 1975-paper by Orlove (Received 8 January 1974, and in revised form 5 July 1974) builds heavily on Hamilton’s work (with citations) and thanks Hamilton amongst many others. It is worth noting the interesting link with the Law of Karma and the replication of genes at the very end of the paper. http:
//dx.doi.org /10.1016 /S0022-5193(75)80035-X
John Hurrell Crook wrote a paper “Sources of cooperation in animals and man” (Soc. Sci. Inform. (1970) 9, 27-48) that cites Hamilton’s presentation at the Smithsonian Institution Symposium “Man and beast” in May 1969; Crook’s paper was a revised version of a paper that he wrote for the very same symposium that appeared in the same edition of Man and beast in the Smithsonian Institution Press (1970) as Hamilton’s (according to a footnote on the first page of Crook’s paper). http:
//dx.doi.org /10.1177 /053901847000900102 Crook was a Buddhist and passed away in 2011.
George W. Barlow wrote an article “Hexagonal Territories” (Anim. Behav. (1974) 22, 876-878); Received 13 December 1973; revised 12 February 1974; MS. number: 1283. http:
//dx.doi.org /10.1016 /0003-3472(74)90010-4 It also cites Hamilton and in the Acknowledgements:
Thanks are due to Roy L. Caldwell for reading the manuscript. The writing was supported by National Science Foundation Grant GB 32192X, and the final draft was prepared with assistance from the staff of the Department of Zoology, University of Oxford, for which I am grateful to Professor J. W. S. Pringle, F.R.S., Professor N. Tinbergen, F.R.S. and Dr R. Dawkins. [my formatting]
Lastly, Mary Jane West Eberhard wrote “The Evolution of Social Behavior by Kin Selection” in March 1975 (The Quarterly Review of Biology (1975) 50, 1-33) that frequently referred to “selfish” and “selfishness” in terms of traits and cited the 1974-Alexander paper, many of Hamilton’s, and the 1975-Orlove paper as in press (in 1974). http:
//dx.doi.org /10.1086 /408298 The most fascinating part, however, was the Acknowledgements:
This paper began as a joint effort by Richard D. Alexander and the author to write a paper on modifiers of kin selection and (later) on the evolution of social behavior (see Alexander, 1974). Many of the ideas discussed here came originally from Alexander or were brought to my attention by him; indeed, I am not always sure where his originality left off and mine began on certain topics. The same is true of help I received in extensive discussions of some sections with William G. Eberhard. Mary L. Corn, William D. Hamilton, Egbert Leigh, Charles D. Michener, Martin H. Moynihan, Katherine M. Noonan, Michael J. Orlove, and Robert L. Trivers also read the manuscript and made stimulating and helpful criticisms. José Ignacio Borrero kindly allowed me to use his personal library of books on birds and mammals. Financial support was provided by William G. Eberhard. [my formatting]
There is an exhaustive list (in the hundreds) of peer-reviewed papers that have cited the work of just Hamilton dating from before the ‘priority date’ of 1976. It seems to me that most articles deal with the concept of “selfish behaviour” though. Having said that, this discipline is very technical and complex (but fascinating, even for a non-expert); the articles tend to be lengthy. I would submit to you that only an expert can really judge these on their relative merits and thus help to verify or falsify your assertions. Obviously, there was a lot of excitement at the time and the field was rapidly evolving (pardon the pun) and, as is often the case in science, the researchers were influenced by each other in a mutual manner and exchanging ideas in an open and collaborative way without clear (and necessary?) attribution.
With all due respect, you may be right in your assertions but you might be ‘in the wrong’ by refusing to ask Richard Dawkins to set the record straight. In addition, you could, and should, ask others who can help to uncover the truth, e.g. Marian Dawkins (who is still based at the Department of Zoology, University of Oxford; obviously she’s not married anymore to Richard Dawkins), Roger Trivers (who is based at the Department of Anthropology, Rutgers University and who, of course, wrote the original foreword to The Selfish Gene 1st Edition), or Eric Charnov (Department of Biology, University of New Mexico). There may be many others. Unfortunately, you cannot ask Hamilton himself. As far as I can tell Dawkins never published together with Hamilton.
Finally, even though Wikipedia has not acknowledged your contribution they did correct the Wiki. They did not delete anything because it can still be viewed in the Wiki History, the same one that you show in your blog. Obviously, one always has to question Wikipedia’s veracity, but this is true for any source of data & information.
My apologies for the delayed response. Meanwhile Dennis Lendrem has written an intriguing counter-argument. I’d still like to make a few comments.
I don’t have any first-hand experience but I can imagine that sceptics and myth busters are always scorned by the ‘establishment’. If the rogue comes from outside the field he will be accused of ignorance. If, on the other hand, he comes from inside he will be accused of conflict of interest or ‘personal agenda’.
You know as well as I do that science is a collaborative, additive, and incremental effort. It means that we are continuously building on what other people have achieved, step by step. It is about sharing data as well as ideas. It is my impression that when Richard Dawkins started writing his book in 1972 and finished it in 1975, after taking a sabbatical, those were exciting times in his field. Dawkins wrote in the Preface to second edition (pg. xvii): “I now see that it was one of those mysterious periods in which new ideas are hovering in the air”. Undoubtedly, many chats and discussions were held (perhaps not at the water cooler) in corridors, labs, offices, pubs (?), at conferences, etc. This would constitute “oral (or non-published written) provenance”, as you call it. You can ask Dawkins directly and/or people who were his peers at the time and I suspect that they will confirm this. If correct, this will make it impossible to determine who has “priority” nor can one rely on only written (published) evidence. It seems somewhat of a moot point as there is no litigation imminent, e.g. as in the challenging of a patent in which case the ‘priority date’ can be immensely important.
I think Dawkins duly acknowledged Hamilton and others, in particular his “four heroes” in the Preface(s), Introduction, and throughout the book. In his Preface to first edition (pg. xxi) Dawkins referred to his “second imaginary reader”, which is “the expert”. He expressed hope that the expert will find something new in the book, a different way of looking at ideas that may inspire new thoughts.
Dawkins clearly set out to make the ideas and concepts accessible to lay-people. He also made it clear that he did not want to distinguish “between science and its ‘popularization’.” in the Preface to second edition (pg. xvi) He called this “a difficult art”. Dawkins built on ideas of others, and added his own, and he argued that popularization “can in its own right make an original contribution to science” (still on pg. xvi).
Dawkins has taken the title and the concept of “the selfish gene” and sold it to the masses (figuratively as well as literally) and I would say that he can rightfully claim this as his contribution, also on the scientific level. Further, he was the first to do so.
This has been an interesting ‘journey’ for me but I’ll end it here.
I must clear up a misunderstanding, which was mainly my doing. I did not argue that Dawkins coined the phrase orally before Hamilton gave his paper in 1969. My argument was that it would have been, as it is nowadays, very hard sometimes to clearly define and appropriate absolute or relative ownership of ideas, particularly scientific ideas. Peer-reviewed papers nowadays have multiple co-authors – and it is my impression that they have many more authors on average than, say, 50 years ago – and patents tend to have multiple co-inventors. There are quite clear & specific rules regarding co-authorship and co-inventorship but it is nevertheless a grey area as I can assure you from my own experience. In the late 60s and early 70s many ideas would have been buzzing around; who knows who truly was the first to put any of these into spoken or written words? In relation to this, when does the writing of book start? Most certainly not at the date of publication; more likely is that ideas would have been buzzing around one’s head for some time before the idea of writing a book would have even occurred. Writing a book takes time, a lot of time, and many revisions.
Finally, as a non-expert in Dawkins and Hamilton’s field I cannot judge the similarities and differences between their use of the phrase and concept. I lack the expertise, the nous, and this became extremely clear when I tried to find out.
I hope this has clarified it.
Your persistence could be a double-edged sword but it would be rude of me not to reply briefly.
My point is that I am sceptical and unsure of my own judgement because I know I lack the nous. I think this is different from Dennis’, also because he’s more of an ‘insider’; you’ll have to read his blogs and ask him yourself.
My thesis is that all science, to various degrees, is a joint effort. Plagiarism does, of course, occur in science as it does in all areas of human endeavour (under different names & labels).
Since Hamilton did use a phrase & concept at a meeting in 1969 I am sure that he did use it prior to that meeting, possibly in lectures, in other talks, in conversations, etc. There may or may not exist written records of such, therefore they are just possibilities. I am quite comfortable with that. Hamilton influenced many people (e.g. Dawkins) but he was no “island’; Hamilton himself would have been influenced as well. Admittedly, Hamilton published many single-author papers but obviously he did not cite just his own work and he was no hermit who lived and worked in a cave in complete isolation from the world. I would think that not even Dawkins would be able to draw a sharp line to demarcate where Hamilton’s influence (not to mention that of many others) stopped and his own (Dawkins’) continued. After more than 37 years one’s memory will go blurry, which is perhaps the reason why you insist on written records from that time?
Hamilton would have had ample time to set the record straight if necessary. The fact that he didn’t could mean several things but I’d think that the main reason may have been that no corrective measures were needed in Hamilton’s opinion.
Dawkins himself has had ample time to change the record if necessary. Others have also had the opportunity to change the history of The Selfish Gene as it has been perpetuated but none have done so, as far as I know. This is interesting in itself because many scientists of that era are still alive. Furthermore, egos, envy & jealousy, and similar human traits would have ‘encouraged’ someone to step forward and make his or her voice heard. After 37 years this now seems less likely to happen.
To be self-serving does not make one a liar or cheater, does it?
Yes, the public believes that Dawkins is the sole originator of the phrase & concept like most people believe that Galileo Galilei invented the telescope. Indeed, Dawkins has done well out of this (not so sure about Galilei). Dawkins has published so many things; were these all his and purely his? Most likely not but he is an excellent ‘communicator’ and perhaps the ‘messenger’ (if that’s all Dawkins is) receives more credit than he deserves (instead of the opposite situation in which the messenger is shot). I simply don’t know the answer. Finally an analogy: when a famous pianist plays Piano Concerto No. 2 by Sergei Rachmaninoff who gets the applause: the pianist, the orchestra, the conductor, the composer, the people that taught the performers, etc?
thank you for your reply. I will let it rest at this point.
Myth Busting or Myth Creation?
I don't believe Richard Dawkins has ever claimed exclusivity to the "selfish gene".
In fact, he has been quite open in declaring that his only claim to originality lay not in the selfish gene but in some of the ideas in his second book - The Extended Phenotype.
Have you ever asked him about it?
I'm not sure I can give you a reference but when I asked that's what he said to me at David McFarland's Christmas party in 1979.
It certainly raises an important issue about how precedence is assigned in science.
You should ask him. It's an opportunity to document the origins of one of the most influential ideas of the second half of the twentieth century.
Nice article Mike. Let's hope this prompts Professor Dawkins to make a response.