An instructive disagreement at Oxford about the function of genes

An instructive disagreement at Oxford about the function of genes January 3, 2021


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The first of Alister McGrath’s three earned Oxford University doctorates was in molecular biophysics.  The next two were in, first, theology and, second, intellectual history.  On pages 38-39 of Alister E. McGrath, Darwinism and the Divine: Evolutionary Thought and Natural Theology (Chichester: Wiley-Blackwell, 2011), McGrath offers an excellent example of how the same bare scientific facts can be interpreted and expanded upon in radically different ways, depending upon the presuppositions that interpreters bring to them:


As his initial illustration, he uses a passage from the Oxford evolutionary biologist, science popularizer, and vocal “New Atheist” polemicist Richard Dawkins, cited from


Dawkins’s early masterpiece of Darwinian popularization, The Selfish Gene (1976).  This important and influential work supplements overt scientific description with a covert metaphysic, which represents genes as active agents in control of their own destiny and those of their hosts.

[Genes] swarm in huge colonies, safe inside gigantic lumbering robots, sealed off from the outside world, communicating with it by tortuous indirect routes, manipulating it by remote control.  They are in you and me; they created us, body and mind, and their preservation is the ultimate rationale for our existence.

This passage presents a completely defensible scientific statement — “genes are in you and me” — with a series of rather less defensible metaphysical assertions.  We are told, for example, that the preservation of our genes “is the ultimate rationale for our existence.”  This is, however, simply a presentation of a “gene’s eye view” — a hypothetical metaphysical way of interpreting scientific observation, which arguably reached its zenith in the early 1980s.  This approach conceived the gene as an active controlling agent, which could be regarded as “manipulating” the destiny of biological entities, including humanity.  Yet the empirically verified facts in this statement are limited to the brief statement that genes “are in you and me.”  The rest is speculative.  Metaphysical presuppositions have been smuggled in, and portrayed as if they were scientifically verified facts.


McGrath then cites a satirically rewritten version of the same paragraph created by the Oxford University systems biologist Denis Noble:


Noble retains what is scientifically valid and verifiable in Dawkins’s prose.  Then, in a masterly piece of ideological subversion, he identifies and inverts Dawkins’s non-scientific statements.  Noble playfully portrays genes as passive, where Dawkins depicts them as active:

[Genes] are trapped in huge colonies, locked inside highly intelligent beings, moulded by the outside world, communicating with it by complex processes, through which, blindly, as if by magic, function emerges.  They are in you and me; we are the system that allows their code to be read; and their preservation is totally dependent on the joy that we experience in reproducing ourselves.  We are the ultimate rationale for their existence.


Obviously, Dawkins and Noble depict the functional status of genes in radically distinct ways.  They accurately report the same very limited scientific information, but then they go completely different directions with their metaphysical interpretations — which each of them suggests (one in earnest and the other more or less in jest) to be just as secure, scientifically speaking, as the fact that genes “are in you and me.”  Their statements are empirically equivalent, in a sense, but both cannot be correct.


Alister McGrath’s comment on the foregoing two  summary statements is important:


So which is right?  How could we decide which is to be preferred on scientific grounds?  As Noble observes, “no-one seems to be able to think of an experiment that would detect an empirical difference between them.”  The question of the metaphysical presuppositions and consequences of evolutionary thought is entirely legitimate, and is of considerable interest.  Nevertheless, it is important to be clear that discussion of this issue is often muddied by confusion over the status of the metaphysical dimensions of evolutionary thought.  The challenge facing anyone interested in reflecting on the cultural, religious, ethical, and theological implications of biological evolution is to separate the observational evidence from the accumulated detritus of metaphysical speculation.




As an addendum, here’s a potpourri of recent science-related links that caught my attention:


Science and Nature (date unclear):  “NASA’s $1 Billion Jupiter Probe Just Sent Back Dazzling New Photos of the Giant Planet and Its Great Red Spot”


LiveScience (roughly 11 December 2020):  “Ancient Egyptian hoard of counterfeit ‘dirty money’ unearthed”


Haaretz (19 December 2020):  “Archaeological Trove Spanning Millennia Emerges From Construction Work in Ancient Jaffa: A Bronze Age baby buried in a jar, a Greek call to accept death as part of life and an Islamic headache remedy are just some of the recent discoveries in one of the world’s oldest port towns”


Gizmodo (23 December 2020):  “Archaeologists Find Evidence That a Massive Tsunami Hit Ancient Levantine Coast”


CNN (27 December 2020):  “The peace, insights and life-rescuing power of the rosary and other religious prayer beads”


CNN:  (27 December 2020):  “Ancient snack stall uncovered in Pompeii, revealing bright frescoes and traces of 2,000-year-old street food”


The Economist (30 December 2020): A new push to ban medical treatments for transgender children: State legislators are seeking to make puberty blockers, cross-sex hormones and gender reassignment surgery illegal”


KSL (31 December 2020):  “2021 is the perfect time to set meaningful goals, psychiatrists say”


Science Alert (31 December 2020):  “Study of More Than 1 Million People Finds Intriguing Link Between Iron Levels And Lifespan”


SmartNews (31 December 2020):  “Inscription Leads Archaeologists to Tomb of One of the Last Han Emperors: A manufacturing date on a vessel confirmed a Chinese mausoleum’s ties to second-century A.D. ruler Liu Zhi”


Wall Street Journal (31 December 2020):  “For New Year’s Resolutions, Never Think You’re Too Old to Become a Beginner: In 2021, take on the challenge of learning a new skill or hobby as an adult. It can bring big cognitive and emotional benefits.”


ScienceNews (31 December 2020):  “These are the most-read Science News stories of 2020″


KSL (1 January 2021): “Romney calls for comprehensive COVID-19 vaccination plan”


Finally, here’s one that, I think, might be especially interesting for Latter-day Saints who are inclined to theological speculation.  It’s reprinted from the 21 April 2019 issue of Scientific American:


“When Lab Experiments Carry Theological Implications: Efforts to create new life-forms—and new universes—will raise profound questions.”



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