Saturday, 14 November 2015

All inheritance is genetic inheritance

One of the dodgy memes perpetuated by some cultural evolution enthusiasts is that there is more to inheritance than genes. Boyd and Richerson say that human evolution progressed "not by genes alone". Lee Alan Dugatkin calls imitation "evolution beyond the gene". Jablonka and Lamb say that "Genetic" is only one of four dimensions of variation, the others being the "Epigenetic", "Behavioral" and "Symbolic" dimensions. Steven Rose says there is "life beyond the gene". David Sloane Wilson says:

core evolutionary theory needs to expand beyond genetics to include other inheritance systems, such as environmentally induced changes in gene expression (epigenetics), mechanisms of social learning found in many species, and the human capacity for symbolic thought that results in an almost unlimited variety of cognitive constructions, each motivating a suite of behaviors subject to selection (Jablonka & Lamb 2006; Penn et al. 2008).
Expand evolutionary theory without expanding genetics? It makes no sense to me: science needs an expanded genetics too. Expanding the domain of evolutionary theory without expanding the domain of genetics would be a very lop-sided approach.

Memetics pioneered the expansion of genetics to cultural evolution way back in the the 1980s. Efforts to establish a new science of 'replicators' to compete with genetics have gone nowhere - and don't make much sense. The latest attempt to establish a science of non-genetic inheritance - epigenetics - is an absolute joke. What a "dustbin" category that is. It is good for one thing - being an example of how not to do science. Waddington's excellent notion of epigenetics is in the process of being hijacked by foolish and ignorant scientific punks. What we need is a generalized gene and a generalized genetics. When generalizing evolution, scientists should not neglect to generalize genes and genetics! These concepts are absolutely needed for any sensible grounding of evolutionary theory on information theory. Genes should be the units of heredity and genetics should be the study of heredity.

Some say that genetic algorithms are not really "genetic". It is nonsense: genetic algorithms really are genetic. Take genes and genetics seriously, dammit. Don't confine them to the special theory of evolution - that's not where they belong.

Molecular biologists may have appropriated the term "gene" - but it isn't theirs to define. As Steven Pinker puts it:

Molecular biologists have appropriated the term "gene" to refer to stretches of DNA that code for a protein. Unfortunately, this sense differs from the one used in population genetics, behavioral genetics, and evolutionary theory, namely any information carrier that is transmissible across generations and has sustained effects on the phenotype.

If we don't expand genetics now, it will only need doing later. Cultural evolution's scientific lag in academia is large, but forward thinking individuals should still be able to see that the need to generalize genetics is now clear and obvious.

IMO, Boyd, Richerson, Dugatkin, Jablonka and Wilson are not doing scientific progress any favours by dragging their feet on this issue. Get with the program, folks. The 'beyond the gene' meme might look progressive to you - but it looks backwards to me. The best way forwards is to generalize genes and genetics when generalizing evolution. This is scientific evolution, rather than scientific revolution - and evolution is usually less painful and more likely.

Don't tell me that genes and genetics have more inertia and are harder to move. That much is now obvious. The point is that they need to move, and will have to move eventually. So, who is helping? ...and who is not? Which side of this issue are you on?

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