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THE notion of the "selfish gene" is the most successful scientific metaphor of the past 30 years, followed not far behind by "the extended phenotype". Both were coined by Richard Dawkins and are, as it happens, the titles of his first popular science books.
The Selfish Gene's message was that evolution is about the natural selection of genes, and genes alone. Dawkins sees them as the best candidates to be evolution's units of replication. As such, the genes that are passed on are those whose consequences serve their own interests at gene level - that is, to continue being replicated - and do not necessarily serve the interests of the organism at a larger level, or at the level of groups of organisms. It is "as if" these genes are being selfish, not that they are really selfish.
The Extended Phenotype develops this idea, arguing that in their drive for survival and replication, genes extend their influence beyond the appearance, or phenotype, of an individual and into the world where it also affects their chance of survival.
The public's largely Dawkinsian view will be further challenged by research now emerging that may point to this kind of environmental influence being passed on to offspring epigenetically. Researchers have known for some time about transgenerational epigenetic effects in plants and fungi, and it is becoming clear that they might occur in animals too.
Another area of research that could challenge Dawkins's metaphors is lateral gene transfer (LGT), which describes how an organism incorporates genetic material from another organism without being its offspring, as opposed to vertical transfer, in which genetic material is transmitted from parent to offspring.
Most of us know about LGT through antibiotic resistance, where one bacterium transfers genetic information to another that gives it immunity to a type of antibiotics. At first it seemed as if LGT affected only single-celled microbes, which reproduce asexually, but there is increasing evidence that it also occurs in animals and plants.
The selfish gene metaphor claims that only genes or replicators are inherited and are essentially immortal, and it offers an interpretation of evolutionary biology in that light.
We are testing that empirical claim and finding that things are a lot more complicated and subtle. This must mean that as an organising interpretation of evolutionary biology, the metaphor of the selfish gene and, by extension, that of the extended phenotype, are insufficient.
is orchestrated by a set of chemical reactions that switch parts of the genome off and on at strategic times and locations. Source