Category Archives: Lunchtime reading

Light reading: Reports of the selfish gene’s death have been greatly exaggerated…

A popular science article getting a lot of attention right now is journalist David Dobbs’ latest offering, ‘Die, Selfish Gene, Die‘. There are a few things that don’t sit quite right with me, but I don’t feel qualified enough (or with the requisite time to read up enough on it) to comment in detail (although comments from people I know and whose opinion I respect include ‘wrong’ and ‘thoroughly terrible‘). One general problem with this type of article is that there have to be some ‘controversial’ statements to pique the reader’s interest; here, even the sub-heading claims that the content will overturn the central idea of Richard Dawkins’ famous book:

The selfish gene is one of the most successful science metaphors ever invented. Unfortunately, it’s wrong.

Dawkins has responded to this ‘adversarial journalism’ on his own blog; meanwhile, Jerry Coyne at ‘Why Evolution is True’ has written two lengthy pieces which go into rather more detail on the science:

Part 1

Part 2

Dobbs himself has written another two posts on the subject on his own blog, the first being a ‘clarification’ of his original piece. The second is a more direct response to Coyne’s writing. PZ Myers has also weighed in on Dobbs’ side, expanding on the science while claiming that pushback is from ‘people who don’t quite get the concept‘.

It’s worth reading all these to get a feel for the different ideas flying around, although reading ‘The Selfish Gene’ itself (or Dawkins’ later book, ‘The Extended Phenotype’) should be on your xmas list if you don’t own them already.

I also tried to follow a twitter conversation between the likes of Richard Lenski, Razib Khan, Josh Witten, Karen James, Emily Willingham, Joel McGlothlin, Aylwyn Scally… among others… but it all got a bit too intense for me! Hopefully someone will gather those tweets together under one internet roof, but that someone certainly isn’t going to be me.

I’m pretty sure we haven’t heard the last of this, so I’ll try to keep adding links as I find them…

ps yes, ‘light reading’ is supposed to be sarcastic.

Update: 15/12/13

It wouldn’t be a scientific debate on Twitter without a blaze of capslock hulkspeak. SMASH LINK TO READ

‘Die, Selfish Gene, Die’ has evolved: David Dobbs has, rather wonderfully, published a revised version of his article. While I’m sure many will still take issue with the ideas contained within it, it’s fantastic that he has taken all of the criticism and comments onboard and updated his article. The original version still exists online, and I’ve changed the link at the top of this post so that it is linked there. There is also another (!) version of the revised article with links inserted by Dobbs to show his sources.

Finally (for today, at least), I just saw a great post by Sergio Graziosi on the whole affair, discussing both the public understanding of evolution and the technical points of Dobbs’ article. It’s well worth a read.


Lunchtime reading: The Things

Kurt Russell prepares to face The Thing in John Carpenter's 1982 film.

The prequel to John Carpenter’s seminal 1982 sci-fi horror, ‘The Thing’, is released in the UK this week. Carpenter’s version is one of my favourite films, so I am quietly excited to find out whether this new addition can reach anything like the same levels of tension. The word on the internet is not encouraging, but then we don’t have the records to see whether everyone was declaring that Carpenter’s film “definitely won’t be as good as Howard Hawks’ 1952 adaptation” before it was even released.

I encourage you to find a copy of the short story that inspired it all, John W. Campbell’s ‘Who Goes There’, which I have in the rather wonderful compilation ‘Between Time and Terror‘ (which also features tales by HP Lovecraft, Richard Matheson, etc).

The meat of your lunchtime reading comes courtesy of Peter Watts and Clarkesworld magazine, however. Watts is a biologist and science fiction author, and this is a terrific short story that takes a look at Carpenter’s film from a rather different perspective:

‘The Things’, by Peter Watts

Lunchtime reading: Octopus!

This article is from the new issue of Orion magazine, and is a fantastic insight into octopus intelligence and behaviour, as well as the lives of people who work with them every day. These creatures are absolutely fascinating, yet still so alien. It probably helps that I’ve been reading a fair amount of HP Lovecraft‘s stories recently.

Anyway, it’s well worth a read:

Deep Intellect: Inside the mind of the octopus

Of course, no animal post is complete without videos…

Octopus mimicry:

More mimicry:

An octopus steals a diver’s video camera, and he chases it down to get it back:

Some fishermen catch an octopus by mistake, and allow it to make its escape unharmed: