So what are these wars about anyway?

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One problem, when trying to answer this question, is that the two sides agree on so much that it is very difficult to clear and fair and short when describing their differences.

The best answer I ever came up with came while discussing this on the Well with Susan McCarthy. Here it is:

Evolutionary biology is a huge subject. There are two ways to approach it: to find out what actually happens, and to find the mathematical rules that make everything happen. Obviously, the ultimate theory encompasses both but, like I said, it's a huge subject and everyone has to start somewhere. And most attempts will fail on one side of the mountain or the other.

Dawkins and his friends start from the mathematics. They begin with population genetics -- the study of how gene frequencies alter in ideal populations -- and from game theory. This approach made a huge strides in the 1960s due to the mathematical advances made by W.H. (Bill) Hamilton, who died last week, and an American journalist named George Price, who was so horrified by Hamilton's discoveries that he checked them, reformulated them even more clearly, had some sort of a breakdown, and killed himself. The work of Hamilton and Price is part of what Dawkins popularised in the Selfish Gene. Specifically, they showed, mathematically, how a gene for "altruistic" behaviour could spread through a population at the expense of a gene for "selfish" behaviour.

There were two further strands in the Selfish Gene. The first was ethology, which is based on the insight that animal behaviour is as much shaped by natural selection as animal bodies. It can be analysed in terms of the advantage it gives to animal genes. When this sort of analysis is combined with the second strand, game theory (Price, again worked on this, with John Maynard Smith in Britain. Robert Trivers in the US) and the whole lot worked out using computers, you can get very sophisticated and wonderful models of gene flow and animal behaviour.

But all these theories take for granted what "genes" actually are. They are dependent on a definition of "gene" that does not depend essentially on DNA. Indeed, the mathematical framework of genetics was worked out by men like R.A. Fisher who did not know what genes were made of at all. A gene, for Dawkins, is essentially a unit of heritable material which could just as well be made of green jello as DNA provided green jello had the right characteristics. Nor is he very interested in the processes by which genes come to have effects on the outside world. It is enough for his theories that they should do so. The blanks can be filled in later.

This kind of bold analysis has been enormously successful. But it is possible to carry it too far. The point is that "gene" defined as "something hereditary that makes a difference" is all you need for mathematical analysis. But it may be a completely misleading way to think of "gene" when you mean "a particular bit of DNA that makes a particular difference in the world". Neither defintion is right. Both are essential. But confusing them causes real problems. For when you get down to the level of molecular analysis a single gene consist of lots of discontiguous bits of DNA and the sort of traits we're interested in at a higher level can be produced by the interaction of large numbers of genes.

These are some of the objections to the grand Dawkinsian scheme that Gould and his friends made .

Gould started off as a paleontologist (Dawkins was an ethologist, under Nico Tinbergen). So, broadly speaking, he starts from practice and moves towards theory, rather than the other way round. To the theoreticians like Maynard Smith, he never gets there ("Gould is a man whose ideas are too confused to be worth bothering with").

Gould and people such as Steve Rose also argue for technical and philosophical reasons, that you cannot read off actual human behaviour and psychology from the mathematics describing the behaviour of idealised genes. You will come to an especially nasty end if you try to do this by using the language of "selfishness". There's some dispute about whether Dawkins actually meant to do that in the Selfish Gene. I think he did it, but without intending to.