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Richard Dawkins - Extended Phenotype

Richard Dawkins - Extended Phenotype

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 Biology and Philosophy
19:
377–396, 2004.© 2004
Kluwer Academic Publishers. Printed in the Netherlands.
Extended Phenotype – But Not
Too
Extended. A Replyto Laland, Turner and Jablonka
RICHARD DAWKINS
University Museum of Natural History, University of Oxford, UK 
I am grateful to the three commentators for their thoughtful and penetratingremarks, and to the Editor for commissioning them. All three have forced meto think, re-opening neural pathways that had suffered neglect as I turned toother things in the years since
The Extended Phenotype
(henceforth
EP
) waspublished. Their essays raise so many interesting points, it would take anotherbook to reply to them properly. Instead, on the basis that it is better to say afew things thoroughly than lots sketchily, I shall concentrate on what I taketo be each author’s central argument.J. Scott Turner and Kevin Laland both, in their different ways, want togo further than me in extending the phenotype. Or so they see it. I am notso sure that further is the right word. Progress implies movement in a usefuldirection, whereas their extensions – of the organism, and into niche creation– occasionally reminded me of Stephen Leacock’s knight who jumped onhis horse and galloped off in all directions. I don’t intend that flippantly ordisrespectfully. The relevant point about the extended phenotype is that it isa
disciplined 
extension. There are lots of other tempting ‘extensions’, whichsound similar but take us off in misleading directions. I have always foughtshy of misapplying the phrase to a profligate range of apparently plausibleextensions.To take a more extreme example than these commentators consider, whenI am asked by lay people (as I frequently am) whether buildings count asextended phenotypes, I answer no, on the grounds that the success or failureof buildings does not affect the frequency of architects’ genes in the genepool. Extended phenotypes are worthy of the name only if they are candidateadaptations forthe benefit ofalleles responsible forvariations inthem. Imightadmit the theoretical possibility of generalising to other kinds of replicatorssuch as memes (or something ‘epigenetic’ that Eva Jablonka might be ableto explain but I wouldn’t), in which case my ‘no’ answer might be softened.But it is enough of a problem already, getting my more hard-headed scientificcolleagues to accept the extended phenotype, without arousing their activehostility by mentioning memes (which many see as simplistic) or ‘epigenetic
 
378inheritance systems’ (which some might write off as obscurantist). I shallreturn to the important point, which I enthusiastically accept, that replicatorsdo not have to be made of DNA in order for the logic of Darwinism to work.Laland speaks, I suspect, for all three authors when he espouses cyclicalcausation. He quotes me as sayingThere are causal arrows leading from genes to body. But there is nocausal arrow leading from body to genes.Laland, who disagrees, generously wants to absolve me from responsibilityfor this, saying that he is quoting out of context. But I am happy to standby it. ‘Cyclical causation’ leaves me cold. I must, however, make very clearthat I mean causation statistically. Experimentally induced changes in bodiesare never correlated with changes in genes, but changes in genes (muta-tions) are sometimes correlated with changes in bodies (and all evolutionis the consequence). Of course most mutations occur naturally rather thanexperimentally, but (because corrrelation can’t establish causation) I need tofocus on ‘experimentally induced’ in order to pin down the direction of thecausal arrow. It is in this statistical sense that development’s arrow goes onlyone way. Attempts to argue for a reverse arrow recur through the history of biology, and always fail except in unimportant special-pleading senses.Sterelny, Smith and Dickerson (1996), follow Griffiths and Gray in saying“Most acorns rot, so acorn genomes correlate better with rotting than withgrowth”. But this is dead wrong. It misunderstands the very meaning of correlation which is, after all, a statistical technical term. Admitting thatmost genomes rot, the relevant question is whether
such variation as theremay be
in acorn genomes correlates with
such variation as there may be
in tendency to rot. It probably does, but that isn’t the point. The point isthat the question of covariance is the right question to ask. Sterelny andKitcher (1988) in their excellent paper on ‘The Return of the Gene’ are veryclear on the matter. Think variation. Variation, variation, variation. Heritablevariation; covariation between phenotype as dependent variable, and putativereplicator as independent variable. This has been my
leitmotif 
as I read allthree commentators, and it will be my refrain throughout my reply.Lalands main contribution to our debate is ‘niche construction’. Theproblem I have with niche construction is that it confuses two very differentimpacts that organisms might have on their environments. As Sterelny (2000)put it,Some of these impacts are mere effects; they are byproducts of theorganisms’s way of life. But sometimes we should see the impact of organism on environment as the organism
engineering
its own environ-ment: the environment is altered in ways that are adaptive for theengineering organism.
 
379Niche construction isa suitable name only for the second of these two (andit is a special case of the extended phenotype). There is a temptation, whichI regard as little short of pernicious, to invoke it for the first (byproducts) aswell. Let’s call the first type by the more neutral term, ‘niche changing’, withnone of the adaptive implications of niche construction or – for that matter –of the extended phenotype.A beaver dam, and the lake it creates, are true extended phenotypes insofaras they are adaptations for the benefit of replicators (presumably allelesbut conceivably something else) that statistically have a causal influenceon their construction. What crucially matters (here’s the
leitmotif 
again) isthat
variations
in replicators have a causal link to
variations
in dams suchthat, over generations, replicators associated with good dams survive in thereplicator pool at the expense of rival replicators associated with bad dams.Note what a stringent requirement this is. Although it is not necessary thatwe should already have evidence for the replicator-phenotype covariance,extended phenotype language commits us to a can only have come aboutthrough replicator-phenotype covariance. The beavers dam is as much anadaptation as the beaver’s tail. In neither case have we done the necessaryresearch to show that it results from gene selection. In both, we have strongplausibility grounds to think it is. The same is not true – would not even beclaimed by Laland and his colleagues – of most of their proposed examplesof niche construction.See how different is the ‘pernicious’ sense of niche construction, thebyproduct that I’d prefer to sideline as ‘niche changing’. Here, the dam altersthe environment of the future, in some way that impinges on the life andwellbeing of beavers in general, and probably others too. Not particularlythe welfare of the beavers that built the dam, not even of their children orgrandchildren. The dam is good for beaverdom, and more. Beavers, frogs,fishes and marsh marigolds all benefit from a beaver-induced flooding of theirniche. This is too loose and vague to count as a true extended phenotype, oras true niche construction. The deciding question is ‘Who benefits?’ And thereason it matters is that we have a Darwinian explanation of the dam only if dam-friendly alleles of the dam builders themselves benefit at the expense of alternative alleles.I have no wish to downplay the importance of niche changing. It is a fairdescription of many important biological events, ranging from the irreversibleoxygenation of Earth’s early atmosphere by green bacteria and now by plants,to the greening of deserts by ecological successions of plants climaxingin dense forest communities, and including Scott Turners
heuweltjies
(afascinating example, of which I had been ignorant).

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