Toward a Biology Worthy of Life > Genes and the Central Fallacy of Evolutionary Theory > Brief excerpt
A project by Stephen L. Talbott

Contexts and activities, not things, are inherited (1)

When Dawkins wrote that bodies don’t get passed down the generations; genes do” (2006a, p. 79), he could not possibly have missed the truth by a wider margin. Genes, as biologically meaningful entities rather than as abstract and inherently meaningless sequences (assuming, unreasonably, that they can be defined as “entities” at all) do not get passed unchanged down the generations — certainly not in the literal sense Dawkins intended. And bodies — complete organisms — are exactly what do pass from one generation to another, not indeed as precise replicas of their parents, but with the continuity of active process that matters for evolutionary change.

Dawkins’ point, repeated in many places, is that “alterations in [the individual organism] are not passed on to subsequent generations” (1982). Taken at face value, the statement would be a monstrosity. Virtually everything in the gametes and the zygote is “custom-made” by the parents for their next-generation heir, all the way down to the detailed chromatin structure of the chromosomes. (Or, I should say, everything is custom-made in cooperation with the next-generation heir — for where, exactly, does the life of the parents end and that of the newborn begin?) Dawkins can say what he does only because he has no interest in organic change; he refuses to speak of anything other than alterations in what he imagines to be static, unlifelike structures that persist for many generations. He is interested in “replicators” that can be acted on by natural selection (Talbott forthcoming); he is not interested in the agency of an organism that is itself always responding to its environment and to its own internal imperatives — an organism “going somewhere”, telling a story, even at the molecular level.

We know that the zygote is capable of all the transformations along the pathway from single, fertilized cell to mature organism, and we have seen that this maturation process is an activity of the entire cell and entire organism. Life scientists, from molecular biologists to naturalists, routinely describe the organism’s life in narrative terms (Talbott 2011c), and it is the character of the narrative that must change in a coherent manner from generation to generation if evolution is to occur. It must change in the only way an integral narrative context can change, through a continual mutual adjustment of directed activities — an adjustment that may secondarily lead to altered structures (Talbott 2010b). These structures are often where our study must begin. But they are coagulations of an ongoing activity — more like residues of that activity than causes of it, just as a spluttering cauldron of magma is continually clotting here and there into partially hardened rock.

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