The gene as the unit of selection: a case of evolutive delusion

Ludus Vitalis 5 (9):91-120 (1997)
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Abstract
The unit of selection is the concept of that ‘something’ to which biologists refer when they speak of an adaptation as being ‘for the good of’ something. Darwin identified the organism as the unit of selection because for him the ‘struggle for existence’ was an issue among individuals. Later on it was suggested that, in order to understand the evolution of social behavior, it is necessary to argue that groups, and not individuals, are the units of selection. The last addition to this debate was the formulation by Dawkins, in 1976, that the genes themselves are the units of selection while the organisms are merely the temporary receptacles and vehicles for such genes. Thus, the preposterous dissolution of the organism into genes and the proteins coded by such genes has been introduced in the evolutionary discourse by neglecting that the explanations for biological phenomena can be either synchronic or diachronic, depending on the phenomenon to be explained. Therefore explanations in molecular biology are synchronic while evolutionary biology needs diachronic explanations. Nevertheless, for ultra-Darwinians such as Dawkins, efficient replication is all that biology is about. Here I develop an argument in order to show that there is nothing in molecular and cell biology that might support such a contention and that the idea of the gene as the unit of selection is incompatible with the evident evolution of biological complexity.
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