When two titans of biology, Denis Noble and Richard Dawkins, come together with diametrically opposing views on how evolution works and what genes do, you might expect sparks to fly. Do genes control us, or are we the masters of our destinies? But this is about more than opposing metaphors. This is about science. So, how does the evidence stack up? Noble-Dawkins Debate the answer.

The debate at the How The Light Gets In Festival was punchy but with one clear impression: the mutual respect of the two contenders. In the red corner, Richard Dawkins, the world-renowned author of The Selfish Gene and other popular books, such as The Blind Watchmaker. In the blue corner, Denis Noble, author of Dance to the Tune of Life and The Music of Life.

“The selfish gene is holding us back and is not a good account of evolution.”

Denis Noble

Denis Noble is a physiologist who worked on the pacemaker of the heart. This taught him that genes play a role but are not directly causal in generating the heart’s rhythm. His view of evolution also has to do with functionality. It is a function, the phenotype, that plays on the stage of life and can be selected, not genes. Genes are used by the system, dancing to the organism’s tune and not the other way around. In contrast, for Richard Dawkins, the survival of genes in “the gene pool” matters more. We are but vehicles in that objective. So, is this a difference of viewpoint, or is it more fundamental? What can we learn from science?

“The Selfish Gene is an accurate and powerful account of who we are.”

Richard Dawkins

A vital pillar of Dawkins’s view is that characteristics acquired in one generation cannot be passed in a meaningful way through the germ line. It is the gene that is selected in evolution. Wrong, says Denis Noble. Evidence shows that changes in function can pass through the germ line. There is simply no evidence for a rigid barrier to prevent this from occurring, yet such a barrier has been assumed in the gene-centric view. The view of a barrier and gene-centricity has become a dogma.

I am, of course, biased because I have worked closely with Denis in developing these ideas, which we have published extensively in the last few years. But we can do no better than watching the debate unfold. Judge for yourself.

Written and Posted by VOX News Editor Ray Noble

Watch the entire debate on IAI TV How The Light Gets In