Selfish genetic elements and the gene’s-eye view of evolution

Ågren, JA,  Current Zoology,  62:659-665. 2016.

During the last few decades, we have seen an explosion in the influx of details about the biology of selfish genetic elements. Ever since the early days of the field, the gene’s-eye view of Richard Dawkins, George Williams, and others, has been instrumental to make sense of new empirical observations and to the generation of new hypotheses. However, the close association between selfish genetic elements and the gene’s-eye view has not been without critics and several other conceptual frameworks have been suggested. In particular, proponents of multilevel selection models have used selfish genetic elements to criticize the gene’s-eye view. In this paper, I first trace the intertwined histories of the study of selfish genetic elements and the gene’s-eye view and then discuss how their association holds up when compared with other proposed frameworks. Next, using examples from transposable elements and the major transitions, I argue that different models highlight separate aspects of the evolution of selfish genetic elements and that the productive way forward is to maintain a plurality of perspectives. Finally, I discuss how the empirical study of selfish genetic elements has implications for other conceptual issues associated with the gene’s-eye view, such as agential thinking, adaptationism, and the role of fitness maximizing models in evolution.