Noted British Ethologist, evolutionary biologist, and author Richard Dawkins set the Twittersphere on fire earlier today with a tweet that had many scratching their collective heads while also gaining ridicule from many of his passionate followers.
His hypothetical concerned both spiders and lions by comparison wanting to know why more importance was put on one (lions) and not the other (spiders). It was a strange question posed by one of the more brilliant minds, a man who is an emeritus fellow at New College, Oxford, has written several books and papers, and who has won many distinguished awards. His tweet read:
“If lions were discovered weaving antelope-catching nets ten lion-lengths wide, it would be headline news. Yet spiders weave intricate insect-catching nets hugely bigger than themselves, and we treat it as commonplace. What’s the difference?”
While only Richard Dawkins knows, cares, or even understands why he tweeted out this thought (he did eventually tweet a follow-up) many instantly jumped on the Dawkins ridicule bandwagon to pose their own hypotheticals, some quite humorous. One wrote, “If Richard Dawkins was discovered wandering around London, eating discarded fast food and shitting on Nelson’s Column, it would be headline news, yet pigeons regularly do this and we just accept it.”
In another hilarious tweet in response said, “Richard Dawkins clearly received some weapons grade marijuana for Christmas.”
And another, “I am obsessed with this tweet, how the analogy is so visually arresting while also being ludicrous, and how the answer is literally contained in the question, and how it kind of reads like Richard Dawkins is just now finding out about spiderwebs?”
To Richard Dawkins’s credit, he did try his best to further confuse followers when he tweeted, “Spider webs seem remarkable because they involve externally visible behaviour. But is web-weaving really any more remarkable than the unseen weaving of cells in embryology? Web-weaving is Extended Phenotype embryology: just another amazing route by which DNA weaves phenotypes.”
This one caused one to ask, “richard are you okay”.
Richard Dawkins wrote The Extended Phenotype back in 1982. In it, Dawkins makes the argument that the only thing in which genes directly control is the synthesis of proteins. Dawkins feels that phenotype shouldn’t be limited to a biological process but it should be extended to all effects that a gene has on its environment, which would include the inside or outside of the body of an individual organism. Deep stuff but if you take a look at his tweet again, he is basically stating how impressive the web-weaving skills of a spider in which he feels they do not get enough attention.
Richard Dawkins also is referring back to his notion of Extended Phenotype and how this one example of spider web-weaving DNA helps “weave” this particular phenotype.
It seems Richard Dawkins was hoping to possibly start some type of scientific debate with his Extended Phenotype musings, but it clearly backfired by the response of immediate mocking. It seems most are more willing to take the snarky route instead of actually pondering what Dawkins was putting forth. There were, though, some who truly took what Dawkins said to heart. “I think you’re missing his point. It’s about evolution,” one wrote. Another responded to the snark, “The point he’s making is that their evolutionary adaptations are extraordinary. But they’re still commonplace next to other species as we know, so I don’t know really.”
Thankfully, Richard Dawkins is beginning to get a little more from his followers than simple mocking.