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The Extended Phenotype

Dawkins' idea of the extended phenotype is explained in his book of the same name, The Extended Phenotype. I haven't read this (yet), but the following excerpts from The long reach of the gene give the basic idea.

The phenotypic effects of a gene are normally seen as all the effects that it has on the body in which it sits. This is the conventional definition. But we shall now see that the phenotypic effects of a gene need to be thought of as all the effects that it has on the world.


What might it mean in practice to speak of a gene as having an extended phenotypic effect on the world outside the body in which it sits? Examples that spring to mind are artefacts like beaver dams, bird nests and caddis houses.

Caddis flies are rather nondescript, drab brown insects, which most of us fail to notice as they fly rather clumsily over rivers. That is when they are adults. But before they emerge as adults they have a rather longer incarnation as larvae walking about the river bottom. And caddis larvae are anything but nondescript. They are among the most remarkable creatures on earth. Using cement of their own manufacture, they skilfully build tubular houses for themselves out of materials that they pick up from the bed of the stream. The house is a mobile home, carried about as the caddis walks, like the shell of a snail or hermit crab except that the animal builds it instead of growing it or finding it.


Natural selection favoured those ancestral caddis genes that caused their possessors to build effective houses. The genes worked on behaviour, presumably by influencing the embryonic development of the nervous system. But what a geneticist would actually see is the effect of genes on the shape and other properties of houses. The geneticist should recognize genes ‘for’ house shape in precisely the same sense as there are genes for, say, leg shape.


  See Also

  Grand Analogy, The
  Some Thoughts

@ April (2000)