The Selfish Gene
Chapter 2 'The replicators'(pp.16-17)
"So we seem to arrive at a large population of identical
replicas. But now we must mention an important property of any
copying process: it is not perfect. Mistakes will happen. I hope
there is no misprints in this book, but if you look carefully
you may find one or two. They will probably not seriously distort
the meaning of the sentences, because they will be 'first generation'
errors. But imagine the days before printing, when books such
as the Gospels were copied by hand. All scribes, however careful,
are bound to make a few errors, and some are not above a little
wilful 'improvement'. If they all copied from a single master
original, meaning would not be greatly preverted. But let copies
be made from othr copies, which in their turn were made from other
copies, and errors will start to become cumulative and serious.
We tend to regard erratic copying as a bad thing, and in the case
of human documents it is hard to think of examples where errors
can be decribed as improvements. I suppose the scholars of the
Septuagint could at least be said to have started something big
when they mistranslated the Hebrew word for 'young woman' into
the Greek word for 'virgin', coming up with the prophecy: "Behold
a virgin shall conceive and bear a son..."* Anyway, as we
shall se, erratic copying in biological replicators can in a real
sense give rise to improvement, and it was essential for the progressive
evolution of life that some errors were made. We do not know how
accurately theoriginal replicator molocules made their copies.
Their modern descendants, the DNA molecules, are astonishingly
faithful compared with the most high-fidelity human copying process,
but even they occasionally made mistakes, and it is ultimately
these mistakes that makde evolution possible. Probably the original
replicators were far more erratic, but in any case we may be sure
that mistakes were made, and these mistakes were cumulative.
(endnotes to chapter 2 - p.270)
p.16 'behold a virgin shall conceive...'
Several distressed correspondents have queried the mistranslation of 'young woman' into 'virgin' in the biblical prophecy, and have demanded a reply from me. Hurting religious sensibilities is a periloous business these days, so I had better oblige. Actually it is a pleasure, for scientist can't often get satisfyingly dusty in the library indulging in a real academic footnote. The point is in fact well known to biblical scholars, and not disputed by them. The Hebrew word in Isaiah is (almah), which undisputedly means 'young woman', with no implication of virginity. If 'virgin' had been intended, (bethulah) could have been used instead (the ambiguous English word 'maiden' illustrates how easy it can be to slide between the two meanings). The 'mutation' occured when the pre-Christian Greek translation known as the Septuagint rendered almah into [Greek] (parthenos), which really does usually mean virgin. Matthew (not, of course, the Apostole and contemporary of Jesus, but the Gospel-maker writing long afterwards), quoted Isaiah in what seems to be a derivative of the Septuagint version (all but two of the fifteen Greek words were identical) when he said said, "Now all this was done, that it might be fulfilled which was spoken of the Lord by the prophet, saying, Behold, a virgin shall be with child, and shall bring forth a son, and they shall call his name Emmanuel' (Authorized English translation). It is widely accepted among Christian scholars that the story of the virgin birth of Jesus was a late interpolation, put in presumably by the Greek-speaking disciples in order that the (mistranlated) prophecy should seem to be fulfilled. Modern versions such as the New English Bible correctly give 'young woman' in Isaiah. They equally correctly leave 'virgin' in Matthew, since they are translating from his Greek.