The Selfish Gene

“The Selfish Gene”, Richard Dawkins

“The Selfish Gene” was published about 20 years after the discovery of the structure of the DNA. At the time, a lot of scientists believed that natural selection was acting at the level of the group. They thought that selfless behavior in an individual could only be explained by a process in which the individual acted for the good of the group. This happened regardless of whether it should benefit or be detrimental to the individual.
In “The Selfish Gene”, Richard Dawkins argued that natural selection wasn’t acting at the level of the group. Instead, it was acting at the level of the gene. According to him, altruistic behavior could be explained by his theory. This view is now widely accepted (unless you live in Trump’s America hehe). But, when published, his book became one of the most controversial theories in evolutionary biology.

The Selfish Gene

The main idea in his book is known as the gene-centered view of evolution and basically states that we are nothing but vehicles for our own genes. Think about it: the only immortal part of us is our genes. In order to explain this theory, Dawkins personifies our genes by describing them as “selfish”. They are obviously not driven by will but the effects of natural selection makes it seem as if our genes act in a “selfish” matter. You could see it as genes using organisms (different body features, behaviors, and even altruistic actions) as tools to ensure their own survival.
So, instead of asking “Why is DNA an efficient mechanism for reproduction?”; We should ask: “How did I become a good mechanism for the reproduction of my genes? Why did biological matter floating in a soup of molecules clump together into larger organisms?”

Are we all selfish?

A lot of people misread the book and thought that Dawkins tried to argue that we are all inherently selfish. But, the idea of “selfishness” can’t be brought up from genetics to the level of individuals. In fact, a large part of the book is dedicated to explain our altruistic and selfless behaviors. While genes may be “selfish” in order to be selected, this doesn’t necessitate that individuals must as well act only in self-interest.

My thoughts

Some parts of the book are a little bit outdated but I found the whole concept super fascinating! I enjoyed following Dawkins reasoning throughout hundreds of examples and often being surprised by the final conclusions drawn. I also liked one chapter in which Dawkins tries to discuss how ideas, behaviors or styles can be regarded as cultural analogues to genes. He called these ideas “memes” and suggested that they, just like genes, replicate and are also subject to selective pressure. Successful memes remain and spread (such as the idea of a God) whereas unfit ones are forgotten.


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