‘The Selfish Gene’: Classic science worth checking out

TheSelfishGeneCoverI don’t usually read old science books.  After a decade or so, I find that their content tends to have too much dated material.  But ‘The Selfish Gene‘ keeps coming up in conversations, not just because its author, Richard Dawkins, is the world’s most famous atheist, but also because of its core message, that genes are the center of evolution, and that animals, including humans, are largely programmed to act in the interest of their genes.

A substantial portion of the book is filled with game theory analyses demonstrating why apparent acts of altruism really aren’t.  They may feel like conscious acts of altruism on the animal’s part, but the acts follow programming that benefits the animal’s survival or genetic legacy.  Dawkins is careful to make sure that we understand that these aren’t conscious calculations the animals make, just the naturally selected programming that drives them.

Toward the end of the book, Dawkins discusses humanity directly, noting that as intelligent creatures, we are the first animals able to override our selfish gene’s programming  (think birth control) and that game theory demonstrates that being nice is often a survival advantage.

The book finishes up with a discussion of memes, units of cultural information that may replicate similar to genes, and of the extended phenotype, the idea that the causal effects of genes reach outside of their host animals to affect other animals and their habitats.

All in all, I enjoyed this book.  It wasn’t nearly as dated as I feared it might be, and where it was, the 30th anniversary edition had excellent end notes with updated information.  Note, religious readers should know that, although Dawkins mostly leaves religion alone in this early book, he does take the occasional swipe.

9 thoughts on “‘The Selfish Gene’: Classic science worth checking out

    1. I can see how you’d come to that conclusion, and you shouldn’t read it unless you’re interested. But it really doesn’t have anything to do with Ayn Rand objectivism.

      The “selfish” part of the title is a metaphor for genes having been naturally selected for maximizing their replication. That “selfishness” often results in animals acting on behalf of kin (children, sibling, extended family, etc) and cooperating extensively with others. The animals benefit evolutionarily, but he stresses repeatedly that this isn’t anything conscious on the animal’s part. He has a whole chapter on why being nice is a successful evolutionary strategy.


        1. Yes and no. Individually we can consciously be nice without any conscious strategy coming into it. When we see a child suffering, few of us calculate our own self interest when deciding to help them. We just have the urge and (hopefully) act on it altruistically with no thought of reward or our own self interest.

          But our urge to help them is based on an evolved instinct we never consciously chose to have, and we have that instinct because, as a social species, it enhances our likelihood of survival. The “strategy” in evolutionarily stable strategy is a metaphor. It’s your genes programming you with impulses as though they had that strategy.


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