World Library  
Flag as Inappropriate
Email this Article

The Selfish Gene

The Selfish Gene
Original cover, with details from the painting The Expectant Valley by zoologist Desmond Morris.
Author Richard Dawkins
Subject Evolutionary biology
Publisher Oxford University Press
Publication date
Pages 224
ISBN ISBN 0-19-857519-X
OCLC 2681149
Followed by The Extended Phenotype

The Selfish Gene is a book on group, popularising ideas developed during the 1960s by W. D. Hamilton and others. From the gene-centred view follows that the more two individuals are genetically related, the more sense (at the level of the genes) it makes for them to behave selflessly with each other. Therefore the concept is especially good at explaining many forms of altruism. This should not be confused with misuse of the term along the lines of a selfishness gene.

An organism is expected to evolve to maximise its inclusive fitness—the number of copies of its genes passed on globally (rather than by a particular individual). As a result, populations will tend towards an evolutionarily stable strategy. The book also coins the term meme for a unit of human cultural evolution analogous to the gene, suggesting that such "selfish" replication may also model human culture, in a different sense. Memetics has become the subject of many studies since the publication of the book.

In the foreword to the book's 30th-anniversary edition, Dawkins said he "can readily see that [the book's title] might give an inadequate impression of its contents" and in retrospect thinks he should have taken Tom Maschler's advice and called the book The Immortal Gene.[1]


  • "Selfish" genes 1
  • Genes and selection 2
    • Genes can reproduce at the expense of the organism 2.1
    • Power struggles are rare 2.2
    • Many phenomena explained 2.3
  • Reception 3
    • Other types of selection suggested 3.1
    • Unit of selection or of evolution 3.2
    • Moral arguments 3.3
  • Editions 4
    • 30th anniversary 4.1
  • See also 5
  • References 6
  • Sources 7
  • External links 8

"Selfish" genes

In describing genes as being "selfish", the author does not intend (as he states unequivocally) to imply that they are driven by any motives or will, but merely that their effects can be metaphorically and pedagogically described as if they were. The contention is that the genes that get passed on are the ones whose evolutionary consequences serve their own implicit interests (to continue being replicated), not necessarily those of the organism. Bringing the level of evolutionary dynamics down to the single gene, or complementary genes which work well together in a given type of organism, Dawkins categorically rejects the school of thought which tells that evolution operates on the level of social group.

This view is said to explain altruism at the individual level in nature, especially in kinship relationships: when an individual sacrifices its own life to protect the lives of kin, it is acting in the interest of its own genes. Some people find this metaphor entirely clear, while others find it confusing, misleading or simply redundant to ascribe mental attributes to something that is mindless. For example, Andrew Brown has written:

"Selfish", when applied to genes, doesn't mean "selfish" at all. It means, instead, an extremely important quality for which there is no good word in the English language: "the quality of being copied by a Darwinian selection process." This is a complicated mouthful. There ought to be a better, shorter word—but "selfish" isn't it.[2]

Donald Symons also finds it inappropriate to use everyday language in conveying scientific meaning in general and particularly for the present instance:

In summary, the rhetoric of The Selfish Gene exactly reverses the real situation: through metaphor genes are endowed with properties only sentient beings can possess, such as selfishness, while sentient beings are stripped of these properties and called machines (robots).[3]

Genes and selection

Dawkins proposes the idea of the "replicator,"[4] the initial

Genes can reproduce at the expense of the organism

There are other times when the implicit interests of the vehicle and replicator are in conflict, such as the genes behind certain male spiders' instinctive mating behaviour, which increase the organism's inclusive fitness by allowing it to reproduce, but shorten its life by exposing it to the risk of being eaten by the cannibalistic female. Another good example is the existence of segregation distortion genes that are detrimental to their host but nonetheless propagate themselves at its expense. Likewise, the existence of junk DNA that provides no benefit to its host, once a puzzle, can be more easily explained.[6]

Power struggles are rare

These examples might suggest that there is a power-struggle between genes and their host. In fact, the claim is that there isn't much of a struggle because the genes usually win without a fight. Only if the organism becomes intelligent enough to understand its own interests, as distinct from those of its genes, can there be true conflict.

An example of this conflict might be a person using birth control to prevent fertilisation, thereby inhibiting the replication of his or her genes.

But that may not be a conflict of the 'self-interest' of the organism with his or her genes, since a person using birth control may also be enhancing the survival chances of their genes by limiting family size to conform with available resources, thus avoiding extinction as predicted under the Malthusian model of population growth.

Many phenomena explained

When examined from the standpoint of gene selection, many biological phenomena that, in prior models, were difficult to explain become easier to understand. In particular, phenomena such as phenotypic effect) in other bodies to replicate. Interestingly, the "selfish" actions of genes lead to unselfish actions by organisms.

Prior to the 1960s, it was common for such behaviour to be explained in terms of group selection, where the benefits to the organism or even population were supposed to account for the popularity of the genes responsible for the tendency towards that behaviour. This was shown not to be an evolutionarily stable strategy, in that it would only take a single individual with a tendency towards more selfish behaviour to undermine a population otherwise filled only with the gene for altruism towards non-kin.


The book was extremely popular when first published, caused "a silent and almost immediate revolution in biology",[7] and continues to be widely read. It has sold over a million copies, and has been translated into more than 25 languages.[8]

Proponents argue that the central point, that the gene is the unit of selection, usefully completes and extends the explanation of evolution given by Mathematical biologists' initial relationship with the ideas in the book was, according to Alan Grafen, "at best difficult" due to what Grafen postulates is a reliance solely on Mendelian genetics by these biologists.[9]

In 1976, Arthur Cain, one of Dawkins's tutors at Oxford in the 1960s, called it a "young man's book" (which Dawkins points out was a deliberate quote of a commentator on A.J. Ayer's Language, Truth, and Logic); Dawkins later noted he had been "flattered by the comparison, [but] knew that Ayer had recanted much of his first book and [he] could hardly miss Cain's pointed implication that [he] should, in the fullness of time, do the same."[1]

Other types of selection suggested

Most modern group selectionism have been disproved, more sophisticated formulations make accurate predictions in some cases while positing selection at higher levels.[10] Nevertheless, the explanatory gains of using sophisticated formulations of group selectionism as opposed to Dawkins's gene-centred selectionism are still under dispute. Both sides agree that very favourable genes are likely to prosper and replicate if they arise and both sides agree that living in groups can be an advantage to the group members. The conflict arises not so much over disputes on hard facts but over what is the best way of viewing evolutionary selection in animals.

In "The Social Conquest of Earth," E. O. Wilson contends that kin selection as described in "The Selfish Gene" is a largely ineffective model of social evolution. Chapter 18 of "The Social Conquest of Earth" describes the deficiencies of kin selection and outlines group selection, which Wilson argues is a more realistic model of social evolution. He writes, "...unwarranted faith in the central role of kinship in social evolution has led to the reversal of the usual order in which biological research is conducted. The proven best way in evolutionary biology, as in most of science, is to define a problem arising during empirical research, then select or devise the theory that is needed to solve it. Almost all research in inclusive-fitness theory [such as in "The Selfish Gene"] has been the opposite: hypothesize the key roles of kinship and kin selection, then look for evidence to test that hypothesis."[11]

Unit of selection or of evolution

Some biologists have criticised the idea for describing the gene as the unit of selection, but suggest describing the gene as the unit of evolution, on the grounds that selection is a "here and now" event of reproduction and survival, while evolution is the long-term trend of shifting allele frequencies.[12]

Stephen Jay Gould also took issue with the gene as the unit of selection, arguing that genes are not directly 'visible' to natural selection. Rather, the unit of selection is the phenotype, not the genotype, because it is phenotypes which interact with the environment at the natural selection interface.[13] As Kim Sterelny[14] summarises Gould's view, "Gene differences do not cause evolutionary changes in populations, they register those changes". This is also Niles Eldredge's view. Eldredge[15] notes that in Dawkins' book A Devil's Chaplain, which was published just before Eldredge's book, "Richard Dawkins comments on what he sees as the main difference between his position and that of the late Stephen Jay Gould. He concludes that it is his own vision that genes play a causal role in evolution", while Gould (and Eldredge) "sees genes as passive recorders of what worked better than what".

Moral arguments

Another criticism of the book, made by the philosopher Helena Cronin, and chaired by Melvyn Bragg. In March 2011, Audible Inc published an audiobook edition narrated by Richard Dawkins and Lalla Ward.

See also


  1. ^ a b Dawkins, Richard (12 March 2006). "It's all in the genes".  
  2. ^ Brown, Andrew (December 1998). "The Science of Selfishness". Salon 21st. Retrieved 21 June 2010. 
  3. ^ Symons, Donald. The Evolution of Human Sexuality. Oxford University Press. 1979
  4. ^ Grafen & Ridley, p. 66.
  5. ^ Dawkins 1976, p. 15.
  6. ^ "Unweaving the Rainbow", Penguin, 1998. Chapter:The Selfish Cooperator, page no. 218
  7. ^ Grafen & Ridley, p. 72.
  8. ^ a b Dawkins 2006.
  9. ^ Grafen & Ridley, pp. 68–69.
  10. ^ Wilson, David Sloan; Wilson, Edward O. (2007). "Rethinking the Theoretical Foundations of Sociobiology".  
  11. ^ Wilson, Edward (2012). The Social Conquest of Earth. New York, NY: Liveright Publishing. p. 175.  
  12. ^  
  13. ^ Gould, Stephen Jay (1990). "Caring Groups and Selfish Genes". The Panda's Thumb: More Reflections in Natural History. Harmondsworth:  
  14. ^  
  15. ^ Eldredge, Niles (2004). Why We Do It: Rethinking Sex and The Selfish Gene. New York City:  
  16. ^ Dawkins 2006, pp. 2–3.
  17. ^ Hackett, Dennis (1986). "The Not-So-Selfish Gene." New Scientist 110 (24 Apr): 56.
  18. ^ Dawkins 1976.


  • Dawkins, Richard (2006). The Selfish Gene (30th Anniversary edition). New York City: Oxford University Press.  
  • Grafen, Alan; Ridley, Mark, eds. (2006). Richard Dawkins: How A Scientist Changed the Way We Think. New York City:  

External links

was published which reinstated the Trivers foreword and contained a new introduction by the author (alongside the previous two prefaces), with some selected extracts from reviews at the back. It was accompanied by a [8] In 2006, a 30th anniversary edition

30th anniversary

. A second edition was published in 1989. This edition added two extra chapters, and substantial endnotes to the preceding chapters, reflecting new findings and thoughts. It also added a second preface by the author, but the original foreword by Trivers was dropped. Robert Trivers in eleven chapters with a preface by the author and a foreword by [18]

This article was sourced from Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike License; additional terms may apply. World Heritage Encyclopedia content is assembled from numerous content providers, Open Access Publishing, and in compliance with The Fair Access to Science and Technology Research Act (FASTR), Wikimedia Foundation, Inc., Public Library of Science, The Encyclopedia of Life, Open Book Publishers (OBP), PubMed, U.S. National Library of Medicine, National Center for Biotechnology Information, U.S. National Library of Medicine, National Institutes of Health (NIH), U.S. Department of Health & Human Services, and, which sources content from all federal, state, local, tribal, and territorial government publication portals (.gov, .mil, .edu). Funding for and content contributors is made possible from the U.S. Congress, E-Government Act of 2002.
Crowd sourced content that is contributed to World Heritage Encyclopedia is peer reviewed and edited by our editorial staff to ensure quality scholarly research articles.
By using this site, you agree to the Terms of Use and Privacy Policy. World Heritage Encyclopedia™ is a registered trademark of the World Public Library Association, a non-profit organization.

Copyright © World Library Foundation. All rights reserved. eBooks from Project Gutenberg are sponsored by the World Library Foundation,
a 501c(4) Member's Support Non-Profit Organization, and is NOT affiliated with any governmental agency or department.