‘The Selfish Gene was written by Richard Dawkins and published in 1976 by Oxford University Press. Dawkins’ work has been hailed by many ever since and ‘The Selfish Gene has now been published in four different editions. This book has had several influences on the academic world; especially in the fields of evolution and of psychology as it deals with a post-Darwinian view of evolution and natural selection, specifically; the selfish gene.
Dawkins poses the idea that the selfish gene is an ‘immortal’ replicator that makes use of survival machines in order to reproduce itself in an almost identical form. Its immortality is a product of the survival machines (which are described as any living organism; ranging from plants to humans) trying to reproduce a copy of the same genes in other life forms. In this book, the author illustrates how these selfish genes came along into existence as ‘replicators’. In accordance to ‘The Selfish Gene, before the process of evolution began, there was a pool, or what Dawkins describes as “primeval soup” (Dawkins, R., 2016, p. 18) which contained an immense amount of molecules. Eventually, forms of replicators (the genes) developed into the ‘soup’ and started doing what they do best, replicating themselves. Through the process of evolution, the genes which were the best at doing their job started developing new, more complex mechanisms of survival machines to aid them to survive and reproduce in this pool of natural selection. These varieties of mechanisms, in accordance with the author, were characterized by ‘high longevity, fecundity, copying fidelity (Dawkins, R., 2016, p. 23), all of these are traits that gave the replicator the opportunity to be passed down the generations of survival machines which the gene ‘made up. I used the term “made up” here because Dawkins talks about genes as if they were thinking individuals capable of planning even though it is not the case; the capability of planning that genes seem to possess is nothing but the result of millions of years of trial and error which led to an almost perfect result which makes up all living organisms. The author compares survival machines with robots in relation to his idea that survival machines are pre-programmed by genes to act in a certain manner. It is as if the genes making up an organism would spell out ‘codes’ for the organism to use once it is ‘set up. Dawkins mentions this idea in the fourth chapter, “The genes too control the behavior of their survival machines, not directly with their fingers on puppet strings, but indirectly like the computer programmer.” (Dawkins, R., 2016, p. 68).
This view sets the scene for Dawkins’s most influential notion, the notion that all behavior, whether it is present in a cactus or in an undergraduate student is somehow directly or indirectly governed by the selfish genes that make the organism up. The word ‘selfish’ here is not referring to morality-based selfishness but it is referring to the idea that the gene which was replicated in another survival machine was replicated at the cost of other, less successful genes which were extinguished from the gene pool. Hence, the possibility that behavior can be altruistic is initially denied as any form of altruistic behavior must somehow help the prolongation of the same gene in some other form of survival machine.
The author goes on to point out various behaviors which would have been regarded as altruistic and explain how they are truly benefitting the greater good of the particular gene. This notion has had a particular influence on the discipline of psychology as it has set forth a new light by which to examine seemingly altruistic behavior. An example of this behavior is ‘kin altruism’, Dawkins explains how parental care or other care between relatives is fundamentally benefitting the genes present in the ‘altruistic’ organism. A parent and its offspring, or two siblings will share fifty percent of their genes with one another, so by helping each other, the organisms are still benefitting the ‘entity’ of the selfish gene. The author also clarifies how altruistic acts between organisms of different species are only seemingly altruistic. Dawkins gives an example of ‘cleaner fish’ which are not eaten by bigger fish even if given the opportunity, this example is explained as an instance of reciprocal altruism where both parties benefit from this mutual bond.
In this book, Dawkins has put forward another theory that had a great impact on the discipline of psychology, the theory of memes. The author pointed out similarities between genes and human culture as they are both replicators, hence Dawkins, R. (2016) came up with the concept of ‘memes’. According to the author, a meme serves as a replicator of human culture and exists for the adaptive purpose of human beings as it helps the species thrive. In Dawkins’ words, “memes propagate themselves in the meme pool by leaping from brain to brain via a process which, in a broad sense, can be called imitation.” (Dawkins, R., 2016, p.249). The ‘survival value’ of the meme now becomes the utility of the idea in the lives of human beings and its mutation becomes the change in that idea which happens when it is passed through different people. Dawkins, R. (2016), uses the example of a popular tune being reproduced by different people who came across it. The concept of the usefulness of memes has also been explored by Blackmore, S. (2000), as it is understood that memeplexes, such as religion, serve various functions to humankind; Blackmore goes on to explain how religion may give people answers and a sense of belonging, hence underlying why such a memeplex is so strongly propagated in the meme pool.
Dawkins, R. (2016) points out a new reality that differs from the previously nihilistic approach to human purpose, which is that human beings are capable of leaving two things behind them after they die; genes and memes, underlying the possibility of prolongation of our existence not only as genes in our successors but as memes too after we die. Dawkins, R. (2016) finally states that we are given the opportunity to break free from the selfish genes which program our behavior thanks to the newly developed ability to understand the environment we are found in.