Written in 1976 by Richard Dawkins, ‘The Selfish Gene’ discusses key concerns related to evolutionary processes. Initially, Dawkins, introduces the reader to the most prevalent theories at the time, notably the group centered theory of evolution proposed by various academics. The book proposes the alternative theory of a ‘gene centered’ view of evolution as opposed to the former theory. Lastly it also discusses a new form of replicator known as the ‘meme’.
The book begins by introducing the reader to various examples of selfish and altruistic behavior. The selfish behavior is presented using the example of the female praying mantis while the example of the self-sacrificial behavior of the worker bees is used as an example of altruism. From a group selectionist perspective, the altruistic behavior of the worker bee occurred for the good of the species. Throughout the book, similar examples of altruism and the example of the worker bee itself are effectively described and interpreted from the gene centered view of evolution. These examples shall be discussed further down below.
Immediately the book disputes the notion of humans being completely different from the rest of the animal kingdom. This is done by the introduction of primeval molecules called replicators. Initially these replicators floated around in a primeval soup with abundant resources. As the replicators increased, competition emerged for resources. In order to ensure their survival and reproduction, these replicators built survival machines (Wade, 2006). These replicators evolved into the genes we know today and the survival machines are animals, plants and humans ourselves.
As mentioned in the second paragraph, Dawkins mentions numerous examples of altruism frequently used to support the group theory of evolution and interprets it from the ‘gene centered’ view. An example of this is the apparently self-sacrificial behavior of the worker bee. Its behavior contradicts with the evolutionary notion that the function of the body is to preserve and pass the genes inside of it. However, since the worker bee never produces any offspring itself, its behavior is beneficial and essential for the genes in its relatives’ bodies which are preserved by the worker bee’s sacrifice (Ridley, 2016). Dawkins also explains the morally congruent parental altruism from this perspective. Throughout all species, parents nurture their offspring oftentimes at a great cost to themselves. Generally, this applies even more so for the mother. From the gene centered perspective this is done in order to ensure that the offspring lives long enough to reproduce and continue to transmit their genes inherited from the parents. This also explains why parental altruism is more common than offspring altruism due to the fact that parents have already passed on their genes as opposed to their young offspring. All the examples above refer to altruism between kin and do not explain altruism between individuals who are not related. This form of altruism is also known as reciprocal altruism. This form of altruism can be exploited by cheats who will accept altruistic acts but will not give them back. Since reciprocal altruism was and still plays an important part in everyday life, Merton referencing Dr. Robert Trivers’ theory argues that man developed emotions like envy, guilt and gratitude for the purpose of being able to cheat and detect cheaters.
The first 10 chapters treat mankind as though he is no different from the rest of the species inhabiting the earth, be it plants or animals. However, the last chapter presents us with a process unique to mankind. Compared to evolution from a genetic perspective, evolution from a cultural perspective is much faster (Workman & Reader, 2014). Language cannot be said to evolve by genetic means due to multitude of different languages in different countries, with each country harboring numerous dialects specific to a particular region. Dawkins suggests that there is a new form of replicator, which he coined the ‘meme’. Instead of floating in the primeval soup which the original genes floated in, this replicator or meme is floating in ‘the soup of human culture’ (Dawkins, 1976, p. 192). A gene is replicated over and over again if it provides a biological advantage. A meme, however replicates itself over and over again if is carries with it ‘great psychological appeal’ (Dawkins, 1976, p. 192). An example of this is the ‘God meme’ which has been pervasive and a fundamental part of human culture for centuries. This lies due to the fact the notion of God provides answers and solace to unknown and intimidating questions about existence. Behavior which is beneficial to memes may be not necessarily be beneficial to genes. An example of this is a priest who remains celibate. Undoubtedly, celibacy will not be beneficial to his genes however it will be beneficial to memes as it will ensure that the priest has ample time to pass on the ‘God meme’ to the followers of the particular religion. While memes may be seen through a negative light, they offer man the change to contribute something to the world like music which can wholly replicate and last far longer than any of his genes would.
Although the book may present a pessimistic and possibly deterministic account of human nature, at the end of the book Dawkins posits a more optimistic view of mankind. Humans differ greatly from replicators due to one aspect; consciousness. It is not uncommon to hear of an act of pure altruism and while there is the possibility that it can be interpreted through some evolutionary perspective, Dawkins leaves this open to the reader’s interpretation.
- Dawkins, R. (1976). The Selfish Gene. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.
- Ridley, M. (2016). The Selfish Gene. Nature, 529(7857), 462-463.
- Workman, L., Reader W. (2014). Evolutionary Psychology. New York: Cambridge University Press.
- Wade, N. (2006 June 6). Inspiring Evolutionary Thought, and a New Title, by Turning Genetics into Prose. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/2006/06/06/science/sciencespecial2/06dawk.html.