I should start by stating the obvious, that The Selfish Gene is a terrible choice for the title. It sends entirely the wrong message and gives people an excuse not to read the book. This, of course, was not lost on Richard Dawkins, as he would later admit that three better alternative titles would have been The Cooperative Gene, The Immortal Gene, or The Altruistic Vehicle.
In the title The Selfish Gene, the emphasis should be on “gene,” not on “selfish,” as there is no gene that codes for selfishness. But Dawkins should have anticipated the confusion and the tendency for critics to use this against him (without reading, as Dawkins said, the footnote to the title, which is the book). Nothing screams social darwinism more than the The Selfish Gene, even though the book is clearly anti-social darwinism in content.
There’s even a passage Dawkins wrote that, as he states in the introduction, he wishes he could remove: “Let us try to teach generosity and altruism, because we are born selfish.” This again conveys the wrong idea.
But aside from the poor choice in title, the book conveys some rather brilliant ideas, which I take to be the following.
The main idea represents a new way of thinking about evolution in terms of “replicators” and “vehicles.” The replicators are strands of DNA that are housed, copied, and transmitted by and through bodies, which act as vehicles for the replicators.
While it’s natural to think of an animal body as using DNA to reproduce and replicate itself, Dawkins reverses this and claims that a better, more accurate way of depicting the situation is as replicators using bodies to replicate and transmit themselves.
And so the unit of natural selection is at the level of the gene, not the individual. Upon reflection this should be obvious; it’s not even possible for an individual to act as a replicator. A replicator must be copied with high levels of accuracy to be passed on, and an individual cannot copy itself with any degree of accuracy at all. An individual is a unique assortment of genes in specific arrangements, and during reproduction only half of his/her entire genome is transmitted to offspring, and even in this half the genes are shuffled and reconfigured in different arrangements. The only things that live on in the same arrangement are particular genes, the immortal strands of DNA that pass through the vehicles known as animals and plants.
You can say that natural selection works at the level of the individual, not the gene, because genes are shielded from the environment. This seems to be a contradiction to the selfish gene theory, but it isn’t. Here’s why: genes provide the instructions for building bodies, and so have phenotypic effects (a phenotype is an observable characteristic resulting from genetic instruction). Natural selection works on individual bodies, but the bodies are constructed based on instructions from the genes. So in a sense natural selection is working at both levels, but it is only the gene that is acting as a true replicator.
For example, if a hard shell protects an animal and offers a reproductive advantage, this animal will survive and reproduce at higher rates. Natural selection has operated at the level of the individual. But the genes for producing a hard shell are what’s being passed on to other bodies during reproduction, so it’s really the level of the gene where evolution is taking place and it’s really the gene that is being selected for.
It’s important to remember that evolution by natural selection is a mechanical, physical process, and “viewing” the process at different levels is just a matter of pedagogical convenience. This clarifies another misconception: genes are not consciously “trying” to replicate themselves, it just helps to understand the phenomenon through personification. If we think of genes as selfishly acting to perpetuate themselves, we can understand the process more clearly.
The final misconception I want to cover is the connection between biological evolution and morality or politics. As Richard Dawkins clearly states in the book, there is no necessary connection between evolution and how we should structure our behavior or organize our society. Evolution has crafted our brains, but our brains have long taken over the process of everyday living. As Steven Pinker reminded us, he has chosen to not have children, instead dedicating his life to teaching, writing, and friendship, and if his genes don’t like it they can go jump in the lake. Dawkins also thinks it should be obvious that our brains can override our selfish genes, using the obvious example of contraceptives.
A good rule of thumb is, if you hear someone make a moral claim based on evolution, they probably don’t understand how evolution works. And if they do, they’re making the obvious mistake of not noticing how our consciousness has allowed us to escape the dictates of our biology. More than likely, they’re just using biology to justify an archaic and dogmatic social arrangement in which they stand to benefit.
The last thing I’ll mention is the connection between evolution and human meaning. Some people have commented that reading this book has sent them into a state of depression, as it paints a rather bleak and mechanical view of the world. Here are two points to consider:
- There is a difference between ideas that are comforting and ideas that are true. The universe is under no obligation to conform to our wishes. We must have the courage to face reality, wherever the evidence leads. Anything else is childish self-delusion.
- Most people do not derive life satisfaction based on the ultimate fate or nature of the material world anyway. Even if the arguments from the book are true, what does this have to do with family, friends, hobbies, music, art, community, career, and everything else that makes life worth living?
Here are some of the best additional books on evolution:
- The Blind Watchmaker by Richard Dawkins – one of the best explanations of how evolution works and how evolution accounts for the appearance of design.
- The Greatest Show on Earth by Richard Dawkins – lays out the mountain of evidence for evolution and shows how the “theory” of evolution is as solid as the “theory” of gravity or heliocentrism.
- Darwin’s Dangerous Idea by Daniel Dennett – the best philosophical and historical take on evolution.
- Why Evolution is True by Jerry Coyne – a shorter, more concise version of The Greatest Show on Earth.
- The Language Instinct by Steven Pinker – covers the evolution of language and the human mind.