The Pequod Review:
Richard Dawkins’s The Selfish Gene is a revelatory work of popular science, one that not only introduced lay readers to the concept of gene selection theory, but more importantly showed how to intelligently and logically apply principles of evolutionary biology to human behavior. Building on (and synthesizing) the earlier work of evolutionary biologists like George Williams and William Hamilton, Dawkins’s fundamental argument is that adaptive evolution occurs through the competition for survival of individual genes (rather than the survival of the entire organism or the social group):
We, and all other animals, are machines created by our genes… Our genes have survived, in some cases for millions of years, in a highly competitive world. This entitles us to expect certain qualities of our genes. I shall argue that a predominant quality to be expected in a successful gene is ruthless selfishness. This gene selfishness will usually give rise to selfishness in individual behavior. However, as we shall see, there are special circumstances in which a gene can achieve its own selfish goals best by fostering a limited form of altruism at the level of individual animals. “Special” and “limited” are important words in the last sentence. Much as we wish to believe otherwise, universal love and the welfare of the species as a whole are concepts that simply do not make evolutionary sense…
This brings me to the first point I want to make about what this book is not. I am not advocating a morality based on evolution. I am saying how things have evolved. I am not saying how we humans morally ought to behave. ... If you wish to extract a moral from it, read it as a warning. Be warned that if you wish, as I do, to build a society in which individuals cooperate generously and unselfishly towards a common good, you can expect little help from biological nature. Let us try to teach generosity and altruism, because we are born selfish. Let us understand what our own selfish genes are up to, because we may then at least have a chance to upset their designs, something that no other species has ever aspired to do.
He also shows how our selfish genes can nonetheless lead to altruistic behavior:
What is the selfish gene? It is not just one single physical bit of DNA. Just as in the primeval soup, it is all replicas of a particular bit of DNA, distributed throughout the world. If we allow ourselves the licence of talking about genes as if they had conscious aims, always reassuring ourselves that we could translate our sloppy language back into respectable terms if we wanted to, we can ask the question, what is a single selfish gene trying to do? It is trying to get more numerous in the gene pool. Basically it does this by helping to Program the bodies in which it finds itself to survive and to reproduce. But now we are emphasizing that 'it' is a distributed agency, existing in many different individuals at once. The key point of this chapter is that a gene might be able to assist replicas of itself that are sitting in other bodies. If so, this would appear as individual altruism but it would be brought about by gene selfishness. it still seems rather implausible.
Are there any plausible ways in which genes might “recognize” their copies in other individuals? The answer is yes. It is easy to show that close relatives – kin – have a greater than average chance of sharing genes. It has long been clear that this is why altruism by parents towards their young is so common.
To save the life of a relative who is soon going to die of old age has less of an impact on the gene pool of the future than to save the life of an equally close relative who has the bulk of his life ahead of him.
All of this is interesting of course, but what really elevates The Selfish Gene (and Dawkins’s work more generally) is his relentlessly lucid and logical prose. He structures his arguments seamlessly, starting with first principles and proceeding through an irrefutable chain of logic. It is often said that Dawkins is a great writer. He is for sure, but his talent begins with the fact that he is a great thinker. He knows exactly what he wants to say, and is therefore able to clearly convey it to the reader.
Alongside giants like John McPhee, Bill Bryson and Richard Feynman, Richard Dawkins has done more to bring the subject of science alive than almost any other modern writer. He explains complicated subjects and theories in an accessible way, with engaging stories and metaphors rather than a dry recitation of discrete facts. Dawkins may have written more detailed books later in his career, but The Selfish Gene remains one of his best at capturing the magic of science and evolution.