Book Review: The Selfish Gene

The Selfish Gene is rightfully a science classic. Unashamedly confident, yet modest of its own genius while marvelling at the wonders of nature; it will force you to stretch your neurons with its intellectual rigor, bend to the weight of its logic and accept its alternative perspective. That is, if you already possess a mind open enough to face the challenge.

The Selfish Gene

It is disappointing, but appropriate, that we must begin by discussing what this book is not. So many liberties and misunderstandings are taken from this book that you suspect many are deliberate and come from those who never got beyond the title. This is best exemplified by those who suggest this book is advocating selfish behaviour in a Libertarian or laissez-faire fashion. No one who has actually read and understood this book would possibly conclude that.

People sometimes struggle with the distinction between an explanation for the way nature works and an advocacy for how humans should conduct themselves. The charge that evolution is ‘immoral’ has existed for at least as long as Darwin’s Origin of Species. No one seems to insist that the laws of physics must be immoral for their ability to explain car crashes or better aim artillery. It is not simply a religious complaint either. The unfounded assumption that, ‘if it is natural, it must be good’, is the basis of many a false and dangerous worldview.

Dawkins had some idea of what would come. A significant portion of this otherwise short and excellent book (excluding introductions and end notes, the text is only 266 pages) is devoted to reiterating what this book is and what it is not – not a moral law, not a guide for human activity – as well as the limitations of the models, examples and analogies used. Additional material has been added to each new edition addressing some of the issues people have taken with the book – some reasonably, some less so. In hindsight, Dawkins has expressed some regret over the title and its potential to mislead the easily misled. But there is a short leash as to how much a title is to blame. It certainly can’t explain those who wilfully refuse to understand a books contents.

I don’t want to go on and on about this. Taking on the various objections is like facing the zombie apocalypse. The opposition may seem slow-witted and easily shot down, but they more than make up for it in repetition and determination and can easily overwhelm those who lack the will or the ammunition to keep up the fight. You can certainly understand Dawkins’ frustration.

So what is this book about? This is a book about ethology; animal behaviour. Specifically, about whether perceived examples of animal altruism are exactly that or whether there might be a better alternative explanation. For example, when a predator approaches a herd of Thomson’s gazelle, some individual gazelle perform apparently provocative displays in front of the predator. Some have explained this behaviour by arguing that the individual is goading the predator into attacking them first and is therefore selflessly risking itself to spare others in the herd. But how would such a trait evolve if those who perform it are more likely to be killed than those who do not?

Alternatively, perhaps the gazelle is showing off its athleticism to the predator, making it clear to the predator that it is not an easy catch, in the interest of its own self-preservation. The display then becomes a competition between individual gazelles for the best display; the predator being more likely to single out the less able. This explanation is a better logical fit; it allows for those more successful at the trait to survive and multiply.

In a more general sense, the book also examines the question of which level natural selection works – the species, the group, the individual or the gene?

This is the third book by Dawkins I have read and one gets the feeling that his motivations for writing them come equally from inspiration and frustration. Inspiration from the complex beauty of the natural world and the equally complex and beautiful explanations of its workings. Frustration from the prevalence of poor, false and inelegant explanations that seem to dominate discourse.

For this particular book, first published in 1976, Dawkins’ frustration is aimed at those biology texts, TV documentaries and even established academics who persist with explaining apparently altruistic animal behaviour in terms of ‘the good of the species’. So much so that such thinking also found extension into sociology and politics on the basis that it was true in nature. In the course of The Selfish Gene, Dawkins exposes the logical and empirical failings of such a conclusion and champions the achievements of other scientists in providing an alternative explanation that is more logically sound and better supported by evidence. Those other scientist’s work that Dawkins champions here principally include RA Fisher, WD Hamilton, George C Williams, John Maynard Smith, Robert Trivers and Robert Axelrod. That alternative explanation is that natural selection works at the level of the replicator – the gene – and that even apparently altruistic animal behaviour can be better explained as behaviour promoted by genes for their own benefit, sometimes even at the expense of the individual organism that houses some of those genes.

The early chapters of The Selfish Gene lay down the foundations of what this book is and is not, the nature of the animal behaviour issues investigated and an overview of the workings of DNA and genes. Dawkins further lays down the argument for viewing individual organisms as survival machines; vehicles built by genes to house themselves. If, like me, you are a layman to this area and your knowledge does not extend much beyond knowing the difference between mitosis and meiosis, there is a lot of fascinating material here.

The main arguments Dawkins wishes to make in this book take off from chapter five. If selfish gene theory is to prove superior to arguments for the good of the species; it will need to succeed in those arenas where conflicts of interest arise. There are obvious conflicts of interests between predators and prey, but conflicts of interest also exist within members of the same species; between unrelated individuals, between the parents, between parents and children and between siblings. It is here that many examples of altruistic behaviour are cited and where a selfish gene alternative will have to offer something stronger.

In the following chapters, Dawkins uses elementary game theory, alternative interpretations of kin selection, examples of animals employing family planning strategies and the concept of parental investment in children to explain animal behaviour in selfish gene terms. All of this builds to chapter nine, The Battle of the Sexes, where Dawkins examines the conflicts of interests between males and females in choosing mates and rearing children and the respective strategies employed. The best chapter in the book, it brings together the ideas introduced in the earlier chapters and pushes them to new levels of complexity. Meanwhile, in these chapters, the same ideas such as the misunderstandings of kin selection, the evidence for family planning, as well as the incompatibility with the required properties for replication, build the case against group selection and for gene selection.

Though by chapter 10 the main points have been made, this chapter provides a fascinating explanation of the evolution of sterile worker castes in social insects such as bees and ants. Chapter 11 contains, arguably, Dawkins’ most enduring and most original contribution to science – the meme; a unit of cultural transmission.

Examples of memes are tunes, ideas, catch-phrases, clothes, fashions, ways of making pots or building arches. Just as genes propagate themselves in the gene pool by leaping from body to body via sperm and eggs, so memes propagate themselves in the meme pool by leaping from brain to brain via a process which, in the broad sense, can be called imitation.

As my colleague NK Humphrey neatly summed up an earlier draft of this chapter: ‘… memes should be regarded as living structures, not just metaphorically but technically. When you plant a fertile meme in my mind you literally parasitize my brain, turning it into a vehicle for the meme’s propagation in just the way that a virus may parasitize the genetic mechanism of a host cell. And this isn’t just a way of talking – the meme for, say, “belief in life after death” is actually realised physically, millions of times over, as a structure in the nervous systems of individual men the world over.’

Chapter 12, Nice Guys Finish First, discusses advancements made to the concept of reciprocal altruism since the first edition of The Selfish Gene. Particularly by Robert Axelrod who examined strategies for iterations of the ‘prisoner’s dilemma’. While the final chapter, The Long Reach of the Gene, is essentially a one-chapter summation of Dawkins’ follow up to The Selfish Gene; The Extended Phenotype.

It is not just the counterpoints to the wilfully defiant that Dawkins needs to frequently address in this book; the nature of science itself lends some problems. It is something every science student encounters – the problem of language. Human language evolved out of a need to communicate and transact with fellow humans. As such, it carries the assumption that you are dealing with a conscious agent with free will – assumptions that let us down when discussing unconscious particulates and the forces that influence them.

Genes don’t ‘want’ to propagate themselves, reactants do not ‘choose’ one reaction pathway over others. It is possible to use other language to describe these processes but it quickly becomes longwinded and tedious. Instead we often have to use the assumption-loaded language and frequently remind the reader that we are not supposing these objects and forces have thoughts and intentions.

The limitations of language in describing nature is an issue that frequently recurs in the book. For example, when discussing the ‘decision’ animals make in having offspring, Dawkins reminds us that by ‘decision’ he means an ‘unconscious strategic move’. That a ‘strategy’ is a ‘blind unconscious behaviour program’. When discussing whether a mother should have favourites or treat her children equally, Dawkins reminds us that ‘favourite’ has no subjective connotations and ‘should’ no moral ones. The reader must keep these in mind, which can be difficult, especially when you are reading about genes ‘predicting’ and we have to remind ourselves of what Dawkins means by ‘predicting’ from a few chapters earlier.

Another point that Dawkins needs to repeatedly reiterate in this book is the usefulness and limitations of models and simulations. Like metaphors, models and simulations are not reality, but in their simplified, limited way they can inform us on some of the underlying workings of reality. Dawkins has to frequently remind the reader that when we examine one aspect we must assume that we are treating all else as being equal and that some of the parameters of the simulations are approximations only.

The two words from the blurb that stand out to me are “intellectually rigorous”. This book is a good workout for your brain. In addition to the problems of language and the limitations of models that will test your faculties, Dawkins will introduce you to new perspectives and ways of thinking, approaching problems and solving them. When his general explanation for the particulars of social insects begins snowballing when introducing specifics of different species, it is nice to hear Dawkins admit that his head is spinning too!

Dawkins’ writing is very effective and very affecting. We have all read books that have allowed us to live in someone else’s shoes and experience a different perspective. Books on history and science can add greatly to our range of knowledge. Some books can also bring to our attention various socio-political issues. But few writers or books can claim to have fundamentally altered their reader’s ways of thinking. Yet that is something commonly heard from readers of Dawkins, particularly of his two most famous books; The Selfish Gene and The God Delusion. Not all are appreciative! Indeed, some have expressed a wish that they could unlearn what they have learned but such is the force of his logic that there is no going back. Dawkins’ books are full of idea memes waiting to parasitise your brain and alter your view of the world.

I am currently reading a book that could be generally described as a children’s fantasy novel and I keep finding myself thinking ‘that creature could never evolve and neither could that creature’s behaviour’!

Unlike most books on science, which go out of print after being made redundant by new information, The Selfish Gene has endured due to the durability of its ideas, but also because of its bestseller status with the general public. However, like any scientific text, it needs to be updated with new evidence and arguments. This is why this book now has extensive additional material in the form of new chapters, end notes and introductions added since the first edition. Dawkins admits feeling a little sheepish that a book that was never really intended for wide readership should continue to sell so well. On the day I finished this book – it was the 30th Anniversary Edition that I read – I found out that the 40th Anniversary Edition was now available with a new epilogue.

But there is a limit to how far such additions can go. Some of the arguments touched on in The Selfish Gene have found greater voice in his following books, particularly The Extended Phenotype and The Blind Watchmaker.

Dawkins is often accused of being ‘strident’ or ‘cynical’. Given the sense of frustration and the need to defend against those who deliberately misunderstand him, I think it is understandable that Dawkins would make himself very clear about what he is saying and what he isn’t; about what arguments survive critical analysis and which do not. He justifies his forcefulness in this book by pointing out that the opposing side had largely escaped criticism until this book.

Does he take it too far? Perhaps. There are a couple of instances in this book where he may stray into making points that he needn’t or using examples that are not necessary. For example, when discussing copying fidelity of replicators such as genes and its ramifications, Dawkins brings up the consequences of the mistranslation of the Hebrew word for ‘young woman’ into the Greek word for ‘virgin’ in the book of Isaiah. Because I agree with him on points such as this, these do not offend me personally, but other readers, who may be otherwise in agreement on his scientific points may be turned off by these asides.

Another aspect Dawkins’ frequently feels he need to defend against are those who take his arguments and apply it to human society. Humans – via science, technology, governance, law, etc – have partially escaped the dangers of existence in the natural environment. Further, by being aware of our evolutionary past, we can be forewarned of those natural tendencies of ours that may not be in our society’s best interests. In the concluding paragraph to his chapter on conflict between parent’s and children’s interests, Dawkins gives a wonderful defence to this and to many of the other arguments I’ve mentioned:

This chapter, and the next in which we discuss conflict between mates, could seem horribly cynical, and might even be distressing to human parents, devoted as they are to their children, and to each other. Once again I must emphasize that I am not talking about conscious motives. Nobody is suggesting that children deliberately and consciously deceive their parents because of the selfish genes within them. And I must repeat that when I say something like ‘A child should lose no opportunity of cheating… lying, deceiving, exploiting…’, I am using the word ‘should’ in a special way. I am not advocating this kind of behaviour as moral or desirable. I am simply saying that natural selection will tend to favour children who do act in this way, and that therefore when we look at wild populations we may expect to see cheating and selfishness within families. The phrase ‘the child should cheat’ means that genes that tend to make children cheat have an advantage in the gene pool. If there is a human moral to be drawn, it is that we must teach our children altruism, for we cannot expect it to be part of their biological nature.

What did I learn from The Selfish Gene? Many things. Some of them basic; such as the elementary facts of genetics that I might have already known if I was a biology major. Hypotheses for the evolution of aging and dying, menopause and gender roles will be difficult to forget.

One of the things I will take away from this book is the concept of the Evolutionary Stable Strategy or ESS. It is an idea of John Maynard Smith, who in turn credits WD Hamilton and RH McArthur. The fact that natural selection will digress to a ratio of strategies that provides stability, yet which is not necessarily the optimal average strategy for the individuals involved, is the best analogy I have heard of to illustrate the distinction between how evolution works and why it is not a model for human conduct. It is an idea that I cannot help but extend beyond a biological context and apply to certain political ideologies as well.

Dawkins introduces the ESS concept in chapter 5 where, as I said, the main arguments of the book begin. By chapter 9, he takes the concept to impressive heights, discussing complimentary pairs of strategies and multiple points of stability in conflicts between males and females. Chapter 9, as I said, was my favourite of the book and some of it is frankly too fascinating for words. The following chapter’s explanation for the evolution of sterile worker castes in social insects is not far behind and is also something that will stay with me.

In reading chapter 8, Battle of the Generations, I could not help but think of my baby daughter. Are her genes for cuteness manipulating me as her parent into forgiving her when she throws the lunch I carefully made on the floor? Are her genes for adorability the reason I conveniently forget what she left me in her nappy? Probably!

You may be forgiven for thinking the narrowness of the topic at hand – animal altruism – might excuse The Selfish Gene from being a must-read book for those interested in science. But in order to address this topic, Dawkins has, out of both necessity and interest, delivered far more. The arguments, models, examples and asides will illuminate, infect and reprogram your thinking. It is one of those books that, once read, cannot be unread.


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