The Selfish Gene, by Richard Dawkins

I mentioned a couple of weeks ago that when I first read A.S. Byatt’s Still Life, there seemed to be levels to the story that I wasn’t getting. I wonder now, as I reread it, if it doesn’t presume background knowledge that I didn’t have then. Coincidentally, as I was alternating between reading it and Dawkins’s book last week, I stumbled across a long passage referencing Dawkin’s concepts as presented in The Selfish Gene and I realised that much of Byatt’s book was a response to those concepts.

Dawkins looks at evolution from the point of view of the gene, proposing that organisms (such as humans) are “survival machines” for the genes, containers that carry them in our chromosomes, protecting and replicating the genes. Therefore, natural selection favors organisms that most successfully replicate their genes. Characteristics that promote replication (e.g., fertility, attractiveness, ability to protect oneself) are preferred and so spread more widely through the population.

The title is a metaphor, since genes themselves do not have feelings. It is meant to indicate that in their drive to replicate (since that is their function), genes may even act against the best interests of the organism containing them or against the best interests of the community of organisms. From the gene’s viewpoint, what matters is the number of copies of the genes, not of the organism. Hence, organisms have evolved to protect those who have copies of some of the same genes (kin).

Dawkins first defines his terms. I always appreciate starting this way, since words are so often misused, and in this case I needed his comprehensive and comprehensible explanation of the difference between genes, alleles, chromosomes, nucleotides, etc. He presents the idea of “replicator molecules” in the “primordial soup” succeeding over other molecules to became cells and, eventually, organisms. He describes how DNA replicates, both in the normal growth of the organism and in the formation of units of reproduction (sperm and egg, for humans).

I particularly enjoyed his concept of an evolutionarily stable strategy (ESS) and the examples of such strategies that he and others have studied and/or modeled. In an encounter, the two participants have the choice to protect or defect. I was reminded of all those police dramas where they’ve separated two criminals and are telling each to rat on your partner before he rats on you; the one who defects first gets the best deal. Dawkins discusses many strategy models, while cautioning that the environment must also be a factor in their success.

I’m not sure why I hadn’t heard of this book until now, when it turned up as a selection for one of my book clubs. Perhaps because when it came out in 1976, I was enmeshed (as one of Byatt’s characters is) in caring for babies and certainly out of touch with popular culture. Over the years, I have absorbed many of the concepts of the book without knowing the primary source, thus perhaps unwittingly proving his thesis about memes, units of human culture that replicate and evolve in ways similar to those of genes, even at the expense of their vehicles (Dawkins’s book in this case).

The Selfish Gene is aimed at the layperson and is quite readable. I sometimes found his tone a bit petulant, as he rebutted objections to his work by reviewers and other scientists, but others in my book club found these rebuttals humorous. And certainly Dawkins is quick to admit when he is wrong and to give credit to others for their work—always a charming quality.

The book does raise moral questions, although Dawkins cautions that he is just describing how things work biologically, not how they ought to work. And he reminds us that, as thinking organisms, we sometimes have the power to override our genetic blueprint. For example, we can choose not to reproduce. We can choose altruism. We can choose peace.

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