The Selfish Gene is a classic of Darwinism; something in every biologist’s bookshelf. But it’s valuable for all – learn why.
Richard Dawkins is an evolutionary biologist and a major contributor to our understanding of Darwinian evolution. The Selfish Gene launched him to superstardom, and he’s followed it up with several works of importance. He pioneered our understanding of evolution beyond species-level effects, focusing in this seminal work on the role of genetics. Dawkins is also somewhat famous as an atheist, of the extremely annoying kind.
For our purposes: Dawkins spawned the whole field of memetics, and coined the term “meme”. Part of what I aim to do is take his ideas in that field further than he did.
The Selfish Gene popularized the gene-centric view of evolution. Put simply, it’s the theory that it is individual genes that are selected for, so we should look at evolution from a genetic perspective. So, for example: it makes more sense to examine the evolution of beavers from the perspective of the genes determining the length of their teeth, rather than from the perspective of individual beavers.
Following a gene-centric view, we expect individuals that are more genetically related to co-operate, to increase the survival chances of their genes. Over time, genes reach equilibrium in an evolutionarily stable strategy (ESS) that protects them from invasive species (genes).
Thousands of pieces have been written on the importance of The Selfish Gene to the study of evolution. I am not a biologist and don’t want to repeat them. What I will say is this: this is a landmark text. If you’ve studied evolution, you’ve probably read it. If you haven’t studied evolution, there’s no better place to start (beyond Darwin himself).
This is the book on evolution. But there are plenty of reasons to read it beyond that.
Selection is a competitive game. “Survival of the fittest” has stuck around as a meme because it works so well across the various ways in which humans compete. (If you’re a hip-hop fan, you might recognize this classic).
Dawkins examines competitive pressures in great detail here. Looking beyond individual competition, he delves inside the organism to look at how individual genes are competing. This is applicable to general competition. One competitor may be superior to another on average, but how do they stack up in specific attributes? If the situation changes, which attributes become important? How do you play to your strengths? How do you address your weaknesses?
The discussion of evolutionarily stable strategies is basically a large, practical, application of game theory. If you’ve struggled to grasp the concepts of game theory, Dawkins’ application could help you. If you understand game theory, it’s fascinating to look at how it works in nature among genes.
This book is a great resource on abstract thinking about competition. Genes are but one thing that is selected for in the world, as selection applies all over the place.
Dawkins founded the study of memetics in this book. He only gave it a chapter, and somewhat distanced himself from the field afterwards. But it’s well worth it just to read the chapter from which our whole framework for the concept came about.
Dawkins stresses that his findings on genetics apply to any replicator. Genes are just his area of interest. But as I examine daily on this blog, memetics applies even more widely than genetics. Memes are replicating units of information, and they can move faster than genes could ever hope to.
Witness the birth of a meme itself. The term is in everyone’s lexicon now, but this is where it was coined. And its placement after a long treatment of genetic selection and evolution will give you a highly valuable primer on how I and others study memetics.
The Selfish Gene is logical, empirical, and full of novel science. It’s rare to find an accessible scientific text with such a wide impact. It’s rarer still to find one that will change how you see the world and creep in to your perspective on even mundane daily events.
This is one of those books. Buy it, read it, and keep it on the shelf for years to come.
I write to push Dawkins’ study of memetics even further. My own book is in the works, but I won’t stop giving you free content every single day. Join thousands of the like-minded: subscribe for email updates and follow me on Twitter, where I also post daily.