The Selfish Gene and Richard Dawkins: How a Scientist Changed the Way We Think, By Richard Dawkins Inspire article

“If you are not interested in how evolution came about, and cannot conceive how anyone could be seriously concerned about anything other than human affairs, then do not read it: it will only make you needlessly angry,” wrote John Maynard Smith about The Selfish Gene.

Richard Dawkin’s classic exposition of modern evolutionary biology was published in 1976 and has recently been reissued as a 30th anniversary edition with a new introduction by the author. Why should anyone get angry about a book on evolutionary biology? Maynard Smith’s cautionary comment is interesting, if only because he is one of the four biologists cited in the introduction to the first edition of The Selfish Gene as providing its intellectual basis (along with R.A. Fisher, G. C. Williams, and W. D. Hamilton). But Maynard Smith’s warning to the non-biologist is strangely at odds with Dawkins’ express intention “to examine the biology of selfishness and altruism” – what could be closer to human affairs? In his preface to this edition, Harvard biologist Robert Trivers supports Dawkins’ claim of universal relevance when he writes that “natural selection has built us, and it is natural selection we must understand if we are to comprehend our own identities.”

This quote gives us a taste of the kind of hyperbole that has accompanied public debates of evolution since the mid-19th century. To imply that people who do not understand natural selection have no comprehension of their own identities is so pompous that anger might well be the reaction of a reader unaware of the rules of popular science writing.

But I do not want to suggest for an instant that Dawkins’ book is in any way cheap. In fact, it is a lucid statement of what turned out to be a paradigm shift in evolutionary biology. Before the publication of The Selfish Gene, many biologists were happy to accept the idea that natural selection acted to maximise the success of a species or a group. For example, Nobel laureate Konrad Lorenz advocated this view in his once immensely popular book On Aggression, published in 1963. According to Dawkins, Lorenz “got it totally and utterly wrong” because he “misunderstood how evolution works”.

Hamilton was the first to argue that instead of maximising the good of the species, evolution works by maximising what he referred to as an individual’s “inclusive fitness”. Starting from the simple idea that, genetically speaking, my own survival is equivalent to that of two of my siblings, this suggests that fitness calculations should include not only direct offspring but also relatives, because they too carry copies of an individual’s genes. This gene-centred – rather than group-centred – perspective leads to neat explanations for a wide range of animal behaviour, including the altruism of worker bees, which under the new theory turns out to be a strategy for maximising their genetic progeny.

Inclusive fitness also implies that animals should be capable of quantifying the degree of relatedness between themselves and others. In a paper published in Nature on 15 February 2007, Debra Lieberman and colleagues show for the first time that humans do indeed possess a kin detection system that influences their disposition towards others. The relevance of inclusive fitness to human affairs has become a lot clearer since Hamilton postulated it in 1964 in the context of social insect societies and The Selfish Gene was the place where a new generation of biologists first learned about it.

Thirty years ago, Dawkins advocated a set of ideas that were mature enough to coalesce into a coherent view of evolution but still new enough to be confined to a select group of mainly English and American biologists. The whiff of revolution, combined with deep insights into the mechanics of altruism, is what makes the book exciting to read even today.

The context is very different for the authors contributing to the volume of essays published simultaneously with the anniversary edition of The Selfish Gene. Richard Dawkins: How a Scientist Changed the Way We Think – Reflections by Scientists, Writers, and Philosophers, edited by Alan Grafen and Mark Ridley, is a rather mixed collection of short pieces. Too many are of the ‘Dawkins is brilliant’ school of writing, which is true in some respects but ultimately boring. There are exceptions, though, and I particularly recommend David Haig’s musings on ‘The Gene Meme’. This takes up the idea of a meme as a unit of cultural evolution, proposed by Dawkins in the last chapter of The Selfish Gene. The concept of the gene might be such a meme and Haig traces its evolution to conclude that a gene-centred view of biology is more fruitful than a meme-centred perspective on culture. If this leaves you intrigued, go and (re)read Dawkins’ original – but don’t get angry.


The Selfish Gene

Publisher: Oxford University Press
Publication year: 2006
ISBN: 0199291152

Richard Dawkins: How a Scientist Changed the Way We Think

Publisher: Oxford University Press
Publication year: 2006
ISBN: 0199291160


Download this article as a PDF