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Evolution of the selfish gene

Naturevolume 441pages151152 (2006) | Download Citation

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The thirtieth anniversary of Richard Dawkins' landmark work provides an opportunity to take stock.

Richard Dawkins: How a Scientist Changed the Way We Think

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Oxford University Press: 2006. 304 pp. £12.99, $25 0199291160 | ISBN: 0-199-29116-0

“We are survival machines — robot vehicles blindly programmed to preserve the selfish molecules known as genes. This is a truth which still fills me with astonishment ... One of my hopes is that I may have some success in astonishing others.” That hope, expressed by Richard Dawkins in the preface of The Selfish Gene, has been more than fulfilled. Published 30 years ago, The Selfish Gene has been, and remains, one of the most influential science books of all time. To celebrate this anniversary, a third edition has been released, along with Richard Dawkins: How a Scientist Changed the Way We Think. The latter is a collection of comments and testimonials edited by Alan Grafen and Mark Ridley.

In the 1960s and '70s, biologists such as William Hamilton, John Maynard Smith, Robert Trivers and G. C. Williams sought to explain troubling aspects of evolution by approaching them at the level of genes, rather than at the usual level of individual organisms, groups or species. The existence of altruistic behaviour that may decrease the reproductive success of altruistic individuals, for instance, presents a puzzle for standard darwinism. Hamilton showed that altruistic behaviour may increase the chances of the genes involved being replicated when the beneficiaries are also carriers of the same genes; this gene-level selection explains the evolution of altruism.

Credit: ILLUSTRATIONS BY JOE MAGEE

What Dawkins did was integrate such findings into a vivid and systematic picture of biological evolution wholly “from the point of view of the gene” and explore the wider implications of this approach. His picture challenges common-sense ontology and expectations, and is indeed astonishing. We spontaneously interpret the behaviour of individuals as that of agents capable of pursuing their interest, and extend this kind of interpretation to social groups. Fragments of molecules, on the other hand, are unfamiliar objects to which we are not disposed to attribute interests and goals. Of course, genes are not literally agents, let alone selfish ones intent on propagating themselves, but analysing what they would do if they were provides us with a uniquely cogent account of their actual effects on the world. The logic is that used by Darwin when he explained the existence in nature of design without a designer as an effect of selection. Dawkins shows how this logic can be exploited at the micro-level of ‘replicators’, or genes.

Whether evolution and selection are best described at the level of genes, or at the higher levels of organisms or groups, or at all these levels simultaneously, remains contentious (with echoes of the debate in Grafen and Ridley's edited volume, Richard Dawkins). There is little doubt, however, that the gene-centred approach has been the source of novel and deep insights. In particular, further challenging common sense, Dawkins attacked the view of organisms as bearers of life par excellence. Only in some cases do different replicators cooperate in such a way that larger coherent units — the ‘vehicles’ of replicators — emerge. Not all these vehicles correspond to the individual organism. In The Extended Phenotype, his second book and possibly his best, Dawkins showed how the vehicles may extend beyond the boundaries and behaviour of organisms, for example when the genes of parasites express themselves by modifying their host's behaviour.

In the last chapter of the first edition of The Selfish Gene, Dawkins introduced what may be his most popular idea, that of ‘memes’, or cultural replicators. Any population of entities that produce copies of themselves, and that vary both in their specific features and in their reproductive success, are replicators and are thus candidates for darwinian selection. The idea that cultural evolution might be modelled along darwinian lines had often been suggested, but Dawkins reformulated it with characteristic crispness and clarity. Contrary to the idea that cultural items (such as ideas, skills, practices and artefacts) thrive because of their contribution to the social or biological welfare of the individual or groups that adopt them, Dawkins argued that cultural items may thrive because they cause their own propagation. Establishing the possibility of such ‘selfish memes’ served two purposes: generalizing the idea of replicators beyond biology, and suggesting an evolutionary approach to culture.

However, as Robert Aunger observes in Grafen and Ridley's book: “No significant body of empirical research has grown up around the meme concept ... In fact the memetic literature remains devoted almost exclusively to theoretical antagonisms, internecine battles, and scholastic elucidations of prior writing on memes.” Dawkins has essentially left the development of memetics to others. Instead, together with Daniel Dennett, he has used the idea of the meme as a powerful tool in his criticism of religious ideas, which he describes as “viruses of the mind”. The effectiveness of the criticism does not much depend on the scientific details of a would-be memetics.

Dawkins' depth and clarity of vision, intellectual honesty and passion, and superb writing have indeed changed the way many of us think about biology. And the latest volume, Richard Dawkins, brings together testimonials and reflections about Dawkins himself or inspired by his work. Most of the contributions, by eminent scientists, philosophers and writers, are laudatory; a few are critical. The book is a pleasant read and throws useful light on the multiform impact of Dawkins' work on biology, philosophy, science writing and the public debate on science and religion. Particularly illuminating are Grafen's chapter discussing the relationship between Dawkins' work and more mathematically oriented population genetics, and Ullica Segerstråle's chapter on Dawkins and sociobiology. Still, in preparing this review, I re-read The Selfish Gene, and this was the real treat.

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  1. Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique and the Institut Jean Nicod, 1 bis avenue Lowendal, Paris, 75014, France

    • Dan Sperber

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