The Selfish Gene


Did you know that you were born selfish? I’m not the one stating this but The Selfish Gene book is. The Selfish Gene by prof. Richard Dawkins is one of the finest books ever written in the popular science genre. This book has sold over a million copies and has been translated into more than 25 languages.

The assumption The Selfish Gene makes is that every living entity including us is a vessel, which is referred to as the survival machine and these survival machines are guided by the selfish genes that inhabit them.

Why selfish genes? Because according to the Selfish gene theory a predominant quality for a gene to thrive and get successfully passed down to the next generation is ruthless selfishness. And this selfishness is not just limited to the genetic level, it also influences the behavior of the individual as well.

Prof. Richard Dawkins is a British evolutionary biologist and author. He was the first Charles Simonyi professor of public understanding of science at Oxford. One of his biggest contributions to evolutionary biology is the gene-centered view of evolution. Apart from the Selfish gene, some of the other best-sellers by Richard Dawkins include The God Delusion, The Blind Watchmaker, and The Greatest Show on Earth.

The Selfish Gene takes us through the gene’s-eye view of nature and it shares the journey of a gene right from the Primeval soup/Primordial soup where the first replicating molecules were born and how they developed a protective coat around themselves (aka the survival machine) and how these survival machines evolved into complex beings like ourself.

The book uses beautiful metaphors and analogies to help the reader understand how genes operate. One of my favorite metaphors used in the book is the comparison between the genes to that of an architect’s plan. 

Reading this book also reminded me of some of the concepts that I learned in my biology class back in school, like the different kinds of cell divisions, the steps involved in the formation of the germ cell, what a cistron is, and much more.

The definition of what a gene is is not fixed in this book. Chapter 2 of this book describes a gene as a replicating molecule with high copying fidelity whereas chapter 3 uses another definition where a gene is defined as any portion of the chromosomal material that potentially lasts for long enough generations to serve as the unit of natural selection.

And the reason for using alternative definitions of what a gene is is because a single definition is not compatible with explaining the various ideas mentioned in this book.

Evolutionarily Stable Strategy (or ESS) is another major concept that’s been covered in this book. ESS simply means a strategy that’s been adopted by the majority of the population of a species and it cannot be bettered by an alternative strategy. To explain ESS, the book also refers to Game Theory and Prisoner’s Dilemma.

Chapter 6 of this book talks about animal behavior that’s perceived as apparently altruistic. It gives examples of the stinging bee that appears as a Kamikaze fighter because in the act of stinging the vital organs of the bee are torn out and the bee dies immediately after that. And in the case of small birds, they tend to give an alarm call every time they see a flying predator approaching their flock. Now the bird that gave the alarm call puts itself in danger as it will be noticed first by the flying predator. Similarly, in the case of gazelles, they tend to jump high in a certain manner called stotting, and they usually do this to court the predator’s attention so that it can save the rest of the herd.

Now, according to the selfish gene theory, all the examples that I’ve mentioned above are acts of pure selfishness. To know why they’re acts of selfishness, you have to read the book.

When you’re browsing on the internet, you do come across plenty of online memes but did you know that the word ‘meme’ actually came from The Selfish Gene book? A meme simply means an idea that’s been passed from one individual to another non-genetically. This idea could be anything ranging from religion, culture, music, fashion, etc. Prof.Dawkins believes that memes are the new kind of replicators as they’re capable of propagating at a rate way faster compared to genes.

The book clarifies that we’re not puppets that are fully controlled by our genes. In fact, the human brain has evolved to the point where it is capable of rebelling against its own selfish genes. And an obvious example of this is the fact that we use contraceptives.

Chapter 13 of this book lets us know that genes are also capable of reaching outside their own bodies and influencing the external environment in a way that favors them. And the book gives the example of the house built by caddisfly and the dams built by beavers.  Such influence of the gene is referred to as the Extended Phenotypic Effect. And there’s an entire book written on this topic by Richard Dawkins, it’s called The Extended Phenotype.

Alright, so that sums up the review of The Selfish Gene book. If you’re interested in getting a copy of The Selfish gene audiobook, click on the button below.

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