one worm review / the selfish gene
one worm review / the selfish gene

the selfish gene (1989 edition) by richard dawkins.


when i first heard about the "selfish-gene theory" (my first year of university), all i could think was "what a load of crap! all beings motivated by nothing but a desire to pass on as many of their genes as possible? malarchy!" discussions about the subject with some of my fellow students became downright obnoxious: i recall some "gentlemen of the greek persuasion" finding some solace in the gaining credibility of the theory; they actually believed it gave them an excuse for their womanizing. they couldn't help it, it was in their genes!

i guess it's about time that i got around to reading this book because, out of the people with whom i've spoken, it seems i'm the only one. i won't even get started with the folks who actively ignore the evidence and deny evolution. but even leaving out this set of crack-pots, there are a lot of people who seem to have formed an opinion on this subject without taking the time to learn more about it. hell, until recently, i was one of them.

that said, part of the blame for misunderstanding may actually be placed upon the shoulders of dawkins himself. he has written a very readable book, even for the layman, but at the cost of making large portions of his text misleading if one forgets that he is often using a subjective metaphor. if you approach this book, you must read it all and anyone who dares to quote from the text should be forced to also take lines like the following:

"i have made the simplifying assumption that the individual animal works out what is best for its genes. what really happens is that the gene pool becomes filled with genes that influence bodies in such a way that they behave as if they had made such calculations." (p. 97)

the crux of the matter, the part which can really dispell much of the crap i heard before concerning this theory, lies in the proper understanding of such statements. armed with this (which the whole of dawkins' book can provide), one becomes invulnerable to some common misconceptions: e.g., the genes themselves have motives (no, they just replicate), or animals are "designed" for gene survival (no, natural selection simply eradicates the rest), or animal behavior must be selfish (no, if something like cooperation among individuals within a given environment enhances their survival and reproduction probability, shared genes which promote such behavior are more likely to populate the gene pool).

if i had to make some sort of overall judgment, i would say that dawkins is guilty of a misnomer. i realize that he gives his own definition to the term "selfish", but this can all too easily be confused with the common one. i'm sure this was intentional; it certainly sparked controversy. but given the misconceptions that have arisen, most of the hubbub surrounds what should be a non-issue.

sour grapes?

since starting this book i've read some criticism that dawkins himself has not contributed much in the way of research behind the ideas he's presenting. to what extent that may be true, i cannot accurately judge. however, he spends much of his time in "the selfish gene" pointing out and explaining the supporting (and contradicting) work of others. folks like hamilton, alexander, grafen, maynard smith, trivers, williams, and zahavi need not worry about being left out of the picture (especially in the endnotes of the new edition). in fact, i believe dawkins is quite clear not only about being indebted to the support of such a community of scientists, but also about the theory being not solely his. he reigns in the public eye perhaps. maybe he's got a bigger bankroll. better publisher with pr manager? so what? he obviously understands what he's talking about and he's a hell of a writer. why shouldn't that sell? (especially considering all the other shit that does.) science needs its popular writers. it benefits both society and scientists. if you're a member of only the former group and wonder how this could be, then you should read more books like this one. the second benefit then follows naturally.

the goods

as it is, this book's quite convincing. the new endnotes are especially interesting since you get a good idea of how the theory has stood the test of time (the original copyright is 1976 and hamilton's papers date to the early 60's) and what refinements were necessary: the necessity of dynamical modeling for determining "evolutionarily stable strategies" is sure to be appreciated by anyone with computational physics experience (i may try some simulations of my own).

the chapter on the new replicators, memes (rhymes with "dreams"), is especially intriguing. i find it quite amazing that i haven't heard of such ideas before. i imagine that there has been a lot of sociological metaphysics arising around such ideas (as to which the external links from the wikipedia entry above can attest). maybe i'll look into such things a bit more. if so, there'll be more to come here, i'm sure. one possibility which intrigues me: since dawkins proposes that memes are in the relatively early stages of evolution, equivalent to the "hot thin soup" era for proto-gene replicators, might there come a time when memes will make their own "survival machines"? might they have already done so? societies? organizations? fascinating possibilities...

there are also two new chapters in the 1989 edition. the first of these falls a bit flat in comparison to the older stuff. the main focus is upon the so-called "prisoner's dilemma" and its application to evolutionary modeling. i don't think that this model should be taken too far. it's always a two-player game which may be leaving out important n-body effects: e.g., a species may pit two others against each other. the most important point here is the lack of "knowledge" concerning the end of the rounds. evolution is an open-ended affair.

the last chapter contains a brief synopsis of dawkins' later book, the extended phenotype. here, dawkins gives a great account of just how indirect genetic interactions are, along with a good presentation of what i suspect is the core idea behind his "evolution of evolvability": the "bottlenecking" of genes through single-celled reproduction into new, genetically uniform individuals.

april, 2005


email with comments and corrections.

disclaimer: this document in no way represents the university of utah or the department of physics. all opinions and errors are mine alone.