The selfish gene (Richard Dawkins)

Richard Dawkins 1976 book
Richard Dawkins 1976 book “the selfish gene”.

The heavily controversial book: “the selfish gene” by Richard Dawkins is one of the very best books to understand what evolution really is, short of Darwin’s “origin of species”. I must admit that Dawkins book is easier to read than Darwin’s because it simplifies concepts to appeal to a broader audience. Knowing how the theory of evolution works is a big help at understanding why we do things, and why we exist. Not only at a philosophical standpoint of knowing why we are here, but also at a more pragmatist standpoint of knowing why we do things and may lead us to some life hacks. So here’s a brief review of chapters 1 to 3. I might review the rest and explain the rest of the chapters when i’m done reading it.

The origin of life.

There are many theories, but the most accepted is that life sprang up in a “primordial soup”. In a primitive earth, there would have been all the building blocks of life on the planet, mixing together making all kinds of molecules. The theory says that self replicating molecules similar to DNA would have been made in the early oceans. These self replicating molecules would have a better chance of survival if they had certain traits. Dawkins names three factors that would give a gene a better chance of survival:

High copying fidelity: if a gene is not copied with accuracy, it wont take long until its offspring is totally different from it.

Speed of reproduction: If a gene is copied five times every hour, it has a much better chance of survival than a gene that is copied, say, 5 times a day.

Longevity (or survival): if a single copy of a gene can exist for a longer period of time before being destroyed, it has a better chance of coping itself.

After a while, the earth would be populated by many of these genes, with different varieties of them. If some genes would have evolved a way of protecting itself from the elements, it would have a better chance of survival. This is what happened when the first genes had a protective envelope, that would later become what we know as a cell. The more protected the gene was from the elements, the more chance it had to survive and replicate itself. They evolved into cells, cells evolved into multi cellular organisms, etc. In summary, we are just machines created by our genes.

People aren’t necessarily selfish, the genes are. 

The book was heavily criticized because of a misunderstanding: thinking that he was saying that people had to be selfish and that the most selfish individual would have a better chance of survival. What Dawkins was really saying is that our genes are selfish, and they compete against each other for survival. There are genes that encourage altruistic behavior in humans. It was, and still is, useful for humans to cooperate and help each other in an altruistic way, because a group that behaves like that has much more chance of survival that a group that does not. Humans aren’t the only species that are altruistic.

We must nuance here,  because there are also genes that encourage selfish behavior in humans. As everyone knows, it is possible for individuals to be altruistic at times and selfish in other times. This happens because our behavior isn’t completely dictated by our genes, but also by our environment: how we were raised, our habits, etc.

Dawkins is skeptical about “true altruistic behavior” in humans (or other species). For example, we might give food to a member of our family, but it might be because they share some of our genes. We have a tendency to prioritize family members that are in need, instead of other individuals that also need our help.

Because we are mostly affected by our environment, and not our genes, it is still possible for us to be taught morality, and to act in an altruistic manner in our lifetime. As Dawkins says, it is because we are born selfish that we must learn to be altruistic and help each other. Because that is the kind of society we want to live in.

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5 thoughts on “The selfish gene (Richard Dawkins)

  1. At one point Dawkins says that a “self replicating molecules” must have just happened. That’s the only weak point of the whole book, because there is of course no evidence of HOW the “replicator” came to existence.

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    1. Dawkins doesn’t attempt to address the HOW, he merely states that self replicating molecules did occur (with some brief mention of research done in that area, elsewhere). In any case the book is about what happened after that and so to attempt to address how this might have occurred is well out of scope. Moreover, I sense it’s probably not of any particular interest to Dawkins to begin with. Contextually, the HOW doesn’t seem weak to me because whatever the answer to that question, it is very likely incapable of threatening his conclusions about genes.

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      1. I would have to agree with you on that one, exept that it has been demonstrated that, given the right conditions, simple organic mollecules could form. It could have formed DNA, or any self replicating mollecule similar to DNA, and from therre the evolution theory comes in.

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  2. The replicators came to be by themselves. At that point, replicators weren’t very sophisticated molecules. They were just molecules that formed because they are easy to form. There’s an experiment that was done in 1952 called the Miller–Urey experiment. The experiment simulated the conditions of the primeval earth and the “building blocks” that would have been there. The result was amino acids (to form proteins). https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Miller%E2%80%93Urey_experiment

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