THE SELFISH GENE

Richard Dawkins

Oxford, 1989.


Dawkins' first book appeared in 1976, and this new edition includes end-notes dealing with some of the issues and controversies that arose when it was published. I write "published" rather than "read", as there seems to be a pattern, among those who would call this book notorious, not to have actually read it properly.

Anyone interested in how life has developed should read this book, and they will be amply compensated for their trouble by the fine writing Dawkins deploys to convey his very challenging argument.

"This book will show how both individual selfishness and individual altruism are explained by the fundamental law that I am calling gene selfishness." (p.6)
"I shall argue that the fundamental unit of selection, and therefore of self-interest, is not the species, nor the group, nor even, strictly, the individual. It is the gene, the unit of heredity." (p.11)

The selfish gene theory does not imply that biological, and therefore human, existence is basically selfish. Dawkins is well aware of co-operative behaviour and symbiosis. On the latter, he writes:

"In general, associations of mutual benefit will evolve if each partner can get more out than he puts in." (p.183)

Neither is Dawkins a genetic determinist: it is certainly feasible for us to modify, oppose or over-ride genetic pre-dispositions. One aspect of this is the role of memes. This invention of his is the notion of a self-replicating cultural unit, by analogy with the gene. The values that help memes and genes survive are the same: longevity, fecundity and copying-fidelity.

All these ideas are developed in subsequent books, and will be mentioned here in reviews of them. One last quote to finish with concerns copying-infidelity in the case of a very curious meme:

"I suppose the scholars of the Septuagint could at least be said to have started something big when they mistranslated the Hebrew word for 'young woman' into the Greek word for 'virgin', coming up with the prophecy: 'Behold a virgin shall conceive and bear a son...'" (p.16)


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BIOLOGY



Paul Taylor 2001