The Selfish Gene is a 1976 book on evolution by the ethologist Richard Dawkins, in which the author builds upon the principal theory of George C. Williams's Adaptation and Natural Selection (1966). Dawkins uses the term "selfish gene" as a way of expressing the gene-centred view of evolution (as opposed to the views focused on the organism and the group), popularising ideas developed during the 1960s by W. D. Hamilton and others. From the gene-centred view, it follows that the more two individuals are genetically related, the more sense (at the level of the genes) it makes for them to behave cooperatively with each other.
Dawkins builds upon George C. Williams's book Adaptation and Natural Selection (1966), which argued that altruism is not based upon group benefit per se, but results from selection that occurs "at the level of the gene mediated by the phenotype" and that any selection at the group level occurred only under rare circumstances. W. D. Hamilton and others developed this approach further during the 1960s; they opposed the concepts of group selection and of selection aimed directly at benefit to the individual organism.
Dawkins begins by discussing the altruism that people display, indicating that he will argue it is explained by gene selfishness, and attacking group selection as an explanation. He considers the origin of life with the arrival of molecules able to replicate themselves. From there, he looks at DNA's role in evolution, and its organisation into chromosomes and genes, which in his view behave selfishly. He describes organisms as apparently purposive but fundamentally simple survival machines, which use negative feedback to achieve control. This extends, he argues, to the brain's ability to simulate the world with subjective consciousness, and signalling between species. He then introduces the idea of the evolutionarily stable strategy, and uses it to explain why alternative competitive strategies like bullying and retaliating exist. This allows him to consider what selfishness in a gene might actually mean, describing W. D. Hamilton's argument for kin selection, that genes for behaviour that improves the survival chances of close relatives can spread in a population, because those relatives carry the same genes.
Dawkins examines childbearing and raising children as evolutionary strategies. He attacks the idea of group selection for the good of the species as proposed by V. C. Wynne-Edwards, arguing instead that each parent necessarily behaves selfishly. A question is whether parents should invest in their offspring equally or should favour some of them, and explains that what is best for the survival of the parents' genes is not always best for individual children. Similarly, Dawkins argues, there are conflicts of interest between males and females, but he notes that R. A. Fisher showed that the optimal sex ratio is 50:50. He explains that this is true even in an extreme case like the harem-keeping elephant seal, where 4% of the males get 88% of copulations. In that case, the strategy of having a female offspring is safe, as she'll have a pup, but the strategy of having a male can bring a large return (dozens of pups), even though many males live out their lives as bachelors. Amotz Zahavi's theory of honest signalling explains stotting as a selfish act, he argues, improving the springbok's chances of escaping from a predator by indicating how difficult the chase would be.
In describing genes as being "selfish", Dawkins states unequivocally that he does not intend to imply that they are driven by any motives or will, but merely that their effects can be metaphorically and pedagogically described as if they were. His contention is that the genes that are passed on are the ones whose evolutionary consequences serve their own implicit interest (to continue the anthropomorphism) in being replicated, not necessarily those of the organism. In later work, Dawkins brings evolutionary "selfishness" down to creation of a widely proliferated extended phenotype.
Dawkins says that his "purpose" in writing The Selfish Gene is "to examine the biology of selfishness and altruism." He does this by supporting the claim that "gene selfishness will usually give rise to selfishness in individual behaviour. However, as we shall see, there are special circumstances in which a gene can achieve its own selfish goals best by fostering a limited form of altruism at the level of individual animals." Gene selection provides one explanation for kin selection and eusociality, where organisms act altruistically, against their individual interests (in the sense of health, safety or personal reproduction), namely the argument that by helping related organisms reproduce, a gene succeeds in "helping" copies of themselves (or sequences with the same phenotypic effect) in other bodies to replicate. The claim is made that these "selfish" actions of genes lead to unselfish actions by organisms. A requirement upon this claim, supported by Dawkins in Chapter 10: "You scratch my back, I'll ride on yours" by examples from nature, is the need to explain how genes achieve kin recognition, or manage to orchestrate mutualism and coevolution. Although Dawkins (and biologists in general) recognize these phenomena result in more copies of a gene, evidence is inconclusive whether this success is selected for at a group or individual level. In fact, Dawkins has proposed that it is at the level of the extended phenotype:
Prior to the 1960s, it was common for altruism to be explained in terms of group selection, where the benefits to the organism or even population were supposed to account for the popularity of the genes responsible for the tendency towards that behaviour. Modern versions of "multilevel selection" claim to have overcome the original objections, namely, that at that time no known form of group selection led to an evolutionarily stable strategy. The claim still is made by some that it would take only a single individual with a tendency towards more selfish behaviour to undermine a population otherwise filled only with the gene for altruism towards non-kin.
In The Social Conquest of Earth (2012), the entomologist E. O. Wilson contends that although the selfish-gene approach was accepted "until 2010 [when] Martin Nowak, Corina Tarnita, and I demonstrated that inclusive fitness theory, often called kin selection theory, is both mathematically and biologically incorrect." Chapter 18 of The Social Conquest of Earth describes the deficiencies of kin selection and outlines group selection, which Wilson argues is a more realistic model of social evolution. He criticises earlier approaches to social evolution, saying: "...unwarranted faith in the central role of kinship in social evolution has led to the reversal of the usual order in which biological research is conducted. The proven best way in evolutionary biology, as in most of science, is to define a problem arising during empirical research, then select or devise the theory that is needed to solve it. Almost all research in inclusive-fitness theory has been the opposite: hypothesize the key roles of kinship and kin selection, then look for evidence to test that hypothesis." According to Wilson: "People must have a tribe...Experiments conducted over many years by social psychologists have revealed how swiftly and decisively people divide into groups, and then discriminate in favor of the one to which they belong." (pp. 57, 59) According to Wilson: "Different parts of the brain have evolved by group selection to create groupishness." (p. 61)
In Mind in Life, the philosopher Evan Thompson has assembled a multi-sourced objection to the "selfish gene" idea. Thompson takes issue with Dawkin's reduction of "life" to "genes" and "information":
The philosopher Mary Midgley has suggested this position is a variant of Hobbes's explanation of altruism as enlightened self-interest, and that Dawkins goes a step further to suggest that our genetic programming can be overcome by what amounts to an extreme version of free will. Part of Mary Midgley's concern is that Richard Dawkins's account of The Selfish Gene serves as a moral and ideological justification for selfishness to be adopted by modern human societies as simply following "nature", providing an excuse for behavior with bad consequences for future human society.
In 2006, a 30th-anniversary edition was published with the Trivers foreword and a new introduction by the author in which he states, "This edition does, however---and it is a source of particular joy to me---restore the original Foreword by Robert Trivers." This edition was accompanied by a festschrift entitled Richard Dawkins: How a Scientist Changed the Way We Think (2006). In March 2006, a special event entitled The Selfish Gene: Thirty Years On was held at the London School of Economics. In March 2011, Audible Inc published an audiobook edition narrated by Richard Dawkins and Lalla Ward.
In his internationally best-selling, now classic, volume, The Selfish Gene, Dawkins explains how the selfish gene can also be a subtle gene. The world of the selfish gene revolves around savage competition, ruthless exploitation, and deceit, and yet, Dawkins argues, acts of apparent altruism do exist in nature. Bees, for example, will commit suicide when they sting to protect the hive, and birds will risk their lives to warn the flock of an approaching hawk. 2b1af7f3a8