The Selfish Gene – A Book Review

“Let us try to teach generosity and altruism, because we are born selfish. Let us understand what our own selfish genes are up to, because we may then at least have the chance to upset their designs, something that no other species has ever aspired to do.” – Ricahrd Dawkins, The Selfish gene

With a Dawkins book, you order the vanilla but get a scoop of everything. From primordial soup to chess robots, the Prisoner’s Dilemma to population control, Dawkin’s classic Selfish Gene is a broad and fascinating book. Its central argument may seem of little value to the non-biologist, but the implication of a gene-centered evolutionary process, as opposed to individual-centered, are massive.


The Selfish Gene chronicles the fascinating history of happenstance, awe-inspiring arms races and innovations, all presented in simple metaphors which you’ll wish you’d heard in biology class. He’s a brilliant writer, and he’s confident, never shying away from laying out his opinion or throwing complicated ideas at the reader with an unspoken promise that he will break them down, step-by-step.

Proto-Natural Selection

Was there a natural selection before there was life? Dawkins believes so. In the universe’s deep past, in which few structures existed save for molecules, there was a survival-of-the-stable-type natural selection. Bundles of molecules which quickly decayed in the conditions of space, of course, didn’t stay around too long, whereas those which were bundled in a way which made them less prone to decay, did.

In the admittently misleading determinist language of evolution, one could say that the universe “accepted” the stablest bundles of molecules and “rejected” the least. A survival of the stable, if you will.

I’d like to focus on a wonderful metaphor Dawkins used to describe the degree to which we are controlled by our genes. Much like a coder programs artificial intelligence (AI) to play against a human in chess, our genes program us to play against life. Once the coder finishes his AI, it cannot change itself; it cannot re-code its own lines. By the time it faces its human opponent, the coder has no influence over its moves. The AI must simply abide by its code, but with a catch—it can continuously change its behavior to achieve whatever “victory state” the coder programmed into it–that is, it can learn. In much the same way, humans are “coded” during embryonic development. From that point on, we are unable to alter our genes. We can, however, alter our behavior to achieve the goals and desires instilled in us by our now hands-off programmer, the genes. This is but one of the many entertaining ideas in Dawkin’s Selfish Gene.

Again, this is more than a book about a gene-centered unit of natural selection–such a book could not achieve comparable success outside of its discipline. No, this is a book with massive philosophical implications, filled to the brim with interesting stories, theories, and experiments. It’s the type of book that makes fiction bland and life fantastical.


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