Dawkins, Richard (2006) The Selfish Gene, 30th Anniversary edition, New York: Oxford University Press
The Selfish Gene by Richard Dawkins is a remarkable and engaging journey through evolutionary theory. Dawkins’ “selfish gene theory” challenges what he considers common and incorrect notions that the “important thing in evolution is the good of the species.” Dawkins asserts that evolution is in fact a survival and replication strategy of the gene. Written most especially for the layperson, Dawkins’ prose abandons much of the technical jargon of science and replaces it with an informal and metaphorical language designed to be read with the same enthusiasm and comfort as science-fiction.
Setting the backdrop for the “selfish gene” theory, the first four chapters cover basic molecular and biological science as Dawkins postulates the possible chemical origins of life and the gene. Once the gene-centered concept of evolution is thoroughly introduced, Dawkins changes gears and begins to discuss the influence natural selection may have on animal behavior. This is the basis for the selfish gene theory in which he asserts that the pressures of natural selection which favor the most survivable genes are a catalyst for the evolution of the selfish gene which in turn produces certain behaviors in the individual. Dawkins says that the individual body of an organism is a “survival machine” created by its genes throughout millions of often violent evolutionary years. The primary purpose of this survival machine is to provide a protective environment where genes can more efficiently survive and replicate themselves. Dawkins argues that because these survival machines are essentially programmed with the information carried in their genes, the drive to survive and replicate is thus manifest in a myriad of selfish behavioral characteristics. In short, the theory states that genes and therefore the species in which they reside evolve behaviors that cause them to act selfishly for their own benefit. Natural selection favors selfishness.
Altruism represents a possible contradiction to the selfish gene theory, so Dawkins spends much of the early portion of the book addressing this idea. Altruism is a behavior in which an individual acts in a manner that benefits its kin group at the possible expense or sacrifice of its own life. An example of altruistic behavior in the animal world is when a certain bird gives an alarm call, warning those animals nearby of an approaching predator and thereby drawing attention to itself and exposing itself to a higher degree of danger. Dawkins explains that altruism may actually have a selfish component on the genetic level in its evolutionary function. If evolution is about “the good of the gene” it is therefore beneficial to sacrifice an individual life in order to protect those same genes existing within the kin group.
Dawkins’ language is constantly peppered with analogies and metaphors which assign many conscious attributes to the genes as they interact with the world. Such examples are indicative of the title itself; the “selfish” gene. Dawkins acknowledges that experts in the biological fields are likely to be displeased with his informal, non-technical, and anthropomorphic literary style but he assures us that he speaks only figuratively, that these terms are not meant to convey any truly subjective or moral qualities upon genes or natural selection. Metaphor is merely his tool in translating scientific jargon and complex equations into the language of the layman.
In the second portion of the book, Dawkins stretches his metaphorical translation to include a cultural concept he calls a meme, from the Greek root mimeme. He describes the meme as “a unit of cultural transmission, or a unit of imitation.” It is essentially a segment of idea and it functions on a cerebral level, replicating, gene-like as it passes from mind to mind. The uniqueness of the gene and therefore life itself is in their functions as replicators. Dawkins argues that memes are also significant in their function of replicating themselves through culture. Memes, Dawkins asserts, should be regarded as just as much alive as genes. He seems to use this theory as a means to challenge not only the established perspective on evolution but certainly to challenge the more religiously minded reader with an often fiercely combative tone regarding the “god meme.”
The meme theory or memetics is a very interesting idea on a philosophical level, but at this point the book almost seems as if it has crossed over from science to fiction or perhaps some form of religious atheism. The analogy breaks down under more empirical scrutiny, but Dawkins speaks about the subject as if he is presenting more than just a metaphor. Comparing memetics to genetics, though entertaining in an analogous context is not a very practical or empirically oriented theory. The concrete existence of a gene makes for a much more scientifically sound study than the esoteric nature of a thought.
The Selfish Gene is a thought-provoking book, relevant beyond the fields of zoology, and biology. Students of psychology, sociology, and philosophy would also find this book of interest. Dawkins’ flowing prose is engrossing and it does in fact read more like good fiction than dry science. Many of Dawkins’ points are openly intended to challenge people of faith. This is especially remarkable due to the manner in which he uses metaphor to symbolize complex theory, attributing conscious strategies, personalities and plans to genes. This technique is ironically reminiscent of the esoteric and hermetic symbolism found in the world’s religions which use similar techniques to symbolize philosophical ideals and translate often ancient esoteric information into popular language and culture. In doing this I think Dawkins may have found a way to speak the same or a similar language to that of the religious whom he intends to confront and educate.