The Selfish Gene Summary – April 2022

Author: Richard Dawkins

Short Summary
The Selfish Gene (1976) is a seminal work by Richard Dawkins in evolutionary biology. It provides a gene’s eye view of evolution, and in doing so, explains the laws of nature governing living organisms and the major patterns of life’s history. It is a very easy read with lots of relevant information. The Selfish Gene summary will help you understand that every living thing has its agenda and strategies that worked out in history.
the selfish gene summary
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Detailed Summary

The Selfish Gene was published in 1976 to immediate acclaim and provide an alternative to the ‘neo-Darwinian synthesis (evolutionary biology from 1930 onwards). It is criticized for being reductionist and not taking account of the full range of biological phenomena. The Selfish Gene was revolutionary because it redefined the rules of evolution and presented a new evolutionary paradigm where replicators (like genes, DNA, and memes) compete for survival in a shared pool with limited resources, and where cooperation can evolve between non-relative species, groups, and individuals (including humans).

Dawkins uses the term “selfish gene” as a way to describe the principal mechanism of natural selection. That genes are the primary unit of selection in evolution. Because He observed that genes were not, in themselves, the agents of selection—individuals were. The key to understanding natural selection, he realized, was to recognize that genes are not merely carried inside individuals like so much freight. They are inside individuals, but they are also in constant conflict with other genes inside the same individual. This gene-level competition is what drives natural selection. As Dawkins wrote in The Selfish Gene: “We are survival machines—robot vehicles blindly programmed to preserve the selfish molecules known as genes.”

The Selfish Gene Summary Key Points

Mutual altruism is atypical but it can beneficial for two different organisms

Genes are the most important element in biological evolution for two reasons. One is that genetic variation underlies the rest of biological evolution. It is a simple fact of the way biology works that any gene that is to persist in nature must exist as multiple copies. This is because, for example, when a cell divides, each of its genes must be copied into the complementary strands that form the DNA double helix. Errors in copying from one strand to another will occur occasionally and some genes will get worse damage than others. If a gene has only one copy it will die out with the first error because there is no backup copy. Even if the gene has two copies, it may not be able to repair itself. The error will occur on both copies and neither gene will be able to fix the other.

So for the gene to survive, it must have multiple copies. Also, there are two methods that genes have of increasing their chances of surviving and being inherited within a population. One is to make more copies of themselves. This happens mainly through sexual reproduction. A sperm or an egg gets to divide many times as it travels through a parent’s reproductive system. This leads to more total copies than a single cell makes by itself.

Human culture is a part of evolution and its basic unit is memes

Memes are a part of human culture and are defined as an idea, behavior, or style that spreads from person to person within a culture. Since humans are social animals and culture is their way of life, they create memes. These memes can be either a tool that helps humans survive or a hindrance.

In 2007, an image of a cat dressed in a bathrobe sitting in a bathroom sink went viral. The picture wasn’t just funny, it represented something that everyone could relate to (cats in sinks). This picture was the start of a meme called “Good morning, sir. Wake up and smell the coffee it’s time to pee” (based on a Norwegian commercial from the early 90s) and became known as “Bath Cat” on Deviant Art. Today, the Bath Cat meme has spawned over 4000 GIFs and been featured on different posts. It’s still around and will be kept alive as long as its fans keep it alive through sharing.

Cultures are created similarly. Once someone makes something recognizable enough that other people can identify it as well – it becomes part of the culture. This goes for every element of culture: fashion, art, music, food, and memes. Just like organisms evolving into new species and cells dividing into new parts (organs), culture evolves by taking elements from one and putting them in a new one. Humans have managed to splice off culture with their evolutionary process. Memes are the smallest element that has a chance of being immortal.

Humans can use their foresight to counter the selfish gene

Mutual altruism, on the other hand, is where individuals cooperate with others and act according to the best interest of their community. When a member of a species offers food or support to another member, it’s in the expectation of future benefits or favors from the other party. This can be seen as the most altruistic of intentions. However, it still doesn’t take place without some sort of benefit or reward from the altruistic party. This can be minor or major, but usually has some sort of selfish intention behind it.

The easiest way to define altruism is to look at its opposite, self-interest. We can see that in nature the survival of an organism is still the organ’s primary goal. The most common form of altruism can be seen in social insects, such as ants and termites, where individuals sacrifice themselves for the good of their colony.

But these sacrifices are usually still driven by the need for the organism to reproduce and keep its genes alive. Not only do these organisms stick together as a colony, but they sacrifice themselves to make sure that other members of the colony survive and produce offspring.

Well, evolution isn’t just about self-interest. It’s about resilience. The very same trait that makes a gene selfish—its ability to replicate itself—also makes it fragile. In other words, if an organism’s survival depends on a certain aspect of its body—its eyes, say—but it loses those eyes and no longer can see, it’s out of luck.

This “tit-for-tat” strategy is one of the most common ways to deal with the dilemma, but it contains a significant downside. The altruistic individual is always at risk of making a mistake, punishing someone who did nothing wrong, and losing any future gains. On the other hand, our ability to simulate and foresee allows us to overcome the downside of our selfish genes.

The Selfish Gene Quotes

“We are survival machines – robot vehicles blindly programmed to preserve the selfish molecules known as genes. This is a truth which still fills me with astonishment.” Richard Dawkins

“Any altruistic system is inherently unstable because it is open to abuse by selfish individuals, ready to exploit it.” Richard Dawkins

The Selfish Gene Review

There is a la lot of information in this book. I try to cover as much as possible because this book is great if you are even not interested in biology, you would like it. Recommended.

To whom I would recommend The Selfish Gene summary?

  • Anyone who is an animal lover
  • Anyone who wants to know how genes are passed on.
  • Is anyone interested in getting the information on genes?

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