International Society for Science & Religion - Library Project

The Selfish Gene

by Richard Dawkins

Introductory Essay by Michael Ruse

This is one of the classic works of popular science. It was written against the background of major developments in evolutionary biology in the 1960s. From the time of Charles Darwin, social behavior (as one sees in the ants) had always been of much interest and a major challenge. If the chief mechanism of change is natural selection, the survival of the fittest, then how can cooperation between organisms possibly evolve? The popular response had been that selection can work for the group like the species and that, hence, although an individual may lose out through aiding others, overall the group can benefit.

A number of biologists challenged this and showed that, in fact, it is possible for cooperation to evolve even if the only benefits accrue to the individual. The Selfish Gene explains in non-technical language how this can be so. For Dawkins, the ultimate unit of selection is the gene. If it produces effects that lead to its increased numbers (in the sense of increased copies) in subsequent generations, it will persist; but not otherwise. It is in this sense that the gene is and must be “selfish” because it will vanish if it gives unreciprocated aid to others.

Dawkins covers a number of topics including aggression, sexuality, and the family. A key conceptual tool is  the so-called ‘Evolutionarily Stable Strategy’ (ESS). This is a gene-produced social effect that cannot be bettered in a population. For instance, in a group of hawk-like creatures (aggressive) and of dove-like creatures (non-aggressive) one can show that selection will produce a balance between hawks (which win against doves but suffer when losing against hawks) and doves (which never win against hawks but avoid suffering). One can also show that from the viewpoint of the wellbeing of a group one ratio may obtain, but that from the viewpoint of the individual other ratios may obtain. For instance, a population may be better off producing only 10% males, but from the individual viewpoint, since the parents of males are then going to have more grandchildren than the parents of females, this is not an ESS. Instead the stable solution for the individual comes only when parity is achieved between the sexes.

Criticisms of The Selfish Gene include the claim that it gives an unwarrantedly bleak view of sociality, especially when applied to humans. However (and with reason), Dawkins replies that he is developing a metaphor and that selfish genes do not at all necessarily represent selfish humans.

Another criticism, and one that is germane to the evolutionary theory of religion, e.g., is that group selection is dismissed too readily and there are many occasions where genes can work for the species against the individual. This is still a matter of ongoing debate among biologists.

A third criticism is directed against Dawkins’s extension of his thinking into the realm of human affairs, suggesting the existence of “memes,” units of culture akin to genes units of biology. In recent years, Dawkins and supporters have been using “memetics” to analyze religion, generally very critically. They argue that religion memes are like viruses, which serve no good purpose for those whom they invade and indeed often do great harm. However, many find this extension unconvincing and argue that memetics taken generally has failed under criteria of good science such as predictive fertility and falsifiability.