#StevesLibrary: The Selfish Gene
The Selfish Gene is one of those books I read back during my undergrad years whilst studying animal behaviour. For those of you that are unaware, it is Richard Dawkins’ first book and at the time it was highly influential. As the title suggests, Dawkins uses the term “selfish gene” as a way to express his view of gene-centred evolution, opposed to the more conventional view that tends to focus on the organism. Recently in a poll (July 2017) a poll celebrating the 30th anniversary of the Royal Society science book prize, The Selfish Gene was listed as the most influential science book of all time. Before we go into more detail, it has certainly left it’s mark on me and I would highly recommend it!
In his book, Dawkins puts an new spin on Darwin’s theory of natural selection whilst also popularising ideas developed by W. D. Hamilton and others during the 1960s. The book also introduced me to the idea of game theory and how it can be used to understand genetics. Other topics covered are the ideas of Evolutionary Stable Strategies and how these again can be used in the view of genetics and at the gene level. It is also in this very book that Dawkins coined the term “meme”, which has gone on to spawn a whole new meaning in the internet age. In Dawkins’ original concept of the biological meme, it seeks to self-perpetuate and mutates if that aids its own self-preservation. An entire chapter is dedicated to this idea which is both fascinating and insightful.
Finally, throughout The Selfish Gene, Dawkins covers the somewhat polar opposites of selfishness that species express that is required for survival, and the altruism of both animal and human behaviour. This is one of the main reasons why I read the book, to understand how and why groups of different species act in the way they do. As Dawkins explains in quite some detail, this can all be explained by the selfishness of genes and how these interact to display the apparent altruistic behaviour of the individual. In 1964, W. D. Hamilton said “I would gladly die for two brothers or eight cousins.” In the view of The Selfish Gene, this makes complete sense due to the amount of DNA that you share with members of your own family. You share 1/2 of your DNA with siblings and 1/4 with cousins. If Hamilton was to lay down his life for two brothers, he may die but there is a strong chance that the genes he shares with them will be passed onto the next generation negating his sacrifice.
In general, I’d highly recommend The Selfish Gene as it has stood the test of time and explores some very interesting and powerful concepts for anyone studying animal behaviour or biology in general!