The Selfish Gene: an alternative theory of evolution

Richard Dawkins's radical theory may not offer a comfortable view of existence, but it will blow your mind nonetheless

It would not perhaps be an exaggeration to say that The Selfish Gene by Richard Dawkins is the most influential book on evolutionary biology since Charles Darwin’s The Origin of Species. In a broader—cultural—context, it also contributed an idea and a term that, in the age of the Internet and social media, has become ubiquitous—the “meme", a thought that spreads from person to person like a virus.

Quite simply, if Dawkins hadn’t dreamed up the concept of the meme, we wouldn’t be talking of stuff “going viral" on the Internet. And he did it in 1976, long before the Internet became an intrinsic part of our lives, and eight years before Mark Zuckerberg was born.

But the idea of the meme appears only towards the end of The Selfish Gene. Most of the book is devoted to the radical theory that all living creatures are essentially vehicles for their genes. We exist to transmit and propagate our genes.

This does not mean that genes are sentient; they are not. In fact, Dawkins later wrote that his choice of the word “selfish" was wrong, since it attributed an anthropomorphic quality to what is essentially a bunch of chemicals. A better term, he thought, would have been “the immortal gene".

The fundamental argument that The Selfish Gene makes is that the natural selection process in the evolution of living beings is not about making the species, community or group secure. It is about making the individual secure, and the individual is merely a vehicle for its genes. Altruistic behaviour happens only when individuals gang up for purely genetically selfish purposes that species and societies carry on, and perchance, thrive.

In fact, Dawkins’s proposition is that pure altruistic behaviour has never helped anyone in the history of any species.

In the beginning was a primordial soup. Then a molecule managed to replicate itself, and then became more complex, and the gene was born. This led to life as we know it today, with each living creature a “survival machine" for its genes.

Better-equipped genes made—and make—for better-equipped organisms. But it’s not that simple. Why does a male spider mate with a black widow, and after sex, get eaten up by the female? It seems that the gene may be willing—not a good choice of word, since Dawkins is also the world’s most famous militant atheist—to abandon the individual to replicate itself.

The Selfish Gene theory is still debated hotly among evolutionary biologists, because—let’s face it—it’s not a very comfortable view of existence. Do we count for nothing more in the universe than being mere carriers of some double-helix structures? The issue also gets people riled up because Dawkins has never been a man to mince his words. Here’s a quote from the book:

“We can now see that the organism and the group of organisms are true rivals for the vehicle role in the story, but neither of them is even a candidate for the replicator role. The controversy between ‘individual selection’ and ‘group selection’ is a real controversy between alternative vehicles... As it happens, the outcome, in my view, is a decisive victory for the individual organism. The group is too wishy-washy an entity."

Besides, Dawkins argues, a group (or a species) can survive only if individuals behave in their genetic self-interest and form alliances, and make sure that their genes are passed on. And that the genes have the conditions and opportunities to become hardier and replicate themselves more fluently.

“On any sensible view of the matter, Darwinian selection does not work on genes directly... The important differences between genes emerge only in their effects. The technical word phenotype is used for the bodily manifestation of a gene, the effect that a gene has on the body... Natural selection favours some genes rather than others not because of the nature of the genes themselves, but because of their consequences—their phenotypic effects... But we shall now see that the phenotypic effects of a gene need to be thought of as all the effects that it has on the world... The phenotypic effects of a gene are the tools by which it levers itself into the next generation. All I am going to add is that the tools may reach outside the individual body wall... Examples that spring to mind are artefacts like beaver dams, bird nests, and caddis houses."

Dawkins defines the gene as a clutch of information that passes through bodies and affects them, but is not affected by them on the way through. In fact, he has gone to the extent of saying that life is “just bytes and bytes and bytes of digital information".

So, is the gene god? That is a question that Dawkins shoves in your face without ever asking it. But the gene, as he mentions time and again, is a thoughtless molecular complex.

Is it a vast silence that we face, with no answers forthcoming, or does it reflect some ancient knowledge system that didn’t have a microscope but smoked enough good-quality dope to reach transcendental heights?

Dawkins’s own answer lies in his later life as an aggressive and outspoken atheist. You and I may have other replies, or none at all. Whatever the case, The Selfish Gene, on first reading, will blow one’s mind.

Sandipan Deb is the editorial director of swarajyamag.com

The Bookmark is a series on ‘interesting’ books—intelligent and thought-provoking, but also enjoyable.

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