- The Selfish Gene
name = The Selfish Gene
image_caption = Original cover from the painting "The Expectant Valley" by zoologist
Oxford University Press
release_date = 1976
pages = 224
isbn = ISBN 019857519X
The Extended Phenotype
"The Selfish Gene" is a book on
evolutionby Richard Dawkins, published in 1976. It builds upon the principal theory of George C. Williams's first book " Adaptation and Natural Selection". Dawkins coined the term "selfish gene" as a way of expressing the gene-centered view of evolution, which holds that evolution is best viewed as acting on genes and that selection at the level of organisms or populations almost never overrides selection based on genes. An organism is expected to evolve to maximize its inclusive fitness—the number of copies of its genes passed on globally (rather than by a particular individual). As a result, populations will tend towards an evolutionarily stable strategy. The book also coins the term " meme" for a unit of human cultural evolutionanalogous to the gene, suggesting that such "selfish" replication may also model human culture, in a different sense. Memeticshas become the subject of many studies since the publication of the book.
In describing genes as being "selfish", the author does not intend (as he states unequivocally in the work) to imply that they are driven by any motives or will—merely that their effects can be accurately described "as if" they do. The contention is that the genes that get passed on are the ones whose consequences serve their own implicit interests (to continue being replicated), not necessarily those of the organism, much less any larger level. This view explains altruism at the individual level in nature, especially in kin relationships (when an individual sacrifices its own life to protect the lives of kin, it is acting in the interest of its own genes). Some people find this metaphor entirely clear, while others find it confusing, misleading or simply redundant to ascribe mental attributes to something that is mindless. For example, Andrew Brown has written:
"Selfish", when applied to genes, doesn't mean "selfish" at all. It means, instead, an extremely important quality for which there is no good word in the English language: "the quality of being copied by a Darwinian selection process." This is a complicated mouthful. There ought to be a better, shorter word—but "selfish" isn't it." [Andrew Brown, 1998. " [http://archive.salon.com/21st/books/1998/12/22books2.html The Science of Selfishness] ." "Salon 21st".]
Organisms as survival machines
A crude analogy can be found in the old saying about a chicken being just an egg's way of making more eggs. In a similar inversion, Dawkins describes biological organisms as "vehicles" or
survival machines, with genes as the "replicators" that create these organisms as a means of acquiring resources and copying themselves. From an organism-centric perspective, genes can be thought of as a blueprint for some feature that might benefit the organism; but from a gene-centric perspective, the sole implicit purpose is to benefit themselves. A related concept here is outlined in Dawkins' later work, The Extended Phenotype, in which the consequences of the genes to the environment outside the organism are considered.
Genes and selection
Dawkins proposes that gene combinations which help an organism to survive and reproduce tend to also improve the gene's own chances of being passed on and, as a result, frequently "successful" genes will also be beneficial to the organism. An example of this might be a gene that protects the organism against a disease, which helps the gene spread and also helps the organism.
Genes can reproduce at the expense of the organism
There are other times when the implicit interests of the vehicle and replicator are in conflict, such as the genes behind certain male spiders' instinctive mating behaviour, which increase the organism's inclusive fitness by allowing it to reproduce, but shorten its life by exposing it to the risk of being eaten by the cannibalistic female. Another good example is the existence of segregation distortion genes that are detrimental to their host but nonetheless propagate themselves at its expense. Likewise, the existence of
junk DNAthat provides no benefit to its host, once a puzzle, can be more easily explained. A more controversial example is aging, in which an old organism's death makes room for its offspring, benefiting its genes at the cost of the organism.
Power struggles are rare
These examples might suggest that there is a power-struggle between genes and their host. In fact, the claim is that there isn't much of a struggle because the genes usually win without a fight. Only if the organism becomes intelligent enough to understand its own interests, as distinct from those of its genes, can there be true conflict. An example of this would be a person deciding to use
contraception, even though their genes lose out due to this decision.
Many phenomena explained
When looked at from the point of view of gene selection, many biological phenomena that, in prior models, were difficult to explain become easier to understand. In particular, phenomena such as
kin selectionand eusociality, where organisms act altruistically, against their individual interests (in the sense of health, safety or personal reproduction) to help related organisms reproduce, can be explained as gene sets "helping" copies of themselves in other bodies to replicate. Interestingly, the "selfish" actions of genes lead to unselfish actions by organisms.
Prior to the 1960s, it was common for such behaviour to be explained in terms of
group selection, where the benefits to the organism or even population were supposed to account for the popularity of the genes responsible for the tendency towards that behaviour. This was shown not to be an evolutionarily stable strategy, in that it would only take a single individual with a tendency towards more selfish behaviour to undermine a population otherwise filled only with the gene for altruism towards non-kin.
Acclaim and criticism
The book was extremely popular when first published, and continues to be widely read. It has sold over a million copies, and been translated into more than 25 languages. [Oxford University Press, 2006. " [http://www.oup.co.uk/isbn/0-19-929115-2 The Selfish Gene (30th Anniversary edition)] ." ISBN 0-19-929115-2] Proponents argue that the central point, that the gene is the unit of selection, usefully completes and extends the explanation of evolution given by
Charles Darwinbefore the basic mechanisms of genetics were understood. Critics argue that it oversimplifies the relationship between genes and the organism.
Other types of selection suggested
Most modern evolutionary biologists accept that the idea is consistent with many processes in evolution. However, the view that selection on other levels, such as organisms and populations, seldom opposes selection on genes is more controversial. While naive versions of group selectionism have been disproved, more sophisticated formulations make accurate predictions in some cases while positing selection at higher levels.Fact|date=July 2008 Nevertheless, the explanatory gains of using sophisticated formulations of group selectionism as opposed to Dawkins's gene-centred selectionism are still under dispute.
Unit of selection or of evolution
Some biologists have criticised the idea for describing the gene as the unit of selection, but suggest describing the gene as the unit of "evolution", on the grounds that selection is a "here and now" event of reproduction and survival, while evolution is the long-term trend of shifting
allelefrequencies. [Gabriel Dover, 2000. "Dear Mr Darwin". Weidenfeld & Nicolson.]
Another criticism of the book, made by the philosopher
Mary Midgleyin her book "Evolution as a Religion", is that it discusses philosophical and moral questions that go beyond the biological arguments that Dawkins makes. For instance, humanity finally gaining power over the "selfish replicators" is a major theme at the end of the book. Dawkins has pointed out that he is only describing how things are under evolution, not endorsing them as morally good (see appeal to nature). [ Dawkins, 2006. "The Selfish Gene", 30th Anniversary edition. pgs 2-3. ]
David Stoveargues in [http://books.google.com.au/books?id=aZJIbcvhRj0C&pg=PA253&lpg=PA253&dq=%22genetic+calvinism%22&source=web&ots=-GPvGWlzth&sig=vqiWqrK2LZNeqD-rYrYMY7lLaT0&hl=en 'Genetic Calvinism'] (and other essays) that "The Selfish Gene" introduces unsubstantiated metaphysics, and accuses Dawkins of establishing a religion.
"The Selfish Gene" was first published in 1976 in eleven chapters with a preface by the author and a foreword by
Robert Trivers. A second edition was published in 1989. This edition added two extra chapters, and substantial endnotes to the preceding chapters, reflecting new findings and thoughts. It also added a second preface by the author, but the original foreword by Trivers was dropped. In 2006, a 30th anniversary edition was published which reinstated the Trivers foreword and contained a new introduction by the author (alongside the previous two prefaces), and also some selected extracts from reviews at the back.
30th anniversary celebrations (2006)
For the 30th anniversary of the publication of "The Selfish Gene", a
festschriftwas published entitled "". (An anniversary edition of "The Selfish Gene" was also published as mentioned above.) In March 2006, a special event entitled [http://www.edge.org/3rd_culture/selfish06/selfish06_index.html "The Selfish Gene": Thirty Years On] was held at the London School of Economics. The event was organised by Helena Cronin, and chaired by Melvyn Bragg.
* [http://video.google.com/videoplay?docid=-4097804265438884551 Video introduction by Richard Dawkins]
* [http://www.edge.org/3rd_culture/selfish06/selfish06_index.html "The Selfish Gene": Thirty Years On] and [http://www.edge.org/3rd_culture/selfish06/SelfishGene30.mp3 mp3]
* [http://www.bbc.co.uk/mediaselector/check/worldservice/meta/dps/2007/07/070731_the_word?size=au&bgc=003399&lang=en-ws&nbram=1&nbwm=1 A BBC World Service interview with Richard Dawkins about "The Selfish Gene"] . Accessed
31 July 2007.
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Look at other dictionaries:
The selfish gene — Das egoistische Gen (englischer Originaltitel: The Selfish Gene) ist ein 1976 erschienenes Buch über Evolutionsbiologie von Richard Dawkins, einem britischen Biologen, das sich an eine breite Leserschaft richtet. Für seine in diesem Werk… … Deutsch Wikipedia
The Selfish Gene — Le Gène égoïste Pour la théorie décrite dans ce livre, voir Théorie du gène égoïste. Le Gène Égoïste Auteur Richard Dawkins Préface Robert Trivers (édition de 1976 seulement) Genre Scientifique ( … Wikipédia en Français
Selfish Gene — Das egoistische Gen (englischer Originaltitel: The Selfish Gene) ist ein 1976 erschienenes Buch über Evolutionsbiologie von Richard Dawkins, einem britischen Biologen, das sich an eine breite Leserschaft richtet. Für seine in diesem Werk… … Deutsch Wikipedia
selfish gene — The title of the book published in 1976 by the English biologist Richard Dawkins, propounding the view that ‘we are survival machines robot vehicles blindly programmed to preserve the selfish molecules known as genes’. See also function,… … Philosophy dictionary
selfish gene — noun The concept of viewing genes as if they were the primary drivers and beneficiaries of the evolutionary process … Wiktionary
Gene-centered view of evolution — The gene centered view of evolution, gene selection theory or selfish gene theory holds that natural selection acts through differential survival of competing genes, increasing the frequency of those alleles whose phenotypic effects successfully… … Wikipedia
Selfish DNA — refers to those sequences of DNA which, in their purest form, have two distinct properties: (1) the DNA sequence spreads by forming additional copies of itself within the genome; and (2) it makes no specific contribution to the reproductive… … Wikipedia
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The Extended Phenotype — (mit dem Untertitel The Gene as the Unit of Selection, sowie später The Long Reach of the Gene) ist ein 1982 erschienenes populärwissenschaftliches Sachbuch des englischen Evolutionsbiologen Richard Dawkins. 1999 wurde eine revidierte Version mit … Deutsch Wikipedia