In retrospect: The selfish gene

Feb 2, 2016

Photo credit: Terry Smith/The LIFE Images Collection/Getty

By Matt Ridley

Books about science tend to fall into two categories: those that explain it to lay people in the hope of cultivating a wide readership, and those that try to persuade fellow scientists to support a new theory, usually with equations. Books that achieve both — changing science and reaching the public — are rare. Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species (1859) was one. The Selfish Gene by Richard Dawkins is another. From the moment of its publication 40 years ago, it has been a sparkling best-seller and a scientific game-changer.

The gene-centred view of evolution that Dawkins championed and crystallized is now central both to evolutionary theorizing and to lay commentaries on natural history such as wildlife documentaries. A bird or a bee risks its life and health to bring its offspring into the world not to help itself, and certainly not to help its species — the prevailing, lazy thinking of the 1960s, even among luminaries of evolution such as Julian Huxley and Konrad Lorenz — but (unconsciously) so that its genes go on. Genes that cause birds and bees to breed survive at the expense of other genes. No other explanation makes sense, although some insist that there are other ways to tell the story (see K. Laland et al. Nature 514, 161164; 2014).

What stood out was Dawkins’s radical insistence that the digital information in a gene is effectively immortal and must be the primary unit of selection. No other unit shows such persistence — not chromosomes, not individuals, not groups and not species. These are ephemeral vehicles for genes, just as rowing boats are vehicles for the talents of rowers (his analogy).

As an example of how the book changed science as well as explained it, a throwaway remark by Dawkins led to an entirely new theory in genomics. In the third chapter, he raised the then-new conundrum of excess DNA. It was dawning on molecular biologists that humans possessed 30–50 times more DNA than they needed for protein-coding genes; some species, such as lungfish, had even more. About the usefulness of this “apparently surplus DNA”, Dawkins wrote that “from the point of view of the selfish genes themselves there is no paradox. The true ‘purpose’ of DNA is to survive, no more and no less. The simplest way to explain the surplus DNA is to suppose that it is a parasite.”


Continue reading by clicking the name of the source below.

6 comments on “In retrospect: The selfish gene

  • @OP – Books that achieve both — changing science and reaching the public — are rare. Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species (1859) was one. The Selfish Gene by Richard Dawkins is another. From the moment of its publication 40 years ago, it has been a sparkling best-seller and a scientific game-changer.

    Meanwhile, the denialist ignorant, dispute the substance in both books, while most of them have read no further than the title of either!



    Report abuse

  • Everyone should read this book. The number of times I’ve heard people mis-represent it however suggests not nearly as many people have read it than claim to have read it.

    Just the other night I was forced to switch my radio off because I heard someone (I think it was Rob Newman who was once quite funny until someone cruelly joked to him he was an intelligent man who should try political humour) proudly claim he had proved the “church scientific” wrong and that there was no such thing as a “selfish” gene.

    Anyway, if you’ve not read it, even if you are well enough educated in biology and genetics to not need to, I must insist you get a copy. I’m sorry to be so strident.



    Report abuse

  • @SaganTheCat

    https://www.richarddawkins.net/2016/02/in-retrospect-the-selfish-gene/#li-comment-196558

    Exactly right. Right from the days of Mad Mary Midgely people have misunderstood The Selfish Gene. Nick Newman was a huge disappointment. Just published “Ultrasociety” by Peter Turchin marking the start of a new academic discipline, about modeled, statistical, cultural evolution, has a carbuncle on its pretty face. It fails to get the concept of this as much because Enron’s wicked boss had it as a favourite by misunderstanding it too.



    Report abuse

  • During my biology study in the seventies Karl Lorenz was the man. When this book came out, I finely had all the answers on the logic of evolution. Forever. We should be thankful for Richard Dawkins to open so many eyes.



    Report abuse

Leave a Reply

View our comment policy.