As long as we study life, it will be read’: the Selfish Gene turns 40

May 31, 2016

by Adam Rutherford

It’s 40 years since Richard Dawkins suggested, in the opening words of The Selfish Gene, that, were an alien to visit Earth, the question it would pose to judge our intellectual maturity was: “Have they discovered evolution yet?” We had, of course, by the grace of Charles Darwin and a century of evolutionary biologists who had been trying to figure out how natural selection actually worked. In 1976, The Selfish Gene became the first real blockbuster popular science book, a poetic mark in the sand to the public and scientists alike: this idea had to enter our thinking, our research and our culture.

The idea was this: genes strive for immortality, and individuals, families, and species are merely vehicles in that quest. The behaviour of all living things is in service of their genes hence, metaphorically, they are selfish. Before this, it had been proposed that natural selection was honing the behaviour of living things to promote the continuance through time of the individual creature, or family, or group or species. But in fact, Dawkins said, it was the gene itself that was trying to survive, and it just so happened that the best way for it to survive was in concert with other genes in the impermanent husk of an individual.

This gene-centric view of evolution also began to explain one of the oddities of life on Earth – the behaviour of social insects. What is the point of a drone bee, doomed to remain childless and in the service of a totalitarian queen? Suddenly it made sense that, with the gene itself steering evolution, the fact that the drone shared its DNA with the queen meant that its servitude guarantees not the individual’s survival, but the endurance of the genes they share. Or as the Anglo-Indian biologist JBS Haldane put it: “Would I lay down my life to save my brother? No, but I would to save two brothers or eight cousins.”

These ideas were espoused by only a handful of scientists in the middle decades of the 20th century – notably Bob Trivers, Bill Hamilton, John Maynard Smith and George Williams. In The Selfish Gene, Dawkins did not merely recapitulate them; he made an impassioned argument for the reality of natural selection. Previous attempts to explain the mechanics of evolution had been academic and rooted in maths. Dawkins walked us through it in prose. Many great popular science books followed – Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time, Stephen Pinker’s The Blank Slate, and, currently, The Vital Question by Nick Lane.

For many of us, The Selfish Gene was our first proper taste of evolution. I don’t remember it being a controversial subject in my youth. In fact, I don’t remember it being taught at all. Evolution, Darwin and natural selection were largely absent from my secondary education in the late 1980s. The national curriculum, introduced in the UK in 1988, included some evolution, but before 1988 its presence in schools was far from universal. As an aside, in my opinion the subject is taught bafflingly minimally and late in the curriculum even today; evolution by natural selection is crucial to every aspect of the living world. In the words of the Russian scientist Theodosius Dobzhansky: “Nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution.”


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3 comments on “As long as we study life, it will be read’: the Selfish Gene turns 40

  • Mr. Rutherford says, “. . . a metabolism of sorts must have preceded the establishment of the first selfish gene, and some of us now think that it might have occurred deep in the geological crannies in the ocean floors some 4bn years ago.”

    A few decades ago I recall reading a story about a deep cave system that was found to have a small ecosystem built around an acidic liquid that was described as having a low pH similar to that of a stomach. Various microorganisms, tiny animals, and insects lived in the cave, adding to the “stomach’s” complexity.

    By chance does anyone have a clue to share about the cave system, or something like it? I’d like to reread the article.

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  • Jeremy #1
    May 31, 2016 at 10:56 am

    By chance does anyone have a clue to share about the cave system, or something like it? I’d like to reread the article.

    It sounds like the cave system was fed by some volcanic hydrothermal seep or hydrothermal vent.

    http://nationalgeographic.org/media/deep-sea-hydrothermal-vents/

    Hydrothermal vent structures are characterized by different physical and chemical factors, including the minerals, temperatures, and flow levels of their plumes. Black smokers emit the hottest, darkest plumes, which are high in sulfur content and form chimneys up to 18 stories tall, or 55 meters (180 feet). The plumes of white smokers are lightly colored and rich in barium, calcium, and silicon. Compared to black smokers, white smokers usually emit cooler plumes and form smaller chimneys. Vents with even cooler, weaker flows are often called seeps.

    The study of hydrothermal vent ecosystems continues to redefine our understanding of the requirements for life. The ability of vent organisms to survive and thrive in such extreme pressures and temperatures and in the presence of toxic mineral plumes is fascinating. The conversion of mineral-rich hydrothermal fluid into energy is a key aspect of these unique ecosystems. Through the process of chemosynthesis, bacteria provide energy and nutrients to vent species without the need for sunlight.

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  • Indiana University

    Title: These bacteria use radiated water as food.

    “Thursday, Oct. 19, 2006
    BLOOMINGTON, Ind. — Researchers from Indiana University Bloomington and eight collaborating institutions report in this week’s Science a self-sustaining community of bacteria that live in rocks 2.8 kilometers below Earth’s surface. Think that’s weird? The bacteria rely on radioactive uranium to convert water molecules to useable energy. . . .” (Retrieved 5/31/16 from http://newsinfo.iu.edu/news-archive/4229.html)

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