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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