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Richard Dawkins' 'The Selfish Gene'

  1. Nov 15, 2004 #1


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    This is a classic of popular writings on evolutionary biology (from 1976), so I assume many PF members are familiar with this book. I just got around to reading it now and I was impressed by it. I certainly liked it better than the other, more recent book of his I read, “Climbing Mount Improbable”, which was about insights into the mechanisms of slow evolutionary change (Darwinian).

    If you’re not familiar with The Selfish Gene, it explains how the driving force in evolution does not operate at the level of a species or an individual, but instead at the level of specific genes. Genes are the prime players in evolution. Animal (or plant, etc.) bodies are merely vehicles/vessels for genes to achieve their goal of propagation. Genes form temporary alliances with other genes in order to assist with reproduction, which results in a genetic code that produces an animal/plant/etc. Instances of altruism, either between individuals or acts “for the good of the whole” are actually selfish acts of genes. (Mind you, Dawkins is not saying that genes have a will or can think.)

    If anything, this book makes you think. More than that, it makes you re-evaluate your view of life. The view of genes as the lead players in life kind of goes against common sense, or common experience, but Dawkins presents a good argument. It’s also interesting to compare his view of evolution to that of others who write about evolution.

    Conclusion: Highly recommended food for thought.

    Aside #1: As I read it, I also realized where a lot of Creationist ire comes from. Dawkins’s atheism can be harsh at times when he speaks of religion, meaning of life, etc. Reading works from someone like Gould doesn’t give that same feeling of an attack on religious beliefs.

    Aside #2: The last chapter contains an interesting introduction on his hypothesis about “memes” (the evolutionary units of human culture).

    Aside #3: From his recent book “Climbing Mount Improbable”, it is apparent that Dawkins is a fan of computer simulations of evolutionary processes. He also talks about some computer models in the 1976 book and it’s humorous/quaint to see him explaining to the reader what a computer is and what it can do, now that in 2004, we all take computers for granted.
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  3. Dec 4, 2004 #2
    Selfish gene - A hypothesis?

    Excellent book, but as the author also admits it is not based on evidence, it has some basis on truth, but the rest resembles a science fiction book. We haven't shown that the hypothesis of the selfish gene is completely true. Very helpful for me in building the simulation of artificial life.
  4. Jan 21, 2005 #3


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    There is debate about whether the unit of evolutionary selection is at the gene-level, individual-level, or the group/species-level. I'm not sure about the current status of that debate.
  5. Jan 24, 2005 #4
    The book fails to explain instances of altruism just by mentioning that they are selfish actions. What about cases of altruism that serve to perpetuate the species as a whole on the first hand, before the individual itself?
  6. Jan 24, 2005 #5


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    Have you any examples of that?
  7. Jan 24, 2005 #6
    I thought Dawkins pretty much annihilated the idea of group/species-level selection in the first chapter of the book?
  8. Jan 24, 2005 #7
    I took a pretty good course in animal behavior and we never studied a single instance of an animal acting in a truly altruistic manner, in a manner to perpetuate the species as a whole. There was an example with Belding's ground squirrels, but it could not be attributed solely to altruism.

    We were given Hamilton's rule, which said:

    "that a gene "for" altruism will spread only if the loss of direct fitness for the altruist (the number of offspring not produced, *c, times the coefficient of relatedness between the parent and offspring r_sub_c) is less than the indirect fitness gained by the altruist (the extra number of relatives that exist thanks to the altruist's action, *b, times the mean coefficient of relatedness between the altruist and recipients, r_sub_b).

    For example, if the genetic cost of an altruistic act were the loss of one offspring (1 x r = 1 x 0.5 = 0.5 genetic units), but the altruistic act led to the survival of three nephews that would have otherwise perished (3 x r = 3 x 0.25 = 0.75 genetic units), the altruist would experience a net gain in inclusive fitness, thereby increasing the frequency of any distinctive allele associated with its altruistic behavior" -- Animal Behavior by John Alcock

    To summarize the above:

    Altruism exists IF:
    (offspring not produced * coefficient of relatedness) < (relatives saved * coefficient of relatedness)

    I dunno :)
  9. Jan 24, 2005 #8


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    Well Dawkins is convinced that selection is at the gene level, but it seems like not everyone in the field agrees. (not sure of the status of this debate)
  10. Jan 24, 2005 #9
    This Just In

    I saw this today, and I thought it might apply to this thread. Regarding the gene for altruism.

    http://www.israel21c.org/bin/en.jsp?enZone=Profiles&enDisplay=view&enPage=BlankPage&enDispWhat=object&enDispWho=Articles^l894 [Broken]
    Last edited by a moderator: May 1, 2017
  11. Jan 24, 2005 #10
    Actually, what you're referring to said that altruism exists "ONLY if." That's the arrow of implication going in the other direction--IF altruism exists, (offspring not produced * coefficient of relatedness) < (relatives saved * coefficient of relatedness).

    I don't know about that--what if the relatives are past childbearing age? It seems like you should consider the relatives' children rather than the relatives themselves, and compare that to the projection of the altruist's total offspring at the time the relatives' children would be born.
  12. Jan 25, 2005 #11
    Yes. I'm based on examples, though I admit not as far fetched as to the species level. Pellicans that help one another in a group are an example. Naked mole rats and termite colonies are other examples where individuals willingly sacrifice themselves to the best of the group. These at least demonstrate that actions are not only motivated by selfish interest. Human species might prove to be an example where they would coordinate to preserve the well being of humanity of a whole, such as caring about the global environment, preventing future collapses that would threaten the species, and other issues. This would make sense in the gene level as well because the members of a species or a group share an amount of genetic material.
  13. Jan 25, 2005 #12
    This is a good idea. That would mean that very old relatives have much lower priority than young offspring. Other factors are ability to reproduce, health, ability to survive, etc.
    It is the relatedness that is difficult to measure (informal).
  14. Jan 25, 2005 #13
    But you really haven't given us examples. We need specifics. I'd bet that any study of the behavior would show that it may appear altruistic, but the animal making the sacrifice is in some way gaining fitness. If an animal sacrifices itself in order to have a few relatives pass copies of its genes, it is worth it because the animal still gains fitness.
  15. Dec 18, 2005 #14
    I feel like im one of the only people that was disapointed in the book. Sure, it was well written and enjoyable. But I just felt that it was missing a lot of hard core science. To many metaphorical examples, I thought anyways. He seemed to put his own subjective opinion on what the motives are behind a particular speices habit, and use that to back up his point. He used gene's to prove his theories, yet didnt discuss how genes work on the biological level at all. Otherwise, not a bad read
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