This morning Matthew sent me a tweet by “The Dialectical Biologist” (TDB), which astounded me. I don’t know who TDB is, but he/she identifies as “Biologist. Anti-hereditarian. Lewontin fan.” The anti-hereditarian bit explains some of the criticality in the tweet below, and it’s worth noting that Lewontin himself gave The Selfish Gene a very critical review in Nature in 1977 (free with the legal Unpaywall app).
Here’s the tweet (the second part is the important claim), and two of the six subsequent tweets explaining why TDB sees The Selfish Gene as “the most damaging popular science book of all time.”
Regarding "genes = units of selection":
I subscribe to the old school view that, at least when discussing organisms, genes should not be considered units of selection. https://t.co/yff9go7V2s
1/7 https://t.co/39LN8J5oxy pic.twitter.com/oMjab11fyf
— The Dialectical Biologist (@DialecticBio) October 9, 2022
I was, of course, Dick Lewontin’s Ph.D. student, and I loved and admired the man. But I have to add that his Marxist politics, which included views of an almost infinite malleability of human behavior, did affect his science, and I think his review of Dawkins’s book is marred by that ideology. If you read Dick’s review, you’ll see that, like TDB above, Lewontin objects to the lack of discussion of genetic drift, and to Dawkins’s supposed claim (one that he didn’t actually make) that every aspect of every organism was installed by natural selection, accompanied by untestable “adaptive stories” about how it arose. (Lewontin calls this “vulgar Darwinism”.)
In short, Lewontin’s review was an abridged version of his paper with Steve Gould, “The Spandrels of San Marco and the Panglossian paradigm: A critique of the adaptationist program.” That paper was valuable in correcting the excesses of hyperselectionism, pointing out other reasons besides selection for the appearance of organismal traits and behaviors, and implicitly demanding data instead of fanciful stories for natural-selection explanations. (There are many traits, however, like extreme mimicry, where there is no plausible explanation beyond natural selection on bits of DNA.)
It is misguided to fault Dawkins’s book for not dealing in extenso with genetic drift or the San Marco alternatives. The Selfish Gene is essentially a book about how natural selection really works. It’s not important that it doesn’t define “gene” in the way that TDB wants; in fact, biologists haven’t yet settled on a definition of gene! It’s sufficient, when regarding the phenomenon of natural selection, to define a gene as “a bit of DNA that affects the properties of an organism”. If those properties enhance the reproduction of the carrier (the “vehicle”), then the gene gets overrepresented in the next generation compared to the alternative gene forms (“alleles”). These selected bits of DNA act as if they were selfish, “wanting” to dominate the gene pool. That is a very good metaphor, but one that has been widely misunderstood by people who should be thinking more clearly.
The value in the book lies in its clear explanation of how natural selection acts largely (but not entirely) at the level of the gene, not the organism, the group, the population, or the species; its distinction between “replicators” (bits of DNA subject to natural selection) and “vehicles” (the carriers of replicators whose reproductive output can be affected by those replicators); that “kin selection” is, in essence, nothing really different from natural selection acting on the genes of an individual; and that, contrary to a naive “selfish gene” view, altruism can result from natural selection. Finally, it explains clearly the thesis (earlier adumbrated by G. C. Williams) that “group selection—selection on populations—is not a major source of adaptation in nature. (See Steve Pinker’s wonderful essay on the inefficacy of group selection published ten years ago in Edge.)
The Selfish Gene is the clearest explanation I know of how natural selection works, as well as an exposition of ideas like kin selection that were fairly new at the time of the book’s publication. It also introduces the idea of “memes”, which I think is a distraction that has led almost nowhere in the understanding of culture, but that is just a throwaway notion at the end of the book. (You can see my critique of the meme framework in a review of Susan Blackmore’s book The Meme Machine that I wrote for Nature; access is free.)
Think of the book as an explanation for the layperson about how natural selection really works, and you’ll recognize its value. As far as “damaging” the popular understanding of science, that is a grossly misguided accusation. By explicating how natural selection really works, explaining some of its variants (like kin selection), and dismissing widespread but largely erroneous ideas about selection on groups, The Selfish Gene did the public an enormous service. While popularity is not always an index of a science book’s quality, in this case it is: many laypeople have written about how they finally understood natural selection after reading it.
I could, in fact, argue that the San Marco paper by Gould and Lewontin was damaging, too, by overly restricting the domain of natural selection and failing to adduce cases where drift or pleiotropy were not sufficient explanations for traits (mimicry is one), so that natural selection was the most parsimonious explanation. (In the latter part of his career, it was hard to get Steve Gould to even admit that selection was important, much less ubiquitous). But “San Marco” was itself valuable in dampening hyper-Darwinism, and in the main was a good contribution to evolutionary biology. The Selfish Gene was, however, a much better contribution
I asked Matthew, someone who of course knows the ins and outs of evolutionary genetics, if he agreed with TDB’s negative assessment of The Selfish Gene. His reply:
Given I am giving a lecture tomorrow in which I tell 600 students they should all read it, I think not…
When I asked permission to reproduce his quote above, he said “sure” and also me the slide he’s showing his 600 students:
. . .and added this:
FWIW I also show them three views in the levels/units of selection debate (a philosopher who says it has to be genes as they are the only things that are passed down, Dick who says we can’t really know and Hamilton who says it’s complicated and it depends what you look at).The next section of the lecture deals with social behaviour (hence the final line)
67 thoughts on “Did The Selfish Gene damage public understanding of biology?”
Yours is an excellent précis of the misunderstandings that have arisen and of the political leanings of those who are antagonistic to the concepts.
I think Dawkins’ 1976 masterpiece was voted the most important scientific book of the century. For me, reading the book was like reading Aristotle’s De Anima: a quantum leap in naturalistic terms. It was great philosophy explained in a beautiful, clear language. Gould et al. could go to their Marxist, sociological, postmodernist way. Dawkins is the real thing. (By the way, Dawkins has another masterpiece that a future editor should publish together with the 1976 one: *The Extended Phenotype*. *The Extended Selfish Gene* is a first step.)
Nota Bene. I was reading last month the whole scientific corpus of Peter Ward, the paleontologist and astrobiologist, and was surprised to see him defending Gould’s theories most of the time, while he mentions Dawkins once, only to mention another English scientist bolder than him (cannot recall the name now). It was a disappointment to read Ward defending group selection in a book of 2000s, as if Hamilton, Williams, and Trivers never existed. North Americans are more religious than British-European writers; the Enlightenment and religious wars here were felt more than there, the land of the “free.” They, as the present global Empire, demand that God is on their side. This is a very Hegelian view of the universe. The Weltgeist enacts itself in the world via History. As Santayana said, it is the religion of success. A base religion.
All aspects of every organism are only caused by physical events.
(I hope this is a correct English sentence, at least it is short).
Well put. 🙂
How can any biologist describe themselves as “anti-hereditarian”?
PS, Jerry, you say “contrary to native selfish-gene”, I think you mean naïve?
I’ll fix that, thanks!
“The most damaging popsci book of all time?”
Even if his critique of Dawkins was correct (which I don’t think it is) he’s simply not thinking about what sort of book the public has embraced. What about Worlds in Collision, The God Gene, and anything —anything at all — by Deepak Chopra or Rupert Sheldrake? The Dialectical Biologist hasn’t even scratched the surface.
Put human significance, teleology, or Consciousness into some arching explanation of how the Universe/Evolution works, it sells.
Try “Darwin Loves You” and “Darwin’s Last Theory”. (The first is by Rianne Eisler’s husband David Loye. He promised to read my short simple book on evolution if I read his book but he never did). Thanks Jerry, for your short clear explanation which I am forwarding to my personal list serve in case they never took Biology 101. Curses on the cultural determinists, post modernists and Marxist left for misinforming generations of students who might otherwise have grown up to love science and nature, and who insist on denying the genetic basis for human physical characteristics…including gametes.
The Selfish Gene is the book that made me an atheist.
Before I read The Selfish Gene, I was a Christian. My arguments for remaining a Christian included the equivalent of the whirlwind in a junkyard making a Boeing 747.
I first encountered The Selfish Gene in the form of an extract published in The Mind’s I (edited by Daniel Dennett and Douglas Hofstadter). It was the section that presented a hypothesis of how life got started and it utterly demolished the junkyard argument just by being plausible.
At this point I abandoned the notion that you could find evidence for Christianity and adhered to the idea that you needed faith alone.
When I was at university, I bought a copy of The Selfish Gene and read it. I find your comments about the chapter on memes a little bit disappointing* because the meme chapter contained a discussion of successful religious memes including ones that involve faith. I can pinpoint the exact paragraph that I started reading as a Christian and ended reading as an atheist, or, at any rate, a person who had just realised that faith is a huge confidence trick perpetrated by the Church leadership on the “flock” to stop them from asking tricky questions.
*but not necessarily wrong
Well, my view is encapsulated in my review of Blackmore’s “The Meme Machine”, which you can see at the link I’ve just inserted above.
Well, Bishop Wilberforce, I agree with you.
I was always an atheist so when I read Selfish Gene I thought is was so clearly written and such a wonderful exposition that any religious person who read it would instantly have the scales fall away. It is gratifying to hear that it worked in your case and undoubtedly for many others.
Re: “… faith is a huge confidence trick perpetrated by the Church leadership on the “flock” to stop them from asking tricky questions,” albeit one that the church leadership believes in as well (with very few, very rare exceptions). Thoroughly deceiving yourself is the best way to enable yourself to deceive others.
It was another of Dawkins’s books, The God Delusion, that tipped me over from agnosticism into atheism.
I read The Selfish Gene 6 or 7 years ago and I will admit that for a long time I had thought that it was about the gene for selfishness. I can’t speak for its accuracy or datedness as I’m not a biologist, but for me it clarified a lot of things about the way selection works. Siddhartha Mukherjee’s book Gene is of course more up-to-date but I didn’t find it as cogent as The Selfish Gene (I will say that I recommend Mukherjee’s book The Emperor of All Maladies for an understanding of cancer).
TBD’s post makes me think he hasn’t read Dawkins’ book, but is merely responding to a straw man impression of it that is espoused. It seems unfathomable that a serious biologist who is familiar with the topic of natural selection would be this confused.
I agree, particularly with that last line. Over the years I have found that many of Dawkins’ critics haven’t actually read the book.
The Selfish Gene is a great book, written with Dawkins’s exceptional clarity. To write with clarity is to take a risk, as clarity provides a clear target for criticism as well. Clarity and bravery are two sides of the same coin.
One doesn’t have to agree with all of the conclusions of the book to regard it as great. All of Steve Gould’s students read and admired it at the time (me included), even if there were disagreements of emphasis on the role of genes and organisms as the targets of selection. (And Gould, indeed, did disagree.) The book most certainly advanced evolutionary theory, as did Lewontin’s fantastic and influential article on the Units of Selection, also cited in the tweet.
There is a great deal of subtlety in the “units of selection” and “levels of selection” debate. Dawkins, Dick Lewontin, Steve Gould, George Williams, and many others—including several philosophers of biology—have weighed in over many years. Not every author hit the mark, but our understanding of evolution has benefited a great deal from this debate. Dawkins’s ”The Selfish Gene” is a masterpiece. As difficult as it might be to believe, his “The Extended Phenotype” is even better.
Yes. There are ‘units of selection’ at multiple levels. But it is clear to me that the gene unit of selection is well worth special attention, and its the one I’d choose to communicate as something very important at the ground floor of natural selection. The gene unit of selection works because it is also the unit of inheritance and the template for proteins — the things that build the traits that natural selection “sees”.
If Dawkins chose to focus on the “trait” as a unit of selection, he wouldn’t be wrong to do so, but it would be a few floors above the real basis, and it would be a far less influential book.
Hi Jerry, Thanks for this article. The Selfish Gene had a huge impact on me when I read it many years ago. It more or less instantly crystalized my understanding of evolution by natural selection and how it actually works in organisms.
Your book, Why Evolution Is True completed my understanding. And your subsequent writings here and your lectures that you have shared here have also helped me to express to others what I have learned. Thank you.
I also think it was my first Dawkins book; and that sent me down the wonderful path of his books — all of them.
To me, Dawkins’ Selfish Gene is on par with Darwin’s On The Origin Of Species. Both books explain natural selection based on the observations and science of their times. We don’t have to wonder what Darwin would have done with the ideas of genes because Dawkins did so well explaining the mindless, one-directedness of natural selection: survival, and how survival creates many different scenarios from isolation to altruism.
The impression I have is that Dawkins was not very original. The difference between Darwin and Selfish Gene might be that Darwin’s book – while drawing on much earlier science – presented an essentially new level of understanding that shook the foundations of culture. Dawkins did not really say anything completely new in his book, if my understanding of the history is correct. Selfish Gene, it is said, only shone a spotlight on the gene centered view already floating around. Additionally, the influence of the Selfish Gene was not as widely impactful. I could be wrong.
I’d say that Darwin, akin to Freud*, opened up a new field of thought. Darwin had absolutely no idea of how traits might be inherited, but was able to deduce that they were. Mendel improved on that, and shone some light on some of the mechanics. But until Dawkins came along, it was the individual that was selected, or not. Ethologists noted group behaviours that raised the question of group selection, and wrote popular books in the 1960s that were incorrect but widely read (Ardrey et al). Dawkins very elegantly showed how considering the individual gene as the unit of selection explained both the appearance of individuals being selected, and also groups sharing genes. I don’t think we can say that we had a proper grasp of evolution until then.
*Sadly, Freud may have opened the door, but all he saw, save for the interpretation of dreams, was imaginary. Oh, well.
His interpretation of dreams is rubbish along with the rest of his work. One of the most overrated thinkers of all time.
The gene-centred theory of natural selection was, I understand, first elaborated in detail by George Williams, Bill Hamilton and John Maynard Smith in the 60s. It was Dawkins’s genius to find a way of explaining it in terms that laymen could appreciate. No-one’s done it better, before or since.
I have to agree, however, that not nearly enough people have read it. But then not nearly enough people, especially politicians, have read any science at all.
Like Jeremy Pereira above, I began my inquiry into human nature as a Christian. I happened on my own on the idea of evolved behaviors, struggled to find supporting ideas, and in the process became an atheist. Eventually I figured out what the field was called and who were its thinkers, and came across The Selfish Gene, which I consider a summary of ideas so important and so radical humans might eventually set the work’s publishing date as the dawn of a new age of self-understanding — assuming we make it that far. The idea that we exist (the following is a simplification) not to be happy or to benefit ourselves, but in service to strands of DNA which exist solely due to their contributions to reproductive fitness, is either profoundly enlightening or, to many/most of us, terrifying and infuriating. And the rage isn’t expressed just by the superstitious, but by the erudite as well, as it strikes at the roots of many academic disciplines as they’ve been practiced for a century or much longer. What is politics? What is mental health and how can it be achieved? What are the fundamentals of an ideal economics? How should we live? None of these questions can be adequately answered without reading The Selfish Gene.
I read it as a teenager.
Then felt as some watcher of the skies
Sees a new planet swim within his ken
Ahh… that’s where is came from.
A recent IDiot posted in a forum that I’m a member of about The Selfish Gene and, apparently, used this as the basis for him complaints.
Of course, he hadn’t actually read it. Multiple people chimed in about how the selfish gene encourages rape, but (of course) couldn’t point to the page where Dawkins says that (he didn’t).
I also posted selected quotes from the 30th anniversary edition preface that explicitly contradicted their claims.
“I was, of course, Dick’s Ph.D. student”
Being new to many details of this discussion, I had difficulty working out at first who Dick was; it’s a given name not otherwise mentioned or referred to anywhere else in this article. From the context, R. C. Lewontin?
Dick is a common nickname for Richard. E.g. tricky Dick, Richard Nixon.
Yes, sorry. “Dick” is “Dick Lewontin”. Wikipedia would also have told you that I was a Lewontin student. Dawkins is always called “Richard,” never “Dick.”
Not quite true; as an Oxford Zoology undergraduate attending Dawkins’ lectures as TSG was published, a number of us referred to him as “Dickie Dawkins” as we talked with each other, merely as our own pet name for the most influential lecturer we encountered on our course. And yes, I started as a Christian, and indeed tried to link the “selfishness” of genes with the concept of original sin, before completing my journey via agnosticism to atheism; TSG was an important catalyst for this, in teaching me to truly think biologically.
The Selfish Gene is a masterful book that has been extremely influential in the thinking not only of laypersons but also of professional evolutionary geneticists such as myself. Indeed, my own book on that topic (“The Genetic Gods: Evolution and Belief in Human Affairs”) grew out of insights that in large part can be traced to Dawkin’s masterpiece.
How do we define a gene anyway?
It must be first said that the term can be defined at different levels, and it must be admitted that all of its definitions are flawed. “A gene is a unit of inheritance controlling one or more traits” is my go-to definition of genes at an organismal level.
Then there is a definition of a gene at its molecular level. For that I prefer to say that “a gene is a region of DNA that codes for a functioning molecule of RNA”. Nothing unusual there either, but it too can be criticized.
I’d partly agree with the criticism that the gene is not really the unit of selection. Organisms experience selection, and all of the genes in each organism’s genome are selected together within each generation. Because the vast majority of selected traits are affected by many genes, and the vast majority of genes affect many traits, I think of selection as fundamentally about organisms not about single genes.
But recombination allows two genes (however one defines a gene as Mark noted) in the same genome to evolve more or less independently from generation to generation. So I think of recombination as the secret sauce that makes the gene the unit of evolution (if not the unit of selection).
I always thought that was the major message of TSG. But it’s a long time ago that I read the book, maybe my memory of it is wrong.
Like remembering where you were when Kennedy was shot or when the Twin Towers fell, I remember first reading The Selfish Gene in Hatchard’s in London. I sat in a chair reading it for perhaps half an hour, then bought it and finished it. Very influential.
On a slightly different point, I thought a gene is a portion of DNA that codes for a protein. Maybe one of you boffins will tell me what’s wrong with that definition.
Well, some people define as “genes” bits of DNA that produce RNAs that aren’t translated into proteins, but regulate other genes, like the bacterial sRNAs.
This paper by David Haig describes my current favourite example of such a gene: the paternal strand encodes an mRNA for a protein (which promotes growth of the placenta when expressed in fetal cells of the placenta); the other strand encodes self-targeting RNAs that degrade the mRNA (and limit growth of the placenta).
The first Dawkins book I read was The God Delusion when it came out in paperback; I don’t remember how I got a hold of it or how I found out about it. I loved the book and Dawkins’ coherent and jubilant writing style, and was interested in reading more. Then I read Unweaving the Rainbow and The Blind Watchmaker. After those, I finally read The Selfish Gene. I must say, I was disappointed that I didn’t read The Selfish Gene first, as it would have been the perfect starting point for reading his other books on evolution, and I would have understood them better. I have reread the books since (along with most of his others), and upon each reading, I find something new (or something I rediscovered after forgetting it). I consider Dawkins to be one of the most influential writers of my life. Of course, it was The God Delusion that ushered in for me the genius of Dawkins’ science writing, so I’ll always have a warm spot for that particular book. I’ve given The Selfish Gene to a number of friends, saying it’s a must read if you want to understand evolution and its power and beauty; as far as I know, none have read it. All of my friends are either atheist or agnostic, but none are interested in evolution. I’ve given WEIT to a couple friends as well with the same result. It’s a bit depressing, but so it goes.
I’ll comment here because I liked the use of the word “jubilant” to describe Dawkins’ writing.
I recently found a copy of TSG at the local Goodwill (thrift) store, so I rescued it and am now reading it, possibly for the first time. It’s very clear and provides the occasional “oh, yeah!” reaction. However, even though this is a revised edition from 1989, some of the writing seems a bit roundabout and more repetitive than it needs to be.
My 30+ daughter excitedly came in to my home office this morning to show me a clip from one of those execrable dating shows. A pretty couple were out in a vineyard, talking about books. “What do you like to read?,” she asks. “Oh, non-fiction, I really like Richard Dawkins.” “Oh, you mean Delusion and all that?” “Yes,” he replies, “The God Delusion and The Selfish Gene.” “Oh,” she says, “I love that stuff, too.”
I had no idea what I was about to read even though I had read The Blindwatch Maker.
I read TSG three times in a row to get comfortable that I understood it, let alone the satisfaction of killing of the god delusion with out and out naturalism.
Like a lot here I am not an academic (no surprises there) TSG served as a major shift to my personal veiws and many years of discovery… basically science and its many disciplines.
So, are we starting from the notion that the Public (capital P, as in John Q., et al) does indeed understand biology? What, exactly was the impact of Dawkins’ science writing? Outside of this site and an atheist meeting I used to attend, I don’t think I’ve ever encountered anyone who has actually read it, or heard of it, or even heard of Dawkins. The Selfish Gene wasn’t exactly the Da Vinci Code or 50 Shades of Gross. I can only speak from my view of things here in middle America. It may be different in the UK, but I’m not sure the question is even the correct one to ask.
No, we’re starting from the premise that SOME of the public understands biology, and that is what constitutes the “public understanding of biology”. The question is whether that body of understanding was damaged by “The Selfish Gene”. My claim is no, it was ENHANCED IMMENSELY by Dawkins’s book.
As you see on this site, many people have read it. Of course it was not a bestseller like the Da Vinci Code, but what point are you trying to make? I am addressing the argument made by The Dialectical Biologist on Twitter.
I am mystified that you don’t seem to understand the point of my post, which is given in the first paragraph of this reply.
I did understand the point of your post. What I meant by my comment is that from where I am, from the public I see, live around, work with, and interact with here in Missouri, is that their understanding of evolution, or science in general, is almost nil. That’s why I said in my comment “…outside of this site and an atheist meeting I used to attend…” as I recognize that the people on WEIT and many atheists had their views on evolution enriched by Dawkins’ book, as did I. But you and I live in very different worlds, travel I very different circles, have very different coworkers, and even interact with a very different level of university student. Where I went to college and university was not highly selective. The adults in my night school community college biology course had absolutely no grasp of evolution and were quite proud to remain as ignorant as possible. The results of the end of term questionnaire put out by my professor made that clear. The pre-med students at one of the universities thought nothing of wearing to shirts proclaiming their love of Jesus to biology classes. My experiences in elementary school science classes was very much the same, but with the ignorance and religiosity emanating from the educator as well as student. Conservative Christian middle America or the slightly more liberal but still very Christian urban middle America, in my experience, has still not heard of or read Dawkins, therefore there ha been no impact, good or bad, no enhancement or damage, because they are only aware of books like those written by Dan Brown or whoever wrote 50 Shades. That was all my point was, and the intent was never to set you off and rankle you while you should be relaxing on holiday.
I have been a physiologist all my life and now a past Dean of Medicine (I understand that a “has dean” is the appropriate term). I thought I understood evolution and many years ago read this book. It transformed the way I thought – the simple concept that the gene (however you define it) was the ‘immortal’ part of us and that what we think of ‘us’ was only the vehicle for the gene was so well articulated that I was sold on the concept. Although you could argue that the concepts were not new, they were presented in a clear, concise and compelling manner – something I’ve now associated with the writing of Dawkins. This is a book that I would recommend to anyone.
“Has dean” – I love that. I’m going to suggest it to my current dean when he steps down 🙂
Strike oner for middle America.
The selfish gene is, quite simply, a great book.
I agree with you that the Selfish Gene is a fantastic book. I met Dawkins once and have a signed copy of the book, which is a prized possession. When I read it at 21, I felt like I understood natural selection and adaptation for the first time. My high school biology focused mostly on Mendelian Genetics and left adaptation out for the most part. I just wish he had not called the book The *Selfish* Gene, because that title alone gives rise to misunderstandings.
I liked “The Blind Watchmaker” a little better, but no doubt “The Selfish Gene” is a great book. It certainly helped me getting a much better understanding of evolution.
I never understood all the fuss about the title – if you read the book it becomes abundantly clear what it meant. Indeed, it is explained in the book how cooperation can arise (and be stable) because genes are “selfish”.
If we compare TSG with The Origin of Species it is an easier read, although I was surprised how readable TOS still is!
I suspect Dawkins got a lot of people interested in evolutionary biology who might not have been otherwise.
I’m surprised that nobody’s mentioned how much mileage creationists got from quoting Gould. Seems far more damaging…
“Think of the book as an explanation for the layperson about how natural selection really works, and you’ll recognize its value.”
^^^*that, perhaps also for college students, and with scrupulous attention to the research literature at the time – some of which might be classics but I’m not sure.
TSG will catalyze pursuit or interest in biology, science, medicine and then perhaps be left behind in favor of new material.
But it is not more than that. But that’s great – no book is everything.
I’ve read The Selfish Gene twice; years apart. It had a huge influence on my understanding of natural selection. I have a modest understanding of Gould’s views on evolution and genetic drift but TSG seems to offer a far more compelling explanation for how natural selection works.
That said, as a layman I can’t say what is correct understanding of natural selection. That debate goes on above my paygrade. But I certainly don’t think my understanding has been damaged by reading Dawkins, or Gould or any other serious writer on the subject.
I would say that the selfish gene could be used as a lecture for an undergrad evolutionary biology course. The way the book is written can easily make students understand how selection can act on genes. This is because I think it’s specially important during bachelor’s studies to grasp an introduction of the various theories and historical developments of evolution. I don’t think selection acts *only* either on individuals nor *only* on genes. But I would argue that understanding how it may act on one or the other can’t damage the understanding of evolutionary biology.
“the most damaging popular science book of all time.”
“infinitely arbitrary definition of a gene”
“Mutation is mentioned a couple of times, probably because it is inconvenient for his whole metaphor of “immortal” genes.”
[ sigh ]
I mean, I see a pattern here, I can “hear” this as a spoken word, but I’ll just point to the statements and leave my opinion out – though “infinitely arbitrary” strikes me as most puzzling.
I read Genetic Algorithms In Search Optimization & Machine Learning first (I’m a software engineer) and wanted to know more about evolution in nature. I read the Selfish Gene next and I thought it was very helpful in that regard. It is also very well written and I have read a few of Dawkin’s other books since.
I too was one who thought they understood evolution, until I read it and had a great aha! moment. So that’s how it works, wow, I said to myself.
While I have done no work in academia other than getting an honors degree in Philosophy, I consider gaining the understanding I did get from reading this book a vital piece in helping me construct an accurate understanding of the world around me. And his other books refined that understanding.
“Popular” science is always demeaned as such. It unavoidably accompanies simplification, which is a necessity from there not being enough science in the public domain. For me, the value is if the essential thesis has been understood by the reader. Critique and the perfecting of pinpoints is itself a valuable contribution to the progression of scientific understanding, so all debate is welcome. Each have their merits, including GouId’s. I never thought Dawkins meant that macro influences don’t affect choices at all. The macro v micro arguments about evolution are, for me, like quantum physics v classical mechanics v relativity. Differing scales of magnitude, distance and velocities modifying rules for differing domains but still bound by the same general principles. For all the debates, I’m with Einstein – “God doesn’t play dice with the universe” (another simplified quote!), a belief leading him to chase the Grand Unified Theory all his life, a concept still to some extent eluding physics. Biology, however, has the gene. I’m not a good critic of popular works on evolution. To me, natural selection is such a self-evident truth I don’t understand how people don’t understand it. But, I always was an atheist. I started from a position of understanding a universe that works by itself. I can imagine resistance from non-atheists can be not so much a matter of truth as the contemplation of loneliness. For me, it was not about losing a companion, but always having comfort in the consistent laws of the universe, a universe working so brilliantly by itself, a universe bigger than man, untainted by the flawed and fickle motivations cast onto it by man selfishly and unintelligently attempting to design it in its image, and so often, the world, society, with it. I take comfort from knowing of the not-so-much selfish as, selfless, gene.
The Selfish Gene contains one of the most striking footnotes I can recall reading. In a minor comment in a footnote, Dawkins mentions how a person has about an 80% chance of becoming an ancestor to the entire future population. “Can that be right??” I wondered. I looked around and found very little information about it, but what I did find all said it was true (though the percentage changes if the population is not stable in size or is undergoing a mass migration). I wrote some simulations to test the idea, and, at least within the boundaries of the simulations, I got the same results.
Perhaps that’s obvious to some, but I was surprised by it. It’s one of only three parts of the book that I can clearly remember after all these years. The other two were also interesting footnotes.
One outstanding Dawkins quote for me – but I just found out it is from The Blind Watchmaker :
“If you want to understand life, don’t think about vibrant, throbbing gels and oozes, think about information technology”.
-The Blind Watchmaker (1991), p. 112.
I’ve always thought of The Selfish Gene as a verbal exposition of the one locus selection model for non-biologists. The good writing made it clear as algebra never can for many people.
As to ‘units of selection’: towards the end of chapter 3, pg 47 in my 1976 OUP version; “Some people object to what they see as an excessively gene-centred view of evolution. After all, they argue, it is whole individuals with all their genes that actually live or die. I hope I have said enough in this chapter to show there is really no disagreement here. Just as whole boats win or lose races, it is indeed individuals who live or die, and the /i/immediate// manifestation of natural selection is nearly always at the individual level. But the long-term consequences of non-random individual death and reproductive success are manifested in the form of changing frequencies in the gene pool.”
That is, individuals are the primary units of the working of selection, genes the units of the recording of selection.
I’ve read “The Selfish Gene” and most of Dawkins’ other books. This, by the English philosopher Simon Blackburn, is excellent.
“The Selfish Gene” overhauled my understanding of evolution. But not only that, it made for such pleasurable reading (owing to Dawkins’s trenchant prose and lovely flow) that I would sneak read a few paras intermittently whilst being at work and would look forward to reading and re-reading the book after work. I remember the time fondly, for being such a watershed moment and so profoundly edifying me. The book’s significance in the lucid demystification of an obscure and contested topic cannot be overstated
I read The Selfish Gene in 2014. I borrowed it from my girlfriend at the time, who was (sure still is) an evolution nerd, huge fan of Darwin, and was doing a PhD in evolutionary biology. The book was not any epiphany for me in any major sense; I already considered evolution by natural selection a fact rather than a theory given the overwhelming evidence, I already thought that science (or the scientific method) is the main (or only) tool to appropriately understand how the Universe works (I was doing a PhD myself in a different field), and I was already an atheist.
Nevertheless, The Selfish Gene helped me to grasp much more deeply how evolution by natural selection works. To the level that I consider it to be the most awe-inspiring process in the Universe that our species has been able to describe so far. Since then, I have tried to keep myself somewhat updated with the literature and enjoy looking at the world through evolutionary lenses. Reading The Selfish Gene is also probably the reason I follow this blog in the first place.
I find the criticism of the book made by “The Dialectical Biologist” and reported in this post more ideological than substantiated. I must say that I am always a bit sceptical of anybody who self-describes as “anti-something”, as I usually consider it a sign of being part of some kind of constant fight/activism, with the corresponding biased (if not dogmatic) views. The fact that “The Dialectical Biologist” defines themself as “Anti-hereditarian” makes it more difficult to get their point across for me.
I confess Iwas very late reading it – perhaps 20 years ago – but ca. 1978 was well aware of it, & had seen his BBC Horizon programme, & had a girlfriend who had read it. Very ositively influential I would say, though people generally are pretty dim…
I was traveling in Iceland when this post came out and made a bookmark so I could return to it later. Finally did!
I read TSG when it came out. I was in grad school and it profoundly changed my understanding of natural selection. There’s little I can add to what others have said in comments above but I think the hostility to the book has been almost entirely motivated by political ideology. (Similarly the hostility to Ed Wilson’s Sociobiology.) “The Dialectical Biologist” is a pseudonym that practically screams “My comments are ideologically motivated.”