Survival of the Selfish Gene

After reading The God Delusion, I decided to study some of Richard Dawkins’ earlier works. For this post, I read The Selfish Gene (and among the books on my queue are The Blind Watchmaker and The Greatest Show on Earth).


Published in 1976, The Selfish Gene explores the phenomena at play regarding the behavior of replicators, namely genes and memes. I was expecting to see lots of biological arguments, and while there are many, I was shocked at what I found was the main tool used in the book: game theory.

Of course, once you think about it, it makes perfect sense that game theory is extremely important when talking about genes and how they spread from one generation to the next. And by game theory, I do not mean board games or video games, but economic game theory, applied to biology in what is now known as evolutionary game theory. In fact, this book would be an excellent read for people interested in mathematics or economics, in addition to the obvious group of those interested in biology. Dawkins uses concepts like Nash equilibria, though the term is not explicitly stated (consider the date of the book), and the Prisoner’s Dilemma, just for a couple examples, to explain many biological behaviors found in various animals, including humans. This kind of game-theoretic analysis followed largely from the work of John Maynard Smith.

In addition to having studied a bit of game theory, I have also studied dynamical systems, though from the perspective of pure math and not biology. Even so, the concepts in the book were very familiar. I do not think The Selfish Gene is controversial from an academic standpoint. The now 40-year old ideas are still relevant today, and the ideas are really not that difficult to understand, given a sufficient mathematical and scientific background.

Instead, the controversy around the book seems to come solely from the title itself, and perhaps the attached stigma to writing anything about evolution, which seems to be more of an issue today than it was in 1976. Dawkins notes this years later in the preface to the second edition:

This is paradoxical, but not in the obvious way. It is not one of those books that was reviled as revolutionary when published, then steadily won converts until it ended up so orthodox that we now wonder what the fuss was about. Quite the contrary. From the outset the reviews were gratifyingly favourable and it was not seen, initially, as a controversial book. Its reputation for contentiousness took years to grow until, by now, it is widely regarded as a work of radical extremism.

I do find this amusing. It seems to have not to do specifically with the theory of evolution itself, but with the unfortunate anti-intellectual sector of the US. (Of course, Dawkins is from the UK, but I am talking about American opinion of these kinds of books.)

In current society it seems like a fad to wear one’s ignorance on one’s sleeve, as if boastfully declaring, “My ignorance is just as good as your knowledge.” Of course I am not advocating that we should go the opposite direction and be ashamed for not learning, but we should be able to come together and agree that ignorance is not a virtue, especially not in the most scientifically advanced country in the world. I am not really sure how the United States is supposed to recover from this, other than that we become more reasonable over time. And that will take education, not ignorance.

The title of the book is somewhat misleading, only if one does not understand what the word “selfish” is describing. The “selfish gene” is not so much talking about a gene that causes selfishness in individuals (this is an ambiguous notion in itself), but rather, it describes the word “gene” directly, that genes themselves propagate themselves in a manner that appears selfish. The individual is merely a “survival machine” for the gene. There is a critical difference here between the two notions.

The selfish gene is merely a gene that, for practical reasons, has a higher chance of being passed on. It does not really contradict any current notion of evolution, and in fact, at the time of publication, it became the new and improved theory of evolution that is now the textbook standard. In any case, the message is that evolution works not by the survival of the fittest individuals, but by the survival of the fittest, or most selfish, genes.

When we look at the selfish gene, there are situations (as demonstrated in the book) where the intrinsically selfish thought appears on the outside as altruistic. Mutual back-scratching benefits both individuals, and moreover, benefits the gene for it, thus making the gene more likely to spread. So while the behavior of back-scratching seems altruistic, it may be nothing more than concealed selfishness. This idea can be extrapolated to many phenomena. Often people put on acts and fake displays of kindness only for the selfish benefit of “seeming” nice. Or they are so “humble” that they announce their humbleness everywhere they please and make you feel bad for not being as humble as they are. The list goes on. However, I will not comment too much on this as this goes under cultural behavior and not strictly genetic behavior, although they are related.

The controversy around this book also seems to stem from perceived personal offense. Included in The Selfish Gene is an interesting quote from Simpson regarding historical developments in explaining how the current species on Earth came to be:

Is there a meaning to life? What are we for? What is man? After posing the last of these questions, the eminent zoologist G. G. Simpson put it thus: ‘The point I want to make now is that all attempts to answer that question before 1859 are worthless and that we will be better off if we ignore them completely.’

While this statement is perfectly true in trying to understanding biology, I can see how religious people might take offense. To declare that all mythological ideas in this area before Darwin’s The Origin of Species are worthless is a bold claim, even when it is correct.

Regarding the actual content of the book, I have already mentioned that Dawkins makes extensive use of game theory. There are many numbers in some of the more technical chapters, making the book possibly difficult to read in real-time unless the reader is versed in mental mathematics. Though, with some deliberate thought on these chapters, any reader should be able to get through them.

The Selfish Gene is a remarkable book, giving clear explanations of basic biology and evolutionary game theory for the layman. It is a shame that such educational material is viewed as controversial. I wish I could succinctly summarize the fascinating interplay of evolutionary game theory in a single post, but it would be better to leave it to you to pick up this book and think about it for yourself. If you do not like evolution, however, you have been warned.

2 thoughts on “Survival of the Selfish Gene”

  1. I’m really surprised that I hadn’t heard of evolutionary game theory until now O__o It’s possible I’ve just been living under a rock (although I have skimmed research interest summaries for pretty much the whole Integrative Biology dept here, and I don’t remember seeing anything related to game theory), but you’d think that since game theory seems so perfectly suited to help understand many biological phenomena it would at least be mentioned in general biology classes.

    I guess maybe general bio teachers just don’t want to teach any more math than they need to. Even in the general biology class I took here (the semester that covered evolution, ecology, and plants) whenever there was a section with even really simple math, the professors would always start out by saying something like “DON’T WORRY, this isn’t complicated at all D: ” because ostensibly biology majors are allergic to math.


  2. I guess maybe general biology teacher just don’t want to teach any more math than they need. Even in ordinary biology class I put here (this term covers evolution, ecology, plant) whenever there is a section even simple mathematics, professor always began to say something like “don’t worry, this is not a complicated D:” because on the surface of mathematics major in biology.


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