Tuesday, January 11, 2011

"The Selfish Gene" describes genes that are selfish.

Thirty years after the publication "The Selfish Gene" by Richard Dawkins, detractors still contend that Dawkins is wrong. In every case I've seen, the arguments they advance make it clear they haven't even read the dust jacket.

The eponymous "selfish gene" is not a gene for selfishness. The title of the book "The Selfish Gene" describes genes as acting (replicating) without concern for consequences.

Referring to "the selfish gene" as a genetic predisposition for selfishness displays an ignorance of the original material.

It is the genes that behave selfishly. The degree of selfishness or charity in an organism (including humans) resulting from genetic influence is irrelevant to how a gene or group of genes behaves at the molecular level. It is this molecular level behavior, by molecules, that is selfish.

Genes are incapable of caring, but if we were to anthropomorphize them, the one thing they would care about was self-replication with a high degree of accuracy. The gene would not care about what type of phenotype (including behavior) it generates. Genes merely replicate, sexually or asexually. Selection pressures (i.e. natural, artificial and sexual) favor some phenotypes over others. The genes associated with favored phenotypes acquire more replication opportunities. But the genes don't care. They are incapable of caring. It is this lack of caring that earns all genes the descriptor of "selfish."

Genes, polypeptide components of biological machines (organisms) go about their business single-mindedly. All organisms act toward their own best interest. Altruism, kindness, charity and sharing behaviors are symbiotic rather than pure self-sacrifice. This is detailed by the work of George Price and subsequent evolutionary psychologists. Every animal that behaves socially does so because the selfish genes of its ancestors capitalized on the benefits of cooperation and were favored by selection pressures. Even genes that are themselves selfish may produce organisms that that make small, or even substantial sacrifices that benefit other organisms. The flower/pollinator relationship bares this out.

More examples? Parasite eaters that go unmolested by predators. Animals that call out an alarm upon detecting a predator rather than merely hiding. Hive insects that protect their nest against an overwhelming attacker. For that matter, the maternal instincts of every animal that rears its young.

An organism will act unselfishly if the selection pressures encountered by its lineage rewarded cooperation. This is because all genes are selfish in that they strive (if I may again anthropomorphize) to replicate. If selfish genes that promote altruistic behavior are favored by selection pressures then symbiotic (or reciprocal) altruism will increase.

The selfish gene is not a gene for selfishness but rather a gene that is itself selfish.


  1. Please excuse the redundant reiteration redundancy. Some people have a very persistent difficulty understanding this.

  2. This reminds me of a "Friends" episode when Phoebee investigated whether or not good deeds were unselfish or self serving...How does this relate to the fact that in some, not all cases, animals and humans will give up their own life to protect that of their offspring...I'm sure my thoughts probably have nothing to do with what you your point was, but what I read led me to these thoughts...

  3. It seems like George Price and Phoebe experienced a similar problem.

    * http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/George_R._Price
    * http://www.amazon.com/Price-Altruism-George-Origins-Kindness/dp/0393067785

    Luckily, Phoebe didn't give her possessions to the poor and commit suicide.

    Thanks for reading.

  4. I go into the selfishness of selflessness a bit in the more recent essay:


    While a specific act of benevolence may not benefit the benefactor, benevolent behavior in general tends to benefit the benefactor. If nothing else there is the benefit of the feeling one gets when giving.

    In genetic terms, kin selection studies have long shown that the beneficiaries of fatal sacrifice tend to share similar genes to their posthumous benefactors. You can take that information in a lot of different directions.