. . . we need a better story to tell – a less selfish, more inclusive metaphor to offer the wider world. - Laura Hercher, genetic counsellor
The concept of the “selfish gene” has been around for more than three decades. First coined by evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins in his 1976 book, The Selfish Gene, the term describes sequences of DNA that spread by forming additional copies of itself within the genome and make no specific contribution to the reproductive success of the organism in which it is found. Dawkins flips our everyday experience and intuition on its head: “We are survival machines — robot vehicles blindly programmed to preserve the selfish molecules known as genes”
The idea was this: genes strive for immortality, and individuals, families, and species are merely vehicles in that quest. The behavior 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 behavior 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 perishable body of an individual.
But the gene-centric view of evolution has been deeply misunderstood over the years. His use of the word ‘selfish’ is metaphorical and the book aims to show how selfish genes act to produce altruistic individuals. One of the chapters in the book is titled ‘Nice guys finish first’. Dawkins has said that he could have called the book ’The Cooperative Gene’ and he would not have to change a word of the book but it would have sold fewer copies. In the introduction to the 30th anniversary edition of The Selfish Gene, Dawkins wrote:
Many critics, especially vociferous ones learned in philosophy as I have discovered, prefer to read a book by title only. . . The best way to explain the title is by locating the emphasis. Emphasize 'selfish' and you will think the book is about selfishness, whereas, if anything, it devotes more attention to altruism.
The Selfish Species? The Selfish Group? The Selfish Organism? The Selfish Ecosystem? Most of these could be argued, and most have been uncritically assumed by one or another author, but all of them are wrong. Given that the Darwinian message is going to be pithily encapsulated as The Selfish Something, that something turns out to be the gene, for cogent reasons which this book argues.
But Dawkins himself contributed to the misunderstanding by stating in Chapter 1 of the first edition, 'Let us try to teach generosity and altruism because we are born selfish'. There is nothing wrong with teaching generosity and altruism, but 'born selfish' is misleading. Dawkins realized his error and dropped this sentence from the second edition onwards but the offending sentence is still quoted in many discussions of the 'selfish gene' concept.
The account of The Selfish Gene serves as a moral and ideological justification for selfishness to be adopted by modern human societies as simply following "nature". This provides an excuse for behavior with bad consequences for future human society. The popularity and influence of the book can be gauged from the fact that in April 2016, it was listed in The Guardian's list of the 100 best nonfiction books. In July 2017, the book was listed as the most influential science book of all time in a poll to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the Royal Society science book prize, ahead of Charles Darwin's On the Origin of Species and Isaac Newton’s Principia Mathematica.
Efforts to explain the evolution of altruism by only invoking genes went by names such as inclusive fitness (also called kin selection) and evolutionary game theory. These theories had a way of transmuting altruism into selfishness. A relative helping another relative became an individual helping its genes in the body of another individual, thereby maximizing its own “inclusive fitness.” Evolutionary game theory rendered altruism as a matter of scratching your back so that you’ll scratch mine. Selfish gene theory performed the ultimate transmutation of calling everything that evolves by genetic evolution a form of selfishness.
Another biologist, Robert Trivers, explained how, from an evolutionary perspective, even altruism was really just a sophisticated form of selfishness. He described what he called "reciprocal altruism" as an ancient evolutionary strategy. "Under certain circumstances," he wrote, "natural selection favors these altruistic behaviors because in the long run they benefit the organism performing them." In the 'selfish gene' view, those special human virtues that we value so highly are no exception. Our very genes are selfish; all creatures in nature are ultimately selfish; we humans are merely unique in having taken our selfishness to new levels of Machiavellian manipulation.
An influential thinker, Richard Alexander comes to a similar conclusion, proposing that "ethics, morality, human conduct, and the human psyche are to be understood only if societies are seen as collections of individuals seeking their own self-interest." We became our own "hostile force of nature," entering into a "social arms race" with each other. The evolution of human intelligence represents a “special kind of struggle with other human beings for control of the resources that support life and allow one to reproduce.” Human nature is all about outmaneuvering, manipulation and control.