The Selfish Gene: Summary & Review

the selfish gene

“The Selfish Gene” explains evolution by looking at single genes as the basic units that are ultimately responsible for the selection process, and for driving our behavior.

3 Sentences Summary

  • Our genes don’t care about us
  • We all have tendencies to maximize our benefits
  • We can consciously decide to override our genes’ programming

The Selfish Gene – Summary

About The Author: Richard Dawkin is an ethologist and evolutionary psychologist.
He has been a professor at Oxford for many years and also published the best-selling book The God Delusion“.

As a note, I read “The Selfish Gene” in my younger twenties and it completely blew me away. Everything made sense and opened for me a new world of understanding.
It was first published in 1975, but evolution hasn’t budged since then.

Selfish Gene – Meaning

A gene is not selfish because only a sentient being can be selfish.

Richard Dawkins wants to express instead that natural selection does not care how the genes are passed along, but only that they will.

And the more likely it is that a gene will be passed along, the more likely it is that a certain trait that the gene gives birth to, will spread and eventually become common to a whole population.

If the animal or person carrying that gene will suffer or die in the process, again, natural selection does not care.
Natural evolution can actually at times select behavior that is harmful to the organism as long as the organism passes its genes on.

Selfish Genes Make For Selfish Human Beings

Dawkins does present a view of very selfish human beings though.

He says human beings are selfish with a semblance of altruism.

The more selfish we can be while at the same time appearing the most altruist, the more benefits we can reap from the people around us while we are actually doing our own interests.

Dawkins says that any other being around us, especially if of the same species, can be an enemy in the struggle for survival and passing on genes.

Inclusive Fitness & Altruism

Richard Dawkins popularized the concept of W. D. Hamilton.

That concept is that an individual does not simply want to maximize the number of children, but wants to maximize the spreading of his genes, which is not exactly the same thing.

For example, caring for a brother makes genetic sense because his children will share 1/4 of our genes.

The book doesn’t talk about it, but by extension, we share at least some genes and similarities with every other human being on the planet, so theoretically we tend to prefer to rescue a human being instead of an animal.

Battle of the Sexes

Richard Dawkins says that, from a genetic point of view, there’s much between a wife and a husband that can be divisive.

For example, while both want the good of their children, one could easily gain by investing less than the partner so as to have more to invest in other possible children.

There’s always a constant “arms race” where both genders, men especially, are trying to look better than what they actually are to lure a partner and the partner needs to be able to discern false advertising from the truth.
Women also have a tendency to try to look less sexual for men so that men will want to marry and invest in them (we talk a bit about how men can disarm this tendency in text flirting for men).

Kins Battles Among Each Other

Dawkins says that a parent’s interest is to see as many of her children survive.

However, in some dire situations, she might sacrifice a son/daughter who’s too weak to increase the chances of survival of the other children.

Children also present a strategy in which they try to maximize the Parental Investment all for themselves.

Groups Are Equally Selfish

Dawkins says that even when we form groups we display an apparent unselfish behavior, but it developed in the first place only because it helps spread the genes of each single individual.

Groups make genetic sense because we live in a non-zero-sum world: we can all profit from cooperation.

Nice Guys Finish First

Dawkins presents the famous Prisoner’s Dilemma and how the simplest strategy to play the game won them all.

The strategy is called Tit for Tat always gives first, never “cheats” first but always retaliates when cheated. Tit for That drove away cheating behavior until everyone cooperated.

For more on “tit for tat” check outThe Moral Animal and “The Origins of Virtue“.

Humans Often “Disobey” Genes

Humans are far more complex and have built civilizations that often “disobey” genes.

Contraceptives and the use of porn instead of copulation are such an example.

Also, many elements of culture do not always seem to have a direct connection with natural selection.

Bigger Than Our Genes

Importantly, Richard Dawkins says, we evolved a neo-cortex and a brain, which allows us to step back, understand what our genes want and decide if we want to resist.

We all love sugar, for example, because of natural evolution, but we can force ourselves to eat less when we see it’s not actually helping our organism anymore.

Or we can consciously decide not to have children.

Let us understand what our own selfish genes are up to, because we may then at least have the chance to upset their designs, something that no other species has ever aspired to do

the selfish gene book cover

The Selfish Gene: Review

When I first read The Selfish Gene I was in awe.

I considered it the best anything I had ever read, the most profound book and expletive book ever.

I also have an interesting story connected to The Selfish Gene.
As soon as I finished reading the book, I went to Facebook to check if there were any pages for it or something (back then I had just opened the account a few days prior).
There wasn’t any group, but I found a person with that name. It was a girl.
I left it at that.

Years later I was living in Prague and was out at a nightclub. A girl approached me and we started talking. Wanna guess who she was? Yep, it was Selfish Gene.

I wish I could share a happy ending story and tell you she was nice and all. She was everything but :), but I still think the story was pretty damn crazy.

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