Adam Ash

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Wednesday, March 15, 2006

Bookplanet: Richard Dawkins looks back at The Selfish Gene

It's all in the genes
The Sunday Times Oxford Literary Festival starts on Friday, March 24. Previewing events at the festival, Richard Dawkins looks back at the extraordinary 30-year history of his first book, The Selfish Gene

It is sobering to realise that I have lived nearly half my life with The Selfish Gene — for better, for worse. Over the years, as each subsequent book has appeared, publishers have sent me on tour to promote it. Audiences respond to the new book with gratifying enthusiasm, applaud politely and ask intelligent questions. Then they line up to buy, and have me sign . . . The Selfish Gene. That is a bit of an exaggeration. Some do buy the new book and, for the rest, my wife consoles me by arguing that people who newly discover an author will naturally tend to go back to his first book: having read The Selfish Gene, surely they’ll work their way through to the latest and (to its fond parent) favourite baby?

I would mind more if I could claim that The Selfish Gene had become severely outmoded and superseded. Unfortunately (from one point of view) I cannot. Details have changed and factual examples burgeoned mightily. But there is little in it that I would rush to unwrite now, or apologise for. Arthur Cain, late professor of zoology at Liverpool and one of my inspiring tutors at Oxford in the 1960s, described The Selfish Gene in 1976 as a “young man’s book”. He was deliberately quoting a commentator on
AJ Ayer’s Language, Truth and Logic. I was flattered by the comparison, although I knew that Ayer had recanted much of his first book and I could hardly miss Cain’s pointed implication that I should, in the fullness of time, do the same.

Let me begin with some second thoughts about the title. In 1975, I showed the partially completed book to Tom Maschler, doyen of London publishers, and we discussed it in his room at Jonathan Cape. He liked the book but not the title. “Selfish”, he said, was a “down” word. Why not call it The Immortal Gene? Immortal was an “up” word, the immortality of genetic information was a central theme of the book, and “immortal gene” had almost the same intriguing ring as “selfish gene” (neither of us, I think, noticed the resonance with Oscar Wilde’s The Selfish Giant). I now think Maschler may have been right. Many critics, especially vociferous ones learned in philosophy as I have discovered, prefer to read a book by title only. No doubt this works well enough for The Tale of Benjamin Bunny or The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, but I can readily see that The Selfish Gene, without the large footnote of the book itself, might give an inadequate impression of its contents. Nowadays, an American publisher would in any case have insisted on a subtitle.

The best way to explain the title is by locating the emphasis. Emphasise “selfish” and you will think the book is about selfishness, whereas, if anything, it devotes more attention to altruism. The correct word of the title to stress is “gene”, and let me explain why. A central debate within Darwinism concerns the unit that is actually selected: what kind of entity is it that survives, or does not survive, as a consequence of natural selection? That unit will become, more or less by definition, “selfish”. Altruism might well be favoured at other levels. Does natural selection choose between species? If so, we might expect individual organisms to behave altruistically “for the good of the species”. They might limit their birth rates to avoid overpopulation, or restrain their hunting behaviour to conserve the species’ future stocks of prey. It was such widely disseminated misunderstandings of Darwinism that originally provoked me to write the book.

Or does natural selection, as I urge instead, choose between genes? In this case, we should not be surprised to find individual organisms behaving altruistically “for the good of the genes”, for example by feeding and protecting kin who are likely to share copies of the same genes. Such kin altruism is only one way in which gene selfishness can translate itself into individual altruism. The Selfish Gene explains how it works, together with reciprocation, Darwinian theory’s other main generator of altruism.

Unwriting a book is one thing. Unreading it is something else. What are we to make of the following verdict, from a reader in Australia? “Fascinating, but at times I wish I could unread it . . . On one level, I can share in the sense of wonder Dawkins so evidently sees in the workings-out of such complex processes . . . But at the same time, I largely blame The Selfish Gene for a series of bouts of depression I suffered from for more than a decade . . . Never sure of my spiritual outlook on life, but trying to find something deeper — trying to believe, but not quite being able to — I found that this book just about blew away any vague ideas I had along these lines, and prevented them from coalescing any further. This created quite a strong personal crisis for me some years ago.”

I have previously described similar responses from readers. A teacher reproachfully wrote that a pupil had come to him in tears after reading the same book, because it had persuaded her that life was empty and purposeless. But if something is true, no amount of wishful thinking can undo it. As I went on to write, “Presumably there is indeed no purpose in the ultimate fate of the cosmos, but do any of us really tie our life’s hopes to the ultimate fate of the cosmos anyway? Of course we don’t; not if we are sane. Our lives are ruled by all sorts of closer, warmer, human ambitions and perceptions. To accuse science of robbing life of the warmth that makes it worth living is so preposterously mistaken, so diametrically opposite to my own feelings and those of most working scientists, I am almost driven to the despair of which I am wrongly suspected.”

Another good alternative title would have been The Cooperative Gene. It sounds paradoxically opposite, but a central part of the book argues for a form of cooperation among self-interested genes. This emphatically does not mean that groups of genes prosper at the expense of their members, or at the expense of other groups. Rather, each gene is seen as pursuing its own self-interested agenda against the background of the other genes in the gene pool — the set of candidates for sexual shuffling within a species. Those other genes are part of the environment in which each gene survives, in the same way as the weather, predators and prey, supporting vegetation and soil bacteria are parts of the environment. From each gene’s point of view, the “background” genes are those with which it shares bodies in its journey down the generations. In the short term, that means the other members of the genome. In the long term, it means the other genes in the gene pool of the species. Natural selection therefore sees to it that gangs of mutually compatible — which is almost to say cooperating — genes are favoured in the presence of each other. At no time does this evolution of the “cooperative gene” violate the fundamental principle of the selfish gene.

(This is an edited extract of the foreword to the 30th-anniversary edition of The Selfish Gene.)


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