The Selfish Gene by Richard Dawkins [Summary]

This is a comprehensive summary of the book The Selfish Gene by Richard Dawkins. Covering the key ideas and proposing practical ways for achieving what’s mentioned in the text. Written by book fanatic and online librarian Ivaylo Durmonski. Supporting Members get full access.


Astonishing work that explains in plain language how evolution works and how our bodies are nothing else than mere vessels transporting our genes forward. In The Selfish Gene, the author looks at life through the eyes of our genes. Richard Dawkins writes that genes are internal dictators who set the policy of our bodies. Genes are called selfish for a simple reason – they manipulate our behavior to make sure they will survive.

The Core Idea:

Though the book is called The Selfish Gene, the text unfolds something else – that actually altruism should be (and in most cases is) the driving behavior of all living creatures. Yet again, the main motive behind an act of kindness is never 100% genuine. Collaborating and helping is promoted by our internal programmers to ensure that our genes will be passed on to future generations. By helping others, we increase our chances of receiving help from them in the future. Thus, the likelihood of our genetic material moving forward multiplies.


  • The best way to transport your genes forward, except taking care of your body, is taking care of others around you.
  • Our bodies are pre-programmed by our genes. Understanding the pre-programmed inherited traits in you will allow you to take full control of your body.
  • Natural selection favors genes that are able to successfully cope with other genes.

5 Key Lessons from The Selfish Gene:

Lesson #1: The Main Goal of the Body is To Propagate Copies of The Genes

Why do you exist?

You don’t know? Don’t worry, your body is not as confused as you are. The cells circling around your blood know exactly what they have to do during the time they occupy the current corpse – to survive and replicate.

In the book, our bodies are described as throwaway survival machines where they simply exist to transport our genes forward. I know, harsh. As if our thoughts and ambitions don’t matter. But if you think about it, on a larger scale, we, the individuals, exist for so little. Nature is careless of your desires but very interested in making sure you’ll move your genetic material forward. That’s the only way we can pass on important information to others and continue to evolve.

According to the author, this self-centered outlook of the genes gives rise to selfishness in individual behavior.

Or in other words, we’re born selfish. Throughout our whole lives, we are looking for ways to satisfy our own selfish needs without taking much consideration of what the people around us want and need.

Eventually, it turns out, that these needs are not even ours – they are the desires of the genes driving the vehicle (i.e. our bodies).

I shall argue that the fundamental unit of selection, and therefore of self-interest, is not the species, nor the group, nor even, strictly, the individual. It is the gene, the unit of heredity.” Richard Dawkins

Lesson #2: We Care and Help Others To Ensure Our Own Survival

If our genes, and we, are selfish, why do we then help others?

There are countless examples mentioned in the book where animals help other animals. And while at first sight, their behavior seems like it’s remarkably noble, when examining the situation, it’s clear that there are hidden motives.

When a chick finds food, its informing others by tweeting – the so-called “food call”. When bats find blood, they tend to give the extra supply to neighbors who were unable to find food that specific night.

Why such altruistic behavior exist in nature? Shouldn’t all living creaturs focus on their own survival and neglect other forms of living?

Natural selection shaped our behavior to help another living organism for a simple reason – when we help others, especially if these others are relatives, we ensure that more of our genes will move forward.

Therefore, we share food with our relatives, no so much because they are our cousins, sisters, or close friends, but because our selfish genes want to support part of our genes. Furthermore, when we help those who are in need, they’ll likely return the favor when we’re in a difficult situation.

If there is a human moral to be drawn, it is that we must teach our children altruism, for we cannot expect it to be part of their biological nature.” Richard Dawkins

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