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.
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The Book In Three Or More Sentences:
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
- Lesson #2: We Care and Help Others To Ensure Our Own Survival
- Lesson #3: Navigating in The World is Influenced by Our Pre-Programmed Knowledge
- Lesson #4: Similar to Genes, Ideas Also Endure Time And Move Forward
- Lesson #5: Life is Riddled With Iterated Prisoner’s Dilemma Games
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
Lesson #3: Navigating in The World is Influenced by Our Pre-Programmed Knowledge
When a child is born, he/she doesn’t start from scratch. Yes, a lot of things have to be learned but there are certain traits embedded in the genes of the newborn.
Thanks to the acquired wisdom from the cells inside us, we define some things as rewarding and others as unpleasant unconsciously even before learning how to walk. Or as the author mentions in the book, “One way for genes to solve the problem of making predictions in rather unpredictable environments is to build in a capacity for learning. Here the program may take the form of the following instructions to the survival machine: ‘Here is a list of things defined as rewarding: sweet taste in the mouth, orgasm, mild temperature, smiling child. And here is a list of nasty things: various sorts of pain, nausea, empty stomach, screaming child.”
These instructions given by our genes, while very basic, send impulses to our bodies and influence our actions. When facing an unfamiliar situation, if we’re young, and we don’t have a lot of experience with living, we use the hard-coded rules set by our genes to make a decision.
The main advantage of these inherited traits is that they greatly cut down the number of rules and guides that have to be learned by the individual to remain alive. However, they are not enough to handle the sophisticated obstacles set by nature and by the other inhabitants.
Naturally, to get better at predicting the future and endure longer, we need to increase our knowledge and to accumulate more strategies.
Lesson #4: Similar to Genes, Ideas Also Endure Time And Move Forward
Something else is able to withstand time besides our genetic material – our culture. Dawkins calls the collective knowledge of humanity memes (from the Greek, Mimeme).
Imagine ideas, tunes, best-practices in architecture, even fashion trends.
Thanks to the ideas and the knowledge we have inherited from our ancestors, our life doesn’t start from scratch when we’re born. This is partly thanks to our genes and partly from the wisdom we accumulate during our life spawn.
While surviving and replicating is probably your most important goal, it’s very basic for our subtle brains. To make sense of your existence, and to make the world a better place, you also need to create ideas that are so good, that other individuals will happily share them with others.
So, it’s of evolutionary importance to pursue important ideas and also “plant” them in other people’s heads.
But how? How can you make an idea so good, that other people will happily help you transport it past your own fragile life?
Richard Dawkins explains, “Consider the idea of God. Why does it have such high survival value? What is it about the idea of a god that gives it its stability and penetrance in the cultural environment? The survival value of the god meme in the meme pool results from its great psychological appeal. It provides a superficially plausible answer to deep and troubling questions about existence. It suggests that injustices in this world may be rectified in the next.”
To produce memes that are fertile, such that achieve long-term success and get accepted by the general population, you need to think about helping others.
You need to think in terms of making the gene pool, or in this case the meme pool, a better place. That’s the only way you can ensure that your thoughts and ambitions will be passed on to future generations.
When you plant a fertile meme in my mind you literally parasitize my brain, turning it into a vehicle for the meme’s propagation in just the way that a virus may parasitize the genetic mechanism of a host cell.” Richard Dawkins
Lesson #5: Life is Riddled With Iterated Prisoner’s Dilemma Games
To help us understand the importance of collaborating with each other, on a molecular level, and in general, the author makes a great association with a simple gambling game called Prisoner’s Dilemma.
In short, here’s how the game is played as explained in the book:
There is something at stake. For example, two men are in custody. Each of them is interrogated by guards in a separate cell and forced to betray his colleague (defect). If one decides to do so, he will be free, but his partner will remain in prison for at least 5 years. The same deal is offered to the other prisoner. Here is where it gets interesting: if they both decide to blame the other party – both of them defect – they’ll both spend 3 years in jail. The opportunity here lies in remaining quiet (cooperating). If they don’t say a word, they will spend 1 year in prison.
Of course, the temptation to blame the other party is high because you don’t know what he will do. So, naturally, most subjects choose to defect. This way, they guarantee that they won’t be the sucker, they won’t receive a huge sentence, and they will not let the other person out free.
But is this the right approach in this hypothetical game and also in life?
According to the research done by the author, collaborating always leads to more benefits in the long-run.
But not blindly helping. The strategy that won’t the “tournament” in the book is called Tit for Tat. You begin by cooperating on the first move and thereafter you simply copy the previous move of the other player. When the other party collaborates, you do the same on the next move. If he defects, you repeat. Mathematically speaking, if points are attached to the moves, the high-score for both of the players is reached only by collaborating – never by trying to trick each other.
Genes that survive and are able to last for enough generation, are ones that are able to collaborate with other genes. But not only. They also retaliate when attacked. They do their best to make the environment around them better but also never settle when attacked – they respond to hostility accordingly. By following this simple strategy, genes secure their spot in the gene pool.
Successful genes are genes that, in the environment influenced by all the other genes in a shared embryo, have beneficial effects on that embryo. Beneficial means that they make the embryo likely to develop into a successful adult, an adult likely to reproduce and pass those very same genes on to future generations.” Richard Dawkins
- Be a Retaliator: What’s the best survival strategy? After describing various models of behavior in nature, and their outcomes, the conclusion of the author is that we need to adopt a strategy called Retaliator. In short, this means that we strive to be resourceful citizens and do our best to help when others around us are good with us. However, if someone attacks, we fight back. Or in other words, our behavior depends on the behavior of the person in front of us.
- Plant memes: Not internet memes. Infect others with big ideas. That’s the only way you can ensure the longevity of your views. How can you do it successfully? How can you infect other people’s brains with certain beliefs? Here’s how: raise questions about our existence, tackle important problems about our culture. Do it in an interesting fashion to make it more likely for others to pass it along to their friends. What type of concept you’d like to pass to other generations?
- To pass your knowledge, you need to share it: Sadly, regardless of how much knowledge and wisdom you acquire during your existence, not a single unit will be passed on to your children on a molecular level. In this regard, in order to help your heirs, and give them a slight advantage, you can consider sharing what you know with them on a regular basis.
- Cooperation: There are only 46 chromosomes in the human body. 23 come from the father and 23 come from the mother. How can a gene reserves a spot in the batch passed on to the child? By cooperation! Natural selection favors genes that are able to successfully cope with other genes. Selfishly trying to dominate doesn’t work out. To move forward in the gene pool, genes need to be helpful to others and to the environment (the body). If they are adding benefits to the body they’re constructing, the chance of developing successful adult increases. Therefore, they will be selected. The same logic can be applied in life outside the microscopic cells. By helping others, you’re increasing your chances of survival.
- Build a learning capacity: In the book, the author illustrates genes as computer programs that configure bodies with certain rules and advice. But since there are far too many possible scenarios in the world, genes set not specific, but rather general strategies in the body. They will add a thick coat of hair to bears living in the north and paint it white because that always worked in the past. Still, this camouflage is only partly helpful. There are a lot of other factors that have to be considered. The same is true for us, humans. We’re born with all the tools we need to survive – legs, arms, desire to hunt and to reproduce. Yet, these basic concepts won’t guarantee you a successful life. The best way to get the most of life, and swiftly handle unfamiliar situations, is to increase your knowledge in different fields.
Commentary and My Personal Takeaway
The only reason genes exist is to figure out a way to move forward in life. They are programing bodies, manipulating behavior, and embedding certain desires in brains to ensure that human “machines” will help them move forward in time.
But while genes are called selfish numerous times in the book, the point the author is trying to communicate with the reader is against the controversial title – collaboration and altruism is key to evolution and survival.
As someone who is not at all familiar with evolutionary biology, or Darwin’s theory of natural selection, I would say that this book is a great way to understand the basics of natural selection and how genes work.
Richard Dawkins successfully, in a very interesting and engaging way, by adding numerous examples and metaphors, translates complicated biological terms and bizarre-sounding arguments to the reader.
The key takeaway?
On a molecular level, to survive, genes must focus on being beneficial to the whole structure (the body) to move forward. I believe the same is true in human life. To have a pleasant stay while here on Earth, and to thrive, you need to act as resourceful problem-solver who doesn’t only care for himself, but for others around you, too.
Living bodies are machines programmed by genes that have survived. The genes that have survived have done so in conditions that tended on average to characterize the environment of the species in the past. Therefore ‘estimates’ of costs and benefits are based on past ‘experience’, just as they are in human decision-making.” Richard Dawkins
Prediction in a complex world is a chancy business. Every decision that a survival machine takes is a gamble, and it is the business of genes to program brains in advance so that on average they take decisions that pay off.” Richard Dawkins
Let us try to teach generosity and altruism, because we are born selfish. 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.” Richard Dawkins
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