The Selfish Gene by Richard Dawkins

In college I rounded out my psychology minor by taking a class in Evolutionary Psychology. To be frank, it sounded horrible, but I needed the credit. Never one for actually reading a syllabus, I would find myself surprised and oddly influenced over the ensuing years thanks to that class. Not being a serious student of biology or any of the life sciences, Evolutionary Psych would transform the concept of evolution and natural selection into a concept I could comprehend, not just a theory of how we were, but why we are.

Long after the class was over, it would surprise me to discover that Evolutionary Psych, a newer discipline, is considered controversial by many and suffered from accusations of genetic determinism and sexism among other criticisms. It surprises me that this viewpoint was never presented in the classroom.

While Evolutionary Psychology is still subject to being twisted (as is any of the scientific disciplines. Eugenics, anybody?), the driving force behind it is powered by natural selection and the idea that evolution engineered genes that not only shaped our bodies but also our behaviors.

Published in 1976, The Selfish Gene generated huge interest in Dawkin’s presentation of natural selection and one burning question: If genes are wholly self-interested (and they are), how can altruism exist? Does altruism, pure disinterested altruism, truly exist?

Honestly, I don’t know that Dawkins actually answers that question. Which is good, because some of the best questions only lead to more questions. What Dawkins presents are ideas that seem as fresh and accessible now as they did forty years ago.

A couple of ideas stand out to me:

Survival Machines

They have come a long way, those replicators. Now they go by the name of genes, and we are their survival machines.”

Yikes. These big, complicated, silly, beautiful bodies of ours serve a single purpose: to cart around our genes like an organic version of Battlestar Galactica.

From floating around all carefree and whatnot in the primordial soup, the “replicators” as Dawkins called them, competed to make the most copies of themselves. It became an arms race where the winner was the one who could build a better mousetrap (sidenote: here is an extremely long article on mousetraps).

A human being is that mousetrap. So is a dog, and a blackberry bush, and a cricket, and a Douglas Fir, and a slug, and a barnacle.

Sneaky little genes, making us do all the dirty work while it rides around in our cells in relative luxury, conspiring with each other to influence into producing behaviors that enable our survival, make us feel all sexy just so they can hop into fresh bodies and continue down the ages (nothing is more romantic than whispering to your partner “hey baby, let’s propagate our genes”).

When Dawkins points out that “Our genes may be immortal but the collection of genes that is any one of us is bound to crumble away,” it’s humbling. We are machines (take that, Descartes, you jerk!) for a nefarious purpose, we are improbable and we are miracles, as is all of the natural world.

Meme This!

“The new soup is the soup of human culture.”

Did you know Dawkins invented the meme?



First, clear your mind of all the grumpy cats, ermahgerds, and Sean Beans.

Dawkins distilled the word from some other words until he came up with something that sounded vaguely like the word “gene” (and if you pronounce it “me-me” he will fight you). A meme is a cultural gene, something that gets passed along in human culture, something that is learned, not ingrained. Examples include religion, language, and music.

Culture. (gif from

Just like a gene, a meme can be useful or insidious, can propagate or die out. It can be infectious; Dawkins writes:

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.

Turns out, Dawkins even has a sense of humor about the hijacking of his word to represent all thing meme-tastic.

We don’t have to be selfish jerks

A major objection to evolutionary psychology is that it can seem fatalistic. Men are supposed to act like macho jerks and woman are supposed to be attracted to this because those men supposedly represent high surviving genes.

But to conflate determinism and biology is wrong, and Dawkins says as much:

We have the power to defy the selfish genes of our birth and, if necessary, the selfish memes of our indoctrination. We can even discuss ways of deliberately cultivating and nurturing pure, disinterested altruism—something that has no place in nature, something that has never existed before in the whole history of the world. We are built as gene machines and cultured as meme machines, but we have the power to turn against our creators. We, alone on earth, can rebel against the tyranny of the selfish replicators.

Turns out these big brains of ours that enable us to ponder the reason for our existence and match funny pictures with funny words can also enable us to overcome biology and make a better choice.

There are some genes we can’t overcome. I can’t grow taller or change my eye color. But I can decide to be kind and generous in the face of my selfish genes. That is not fatalism. That is hope.

*Junk DNA

  • I accidentally googled “Richard Dawson” instead of “Richard Dawkins” while writing this post. However, I think the idea of kinship altruism dovetails nicely with Family Feud.
  • In the Hills, the Cities is a horrifying short story by Clive Barker and it came to mind while writing this post. Read it and maybe figure out why. Here’s a thoughtful piece on the story.

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