The Selfish Gene

I just finished the 30th anniversary edition of Richard Dawkins’ seminal book The Selfish Gene, which apparently caused quite a revolution in thinking about evolutionary biology when it was first published. It was fascinating — although there were a couple of chapters that were a bit of a slog, there are lots of really interesting ideas in there, and Dawkins writing style is clear, interesting and often very witty.

While still firmly rooted in traditional Darwinian natural selection, Dawkins posits a way of thinking about evolution that imbues genes with a metaphorical and singular sense of purpose — their own survival and replication.

He argues that the fundamental engines of life — any life, anywhere in the universe — are what he calls replicators. A replicator is simply any entity that is capable of copying itself with a reasonable degree of fidelity. However, no copying process is completely perfect, such that over time, copying errors — mutations — will occur. Such copying errors give rise to diversity in the population of replicators, Some variant forms will be ill-suited to their environment and will perish before being able to replicate, whereas others will be better suited, and will survive long enough to successfully replicate.

In the case of life on Earth, the replicators are known as genes, and the massive biodiversity of life on our planet has evolved simply to provide vehicles for those genes. The most successful genes — those that have been able to survive and replicate themselves — are the ones that have unwittingly engineered, through natural selection, the most successful vehicles in which to survive until they are able to replicate.

Dawkins also suggests that replicators don’t necessarily need to be confined to organic life; he coined the term “meme,” now in common usage, to describe ideas and concepts that replicate by traveling from mind to mind.

The other beauty of the book is that Dawkins illustrates the utility of his model by explaining and, in most cases, correctly predicting or at least explaining the behaviour of some of the many bizarre and fascinating species on our planet.

Anyway — recommended.

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