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Book Review: ‘The Selfish Gene’, by Richard Dawkins

Book Review: ‘The Selfish Gene’, by Richard Dawkins

A few popular science books rise above the genre and become pop-stars of the book world – bestsellers. Even fewer among them change public discourse and, finally, culture. The Selfish Gene (TSG) by Richard Dawkins is one of these rare books. Published in 1976, TSG is not only still in print, but according to the a long, chronologically uninterrupted trail of stamps on the card inside of the 30th anniversary edition from my local public library, is still being read.

But despite all the fame (or notoriety?) of TGS, I have yet to meet a biologist under 40 who actually read the book. Before deciding to review it for BitesizeBio, I was hesitant about investing time in The Selfish Gene, suspecting that it would be a dated evolutionary biology book dumbed down for non-biologists. After reading it, though, I think there is a lot to appreciate about this book.

The title: runaway metaphor

Dawkins defines the selfish gene as follows:

“…In sexually reproducing species, the individual is too large and  too temporary a genetic unit to qualify as a significant unit of natural selection…

…[A gene] leaps from  body to body down the generations, manipulating body after body in its own way and for its own ends, abandoning a succession of mortal bodies before they sink into senility and death… The genes are the immortals, or rather, they are defined as genetic entities that come close to deserving the title. We, the individual survival machines in the world, can expect to live a few more decades.”

In the preface, Prof. Dawkins writes that “The immortal gene” would have been a better title for the book, however (and this is true for the whole work) the caveats and explanations don’t stick in your memory: the metaphors do. It is ironic that the neodarwinist term “selfish gene”, introduced and explained in TSG, has achieved a similar level of popularity as another vivid but inaccurate arwinian metaphor, “survival of the fittest”.

Less than sum of its parts?

In Dawkin’s book, a species (including humans) is reduced to a population, population to an extended family group, –a family group to an individual, and an individual to a gene, which absolutely defines the organism. There is no emergence between different levels: a “gene” equals behavior.  This simplified picture is put across forcefully, with an erudition and conviction that are typical for Dawkins, who, since TGD and a chain of relatively less well known popular books (The Extended Phenotype, anyone?) has gradually become an embodiment of non-compromising atheism. Having read “The Selfish Gene,” I can understand why my local librarian told me that TSD forced him to doubt the existence of the free will, despite Dawkins’ declaration that:

“We, alone on earth, can rebel against the tyranny of the selfish replicators”


Another, perhaps even more significant contribution of “The Selfish Gene” to the cultural discourse and, as a result, vocabulary, is expanding of the idea of an immortal replicator from biology to culture and coining of the term “meme”:

“…a new kind of replicator has recently emerged…unit of cultural transmission… meme. Examples of memes are tunes, ideas, catch-phrases, clothes, fashion…”

Is TSG dumbed down?

According to the preface, the book was intended for three types of readers – lay persons, experts (who were predicted by Dawkins to use phrases ‘with the exception of’ and ‘ugh’) and the inbetweeners – students. I am probably an expert – I did think ‘with the exception of’ a lot.  Depending on your field of study, you may want to skip the pages on the origin of life or genetic code or population genetics – but if you know and can write about all this (and virtual machines, theory of consciousness, game theory, social insects, caddis flies, naked mole rats) accessibly for the general public, you are probably Dawkins himself.

Is it dated?

Sometimes, especially reading at the end of day while commuting, I found the explanations convoluted. A few of the concepts, such as the idea that most of the genome doesn’t have any function and represents “selfish” or “junk” DNA, are dated too. It is a pity that the author was not allowed to update the book – the clarification comments added to the anniversary edition are often more interesting than the original text – so 35 years after its first publication “The Selfish Gene” is more of a historical document than a state-of-the problem treatise it had been once.

Is TSG worth reading?

Definitely, if you are a student – it will expand your erudition and will give you a fine example of how to write engagingly and avoiding a single math formula about complicated science.  If you are an “expert”, read it if you are interested in philosophy of science and historical books or want to be ready to discuss the selfish gene or a meme at a dinner party.

Have you read TGS? What did you think?


Book information

Title: The Selfish Gene

Author: Richard Dawkins

ISBN-10: 0199291152

ISBN-13: 978-0199291151


  1. arjit jere on March 16, 2015 at 9:30 pm

    The review was good although i dont fully agree with some points.Well although im still learning i can call myself a biologist,and i am very much below 40 ,and i have read the book:P If one wants to look at the vaste landscape of evolution through the lens of animal behaviour and genes this book is the best bet…With regards to it being historical i dont think its outdated.It still explains many phenomenon even today,like humans?When dawkins does point out a metaphorical gene it must be taken figuratively not literally because a putative single gene: single phenotypic trait relationship is not usually seen.As the well read writer of this review will know..polygeny is required for a single complex trait!That being said dawkins theories especially extended phenotype require more empirical proof.One of them might be related to parasite in snail.His biggest Strength is his ability to simplify important biological esp behavorial concepts into simple to understand analogies.concepts like inheritance,altruism,selection,game theory,sexual selection,ESS etc.I would also credit dawkins as being one of the first pioneers of 1computer software in spreading evolutionary thinking(Genomorphs,various Computer-Organism analogies)
    2Meme concept-which is to culture what gene is to tangible traits.Amusingly memes are used in an entirely different context in todays social media,but the analogy still fits.
    However dawkins ridicule of group selection theories is slightly misplaced.Kin selection is incomplete without group selection,although it both can be mutually exclusive.Another point where I disagree with the respected author is any man is free to believe in God and evolution!That doesnt mean he goes on saying HE created life ,but keep faith in God yet carry out his work in the science field without using god to explain science and vice versa.Many distinguished personalities who were believers as well as wonderful scientists(few evolutionists)spring to mind..starting right from newton,darwin to mendel..till einstein and openheimer!Apart from these bones to pick I am a big fan of dawkins and an ever inquisitive student of evolution.A big thank you to Dr.Vicki for writing a review of a book,which in my opinion every biologist should read.Simply because it was a paradigm shift in evolutionary and behavorial science.

  2. micronaut on January 7, 2013 at 4:23 pm

    Dennis Noble also put out a follow-up called The Music of Life
    (http://www.musicoflife.co.uk/) which attempts to re-visit the questions and ideas in selfish gene, from what we’ve since discovered from proteomics.

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