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The Selfish Gene

A landmark work in the field of biology and evolution

By Richard Dawkins
19-minute read
Audio available
The Selfish Gene by Richard Dawkins

The Selfish Gene is a landmark 1976 work in the field of biology: It puts the gene at the center of the process of evolution and explains how, when this is taken into account, genes must be seen as “selfish.” Author Richard Dawkins then uses this theory of gene selfishness to explain the massive variety of animal behavior observable on Earth.

  • ‘Everyone interested in the universe and their place in it.’
  • Any student of biology or anyone with an interest in biology

Richard Dawkins is an evolutionary biologist and author of influential and popular science books such as The Blind Watchmaker and The Extended Phenotype. He is also a committed atheist and an active critic of religion, to this end publishing his book The God Delusion and setting up the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science. 

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The Selfish Gene

By Richard Dawkins
  • Read in 19 minutes
  • Audio & text available
  • Contains 12 key ideas
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The Selfish Gene by Richard Dawkins
Synopsis

The Selfish Gene is a landmark 1976 work in the field of biology: It puts the gene at the center of the process of evolution and explains how, when this is taken into account, genes must be seen as “selfish.” Author Richard Dawkins then uses this theory of gene selfishness to explain the massive variety of animal behavior observable on Earth.

Key idea 1 of 12

The basic unit of evolution is the gene, because it can exist as multiple copies and is therefore near-immortal.

Evolution occurs through differential survival: in a given population of entities with differing abilities, some survive and propagate while others die out.

But contrary to what is often thought, the basic units that evolution acts on are not individual organisms but genes: short snippets of DNA, the replicator molecule that is the basis of all life on Earth.

The reason for this is that genes fulfill an important criterion that evades individual organisms: genes are not unique and can exist as copies in many different bodies. For example, all blue-eyed people have in their cells a copy of the gene for blue eyes.

Most organisms, on the other hand, cannot replicate themselves as identical copies. This is because sexual reproduction does not produce copies but rather combines the parents’ genetic makeup to create new, unique individuals.

The fact that genes exist as copies makes them near-immortal. While individual organisms tend to survive for no more than a few decades, genes can live for thousands or even millions of years. Consider that while your ancestors are long dead, you no doubt carry plenty of their genes in your cells and will in turn pass on at least some of them to your descendants.

It is the genes’ multiplicity and potential for immortality that makes them candidates for evolution to act upon.

The basic unit of evolution is the gene, because it can exist as multiple copies and is therefore near-immortal.

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