It’s Time to Consign the “Selfish Gene” to the History Books | Jeremy Lent


From Salon: “The idea that selfishness and greed are drivers of evolution, and therefore possess underlying virtue, has been around for over a century, ever since Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution became widely accepted. The archetypal robber barons, Andrew Carnegie and John D. Rockefeller, both argued that the ‘survival of the fittest’ principle justified their cutthroat tactics. But the publication in 1976 of Richard Dawkins’s bestseller, ‘The Selfish Gene,’ adroitly repackaged the notion for modern times, reducing the complexities of evolution to a brutally elemental simplicity. As Dawkins summarized it:

The argument of this book is that we, and all other animals, are machines created by our genes. Like successful Chicago gangsters, our genes have survived, in some cases for millions of years, in a highly competitive world. This entitles us to expect certain qualities in our genes. I shall argue that a predominant quality to be expected in a successful gene is ruthless selfishness. This gene selfishness will usually give rise to selfishness in individual behavior. . . . Much as we might wish to believe otherwise, universal love and the welfare of the species as a whole are concepts that simply do not make evolutionary sense.

With the notion of the ‘selfish gene’ as the ultimate driver of evolution, Dawkins helped forge the moral framework of his age. Influential thought leaders have since infused this supposed biological truth into economics, politics, and business. ‘The economy of nature is competitive from beginning to end,’ writes sociobiologist M. T. Ghiselin, coeditor of the Journal of Bioeconomics.

It’s difficult to overstate the pervasiveness of Dawkins’s selfish gene theory in popular culture. In a nutshell, the underlying story goes something like this: All organisms in nature are simply vessels for the replication of the selfish genes that control us. As such, all living entities — including humans — are driven to compete ruthlessly to pass on their genes. This struggle for reproduction is the underlying engine of evolution, as occasional positive random mutations in genes give an entity a competitive edge to beat out weaker rivals. Any apparently altruistic behavior is merely a convenient tactic for a concealed selfish goal. Since nature works most effectively based on selfishness, human society should be similarly organized, which is why free market capitalism has been so successful in dominating all other socioeconomic models.

However, pervasive as it has become throughout our culture, the story of the selfish gene is based on fundamental misconceptions. In recent decades, researchers in evolutionary biology have overturned virtually every significant assumption in the selfish gene account. In its place, they have developed a far more sophisticated conception of how evolution works, revealing the rich tapestry of nature’s dynamic interconnectedness. Rather than evolution being driven by competition, it turns out that cooperation has played a far more important role in producing the great transitions that led to Earth’s current [sic] breathtaking state of diversity and beauty.

The trouble with the selfish gene story is not just that it is scientifically flawed; it’s also that it presents such an impoverished view of life’s dazzling magnificence. The discoveries of modern researchers showing how life evolved to its current [sic] state of lavish abundance reveal a spectacle of awe-inspiring complexity, mind-boggling dynamic feedback loops, and infinitely subtle interconnections.”

Article →


Back to Around the Web


  1. The author clearly misunderstand the selfish gene theory. It is about genes doing whatever it takes to succeed, which can be by competition or by cooperation. Dawkins gives examples of cooperation in his books. The author fails to give a single assumption that he says has been overturned.
    And the last paragraph is simply not true. The theory does not deny the complexity of the ecosystem, and Dawkins gives countless examples of the subtlety of Natural Selection in his books, eg the Peacock’s tail.
    Has the author even read Dawkins’ books?

    Report comment

  2. I believe that Dawkins’ idea of the selfish gene is well received among most evolutionary biologist. The basic idea is that the gene is actually the unit that drives evolution and not the individual organism it inhabits. Genes express themselves in organisms that give them the best chance of replicating. Dawkins himself has said that describing genes as selfish has been widely misinterpreted from his intended meaning. The genes don’t act selfishly. They don’t act at all. They are merely most successful when the organisms they inhabit are able to reproduce them.

    Report comment

    • Well, I haven’t read Dawkins theories nor analyses, but from reading the linked review I see no causality between any kind of selfish gene, however defined or redefined, and human selfish behaviour.

      For that, one as a scientific researcher had to prove how a gene causes selfish behavior. And that it is still lacking and probably will, since human behaviour seems to be explained in a very, very, small part by individual genes.

      And doing aggregates of small influences has it’s own proving causality problems. So I am skeptic that will work to explain enough behaviour on genes alone. Even epigenetics will have kinda the same issues. And by adding another set of epigenetic variables it leads to exponential computation problems. Even factorial ones, for explanation.

      Then there is environment and inconsistencies on individual behaviours, that as fars as I understand are shown, even proven in behavioural economics experiments. And character, temperant and personality assumed constant, for the purposes of prediction and explanation in psychology will inevitably lead to ignoring said variability and inconsistency.

      Character, temperant and personality are false premises, according to my understanding of behavioural economics, even in it’s early course. I might be wrong though.

      Then, more fundamentally, genes act on preformed structures that although influenced by gene expression, predate the evolution of genes as we understand them now.

      That is something that in the 70s was not appreciated, it was around the 80s and 90s that the understanding that cells have a lot of baggage when it comes to gene expression in the fact that cells predate gene expression for thousands of millions of years. And they are units, in fact, indivisible in structure and function, even if sometimes they divide chaotically and harmfully.

      That Dawkins could not have been effectively aware of: the preformed and constraining millieu where gene expression happens. That might seem abstract, even irrelevant, but it could explain why no gene can be selfish, however defined thus. And he didn’t address that: is it even possible?.

      Even now, it seems cyclopean to me. But I did not kept up with the literature…

      A prion might, and it comes from a gene, it does change behaviour that can be selfish or more selfish, but that sounds so redherring or straw man.

      But ironically, the epidemics of mad cow disease where caused by selfish behaviour…

      And acknowledging the value of your comment to me, it gives me a better understanding of how strong selection for “autistic behaviour” does suggest that in descendants of older fathers might in fact be advantageous, not a disease, disorder nor disability.

      If interested, see my comments about it in:

      “The case for autism NOT being a disease.”

      Those genetic/epigenetic changes, mutations, if actually true, gave such a strong signal that most likely are selected for, not against.

      Report comment

  3. I was not that aware that this narrative was out there, being pushed by the Darwinians.

    This is basically a criminal (sociopathic) viewpoint of life that is not in fact supportable or sustainable. Though it impacts our problems with mental health, it applies much more broadly than that, in particular to politics.

    And this is not to say that selfishness is not a real and important part of life. But “ruthless selfishness” is a lie that does not even exist in animal life. Though predators look “ruthless” when they kill, they take only what they need and share it with the non-hunters in their groups. Human behavior is perhaps the most problematic in this regard. We know that it can become totally unhinged. But psychology has not really discovered why. Of all creatures, humans are in a great position to perfect the skill of cooperation, and in many ways they have, Nowhere in the animal world do you see social constructs as large or complex as those seen in human life and considered common and ordinary.

    But even the idea that “selfishness” could be carried in a gene is foolish and ignorant. It is a learned behavior, and we don’t need genetics to explain it, as we have reincarnation, which today is just short of being a proven fact.

    Report comment

    • The linked article does expand on your point by ackowledging the fact that humans are social animals that thrive on cooperation not on conflict.

      Human history does add weight, a lot, to that.

      Violence against other communities, as in selfish, by social progress gives me the impression finally turns inward: if there are incentives to become more affluent by violent means, once the others are not easy to exploit, exploitation will turn inwards, given there are incentives to become affluent by violence, selfishness, and there are disincentives/barriers to find another way.

      The history of the US, the UK, the old roman empire, the byzantine empire, give me that impression. Even the French and Spanish empires might point in that direction, but I am not confident on those.

      But, I haven’t read someone writing along those lines: Violence, selfishness, turning inwards once outwards is not productive.

      And other animal species are similar, if not identical seen in essence: social, empathic, cooperative.

      In behavioural economics experiments humans punish selfishness in others. Sometimes repeteadly and at personal cost. I mean small stakes of money, but I think it does prove a point.

      Granted, AFAIR not everyone does, there is variability and inconsistency, but seems a dominant tendency, a dominant strategy when interacting with others when they are selfish. And that is a strong incentive, ceteris paribus, against selfish behaviour in human communities.

      Report comment

  4. I think the prion case is a good counter example of the selfish gene/selfish behaviour narrative:

    Selfish behaviour lead to epidemics of disease caused by a selfish gene, the prion, bovine spongiform encephalopathy*. And that was selected against by the non-selfish behaviour of human beings.

    The meat supply was put in order to stop spreading that selfish gene among humans.

    Proving at least one selfish gene was selected against so much, that bovine spongiform encephalopathy* only occurs now sporadicaly, as before the epidemics, not widespread in the human bodies.

    It didn’t spread as selfish gene theory predicted, and it did not caused non-selfish behaviour, even if it’s spread was caused by selfishness.

    *Otherwise known as mad cow disease and Creutzfeld-Jakob in humans, usually sporadic, but when the meat supply was contaminated with prions it caused epidemic disease in humans, Creutzfeld-Jakob like not just in cows. But that was not very well reported in the media back then. And I guess now it will be difficult to find the references.

    The meat industry does carry a lot of weight:

    As infotainment, calling it “mad cow disease” is how actually the media called it when it caused epidemics in humans in the UK and the US, at least. Might seem offensive, but journalistically it’s important to search for the probably now difficult to find reports.

    And by epidemic in humans I don’t mean there where hundreds of cases in humans, I mean there was an unusual number of otherwise “sporadic” cases in a short period of time.

    That’s why among other things I can claim those reports will be difficult to find, and might be important to call it mad cow disease instead of bovine blah, blah, blah, and even Creutzfeld-Jakob might not have been printed in many journalistic reports…


    Report comment

  5. He get’s it , The Big Kahuna or what, with the Selfish Gene thing. This is the catastrophe. Forget climate change, or supposed loss of nature, blah blah blah. As anyone who has been totally annihilated and somehow survived abusive psychiatry, *that* psychiatry is the ultimate extension of the psychopathy that Richard Dawkins exhibits. I disagree with some of the Left wing touchstones that Lent talks about in his Web of Meaning book. But I don’t think that matters. Left wing, right wing, or incurable hippy, the psychopaths have to be kicked out, and sane and normal people put in control.

    Report comment

  6. Darwin himself got the basic inspiration for his theory from Adam Smith. In many cases societal components are projected into nature through theories and because they lay buried or become forgotten, those constructed visions of nature are then used to explain and justify current society. There are no “queen” or “worker bees”. Theories of ‘life’ or ‘nature’ have always been very suspect even if they claim to be entirely ‘scientific’.

    Report comment