Richard Dawkins, in a fine bit of rhetoric in his book the selfish gene, asserts that from one perspective, that our bodies are merely the means by which genes reproduce themselves. We are mortal, but genes are immortal.

Selfishness, however requires intentionality, a conscious will to that purpose. Genes are neither conscious nor will-full subjects. They are not subjects at all.

Being thus not a subject, then they lack any notion of the self, one could say in all truthfulness - the self-less gene.

But are genes altruistic, are they giving? We would certainly not exist if genes did not exist. Are we then the gift of genes? But why stop at genes, we certianly wouldn't exist without matter, nor space, nor time. Are we then the gift of space and time and matter?

  • I'm pretty sure that in the foreword of my copy he says something to the effect of "I wish I hadn't used the word 'selfish', everyone misunderstands me". Still, I don't think that's an issue here, your question seems to be asking "if altruism or purpose is an emergent property of interacting genes, why is this a better explanation than one that says they emerge from interacting atoms" - I think that's a valid question, though you can answer it easily by appealing to the detail of the explanation. But it doesn't deserve the downvote.
    – Lucas
    Apr 9 '14 at 23:55
  • @Lucas: Sure, I was pondering on, I think Empedocles notion that strife and love are found at all orders of the universe. Of course what is meant by strife and love at each order has to be interpreted. Apr 10 '14 at 6:29
  • why stop at genes indeed. Apr 10 '14 at 6:36
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    Dawkins overly anthropomorphizes genes in an attempt to reach a broad audience, but that technique is problematic. To further anthropomorphize things just seems like asking for trouble (or sloppiness).
    – obelia
    Apr 11 '14 at 18:49

This has been addressed by Dawkins in the introduction of the aforementioned book.

The Selfish Gene has been criticized for anthropomorphic personification and this too needs an explanation, if not an apology. I employ two levels of personification: of genes, and of organisms. Personification of genes really ought not to be a problem, because no sane person thinks DNA molecules have conscious personalities, and no sensible reader would impute such a delusion to an author.

and a bit later:

Personification of this kind is not just a quaint didactic device. It can also help a professional scientist to get the right answer, in the face of tricky temptations to error. Such is the case with Darwinian calculations of altruism and selfishness, cooperation and spite. It is very easy to get the wrong answer. Personifying genes, if done with due care and caution, often turns out to be the shortest route to rescuing a Darwinian theorist drowning in muddle. While trying to exercise that caution. I was encouraged by the masterful precedent of W. D. Hamilton, one of the four named heroes of the book. In a paper of 1972 (the year in which I began to write The Selfish Gene) Hamilton wrote:

A gene is being favoured in natural selection if the aggregate of its replicas forms an increasing fraction of the total gene pool. We are going to be concerned with genes supposed to affect the social behaviour of their bearers, so let us try to make the argument more vivid by attributing to the genes, temporarily, intelligence and a certain freedom of choice. Imagine that a gene is considering the problem of increasing the number of its replicas, and imagine that it can choose between...

That is exactly the right spirit in which to read much of The Selfish Gene.


I think this is just a misunderstanding of Dawkins' terminology. An individual is selfish if they put their own interests above all else; they may be pleasant or hostile or thieving or charitable, but they do so because they deem it to give themselves the best outcome without regard to others.

In a bit of pro-publicity anthropomorphizing, Dawkins' has labeled genes with that same word even though they do not have interests per se. Rather, that gene which (causally, not intentionally) maximizes its own propagation to the next generation will take over from any genes that are not so good at it, because of the optimizing effects of evolution.

Altruism is not so easily applied in a non-anthropomorphic context, but yes, reciprocal altruism happens too at the genetic level (where you would call it co-evolution; each gene needs the action of the other to promote reproductive fitness of the host and thereby propagate itself). But the further you stray from simple and compelling terms, the more likely you are to mislead rather than inform yourself with anthropomorphic terms like this.

"Selfish gene" is good for selling books, and good for a popular account, but not so good for serious genetics.

  • I wasn't aware of reciprical altruism at the gene level - but it doesn't surprise me. I haven't misunderstood Dawkins use of 'Selfish' in the ontext of his thesis - I'm countering his rhetoric with a bit of mine. Still its interesting that the question has provoked down-votes, and its interesting to speculate that this is due to the word 'selfless' in the title rather than to due consideration of the substance of the question. Apr 10 '14 at 6:34
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    @MoziburUllah - I didn't downvote, but your comment makes it sound like you're using your question as a platform to make a rhetorical attack on Dawkins' book (title), not to ask a philosophical question. That might be what provoked downvotes?
    – Rex Kerr
    Apr 10 '14 at 12:24
  • @Kerr: That is a possibility, sure; perhaps I should make clear that it isn't an attack on the theory of evolution. It is however as you've surmised an attack/critique of the affect of the book-title, and not on to Dawkins himself. Apr 10 '14 at 13:01
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    @MoziburUllah - I think the point is that it may be neither a question nor philosophy, but merely a critique of a book title. If it were a philosophy question, one could raise similar questions about any analogy.
    – Rex Kerr
    Apr 10 '14 at 14:45
  • I actually picked up this critique through Mary Midgelys Evolution as a Religion - perhaps it would be better if I put it in the question? Apr 10 '14 at 15:17

"Selfish gene" means in this context self reinforcing. Or making sure one is self reinforcing. For if genes were self destroying they would destroy their host and thusly themselves. It's "just" a (selfish) positive feedback loop.

That does not mean selfless (self-destructing) genes don't exist. It just means that they usually are weeded out of the population sooner or later if they are too destructive and don't allow their host to procreate.


Instinctive altruism is present, apparently in proportion to kin-relation nearness:-

In The Selfish Gene, Dawkins states that kin selection makes sense once you understand that, ultimately, evolution is not about the survival of individuals but about the survival of genes. When you help your siblings (or other close relatives with whom you share a large percentage of genetic material) to survive, you increase the chances that your genetic material will continue to be replicated. - On Altruism

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