The Selfish Gene

AuthorRichard Dawkins
FinishedJanuary 27, 2020
Rating3.0 / 5

Goodreads link

Overall: This was an interesting book with a lot of interesting concepts. I understand that this book is a "classic" but I couldn't really get into it. Maybe it was his tone and writing style, which felt a bit condescending, but also maybe it's the writing style of the 60s (it felt a lot like Dale Carnegie's writing style. not my favorite). Parts felt repetitive. The parts I could resonate the most with were the parts where he gave concrete examples.

All of the weighting gene relatedness with family members felt very over-simplified. There were a couple arguments I had trouble following or felt very hand-wavy. I got the general gist of what he was getting at, but sometimes I found his arguments boring or not very compelling. Not sure if it is because I wasn't able to engage fully, because I did not understand the material completely, because I wasn't that interested, or because the arguments were flawed.

That being said, there were a lot of cool parts in the book.



  • "I am not advocating a morality based on evolution. I am saying how things have evolved. I am not saying how we humans morally ought to behave." (3)
    • I guess it is good that he explicitly says this from the beginning
  • Altruistic entity = behaves in such a way as to increase another such entity's welfare at the expense of its own. Selfish entity = opposite effect
    • Behavioral, not subjective
    • "Even while the group is going slowly and inexorably downhill, selfish individuals prosper in the short term at the expense of altruists" (10)
      • This is true in history. Example: Japanese collaborators in Korea during the Japanese occupation of Korea
  • Ethic of "speciesism" - "the feeling that members of one's own species deserve special moral consideration as compared with members of other species" (12)
  • Replicator = mold or template with affinity for its own kind (building block)
    • Due to competition, replicators evolved cumulatively and progressively to become survival machine
  • "Nothing actually wants to evolve. Evolution is something that happens, willy-nilly, in spite of all the efforts of the replicators to prevent it happening" (22)

"There is nothing sacred about definitions. We can define a word how we like for our own purposes, provided we do so clearly and unambiguously"" (36)

  • Lifespan of a chromosome is 1 generation

    • The genes survive
    • Genes/cistrons leave one body and enter the next aboard a sperm or egg into the next generation ... "they are likely to find that the little vessel contains their close neighbors of the previous voyage"
    • Not unlike Buddhism and reincarnation!
    • "A gene is not indivisible, but it is seldom divided" (42)
    • Genes are immortal because of its replication property
  • Replicators' three properties:

    1. longevity
    2. fecundity
    3. copying-fidelity
  • Gene Machine

    • Negative feedback in survival machine: The machine will automatically "tend to reduce the discrepancy ... and it may actually come to rest if the 'desired' state is reached" (65)
      • Like cost function in machine learning!
    • "The goal of a machine is simply defined as that state to which it tends to return. Modern purpose machines use extensions of basic principles like negative feedback to achieve much more complex 'lifelike' behavior." (66)
      • like... gradient descent?
    • Gene encodings are super powerful but also super slow. Behavior is super fast.
      • Gene encodings cannot overfit or be too specific ... must be generic enough ... You cannot have a gene that says "act in this certain way when the wind blows this specific way" any more than you can have a ML model that memorizes the same image.
    • "One way for genes to solve the problem of making predictions in rather unpredictable environments is to build in a capacity for learning" (73)

    "Perhaps consciousness arises when the brain's simulation of the world becomes so complete that it must include a model of itself" (76)

    • "... the simulation itself could be regarded as part of the world to be simulated... 'self-awareness' ... it involves an infinite regress - if there is a model of the model, why not a model of the model of the model...?"
  • Aggression

    • "To a blackbird, a mole may be a competitor, but it is not nearly so important a competitor as another blackbird" (87)
      • Maybe this is why civil war and why people argue about the smallest details and fragment so much. For ex: Liberals in American politics; end of Joseon dynasty politics; brothers betraying brothers
    • "The poker face is evolutionarily stable" (101)
    • Three kinds of asymmetrical contests: individuals differ in size or fighting equipment; individuals differ in how much they have to gain from winning; arbitrary (can lead to ESS)
      • Are laws arbitrarily asymmetrical conventions that mitigate aggression and conflict?
    • ESS (Evolutionary Stable State) will "emerge simply as a consequence of low-level selection on the basis of apparent merit" (112)
  • Genesmanship

    • "A gene might be able to assist replicas of itself that are sitting in other bodies... this would appear as individual altruism but it would be brought about by gene selfishness" (115)
    • GAN in real life. cuckoos put their eggs in songbird nests. songbirds get better at finding eggs; cuckoos get better at mimicking songbird eggs. "evolutionary arms race" (134) ...
    • "I am the only individual that any one of my selfish genes can be sure of" (137)
  • Family Planning

    • Distinction between bringing new individuals into the world and caring for existing individuals (child-bearing and child-caring)
    • Two theories
      • Wynne_Edwards - birth control in animals is altruistic behavior to save resources for the group
      • Lack - birth control in animals is selfish and individualistic, to maximize number of surviving children they actually have
    • "Individual parents practice family planning, but in the sense that they optimize their birth rates rather than restrict them for public good. They try to maximize the number of surviving children that they have, and this means having neither too many babies nor too few" (158)
  • Battle of the Generations

    • "How should a young female, setting out on her adult life, invest her life's resources?" (161)
  • Battle of the Sexes

    • eggs vs sperm
      • Sperms and eggs contribute equal amount of genes, but egg contributes way more food reserves. sperms make no contribution other than transporting genes as fast as possible to egg
      • "Female exploitation begins here" (184) OMG
      • "the honest ones became eggs, the exploiters became sperms (186) LOL
      • male is expendable, female is more valuable to the species
    • Two sexual 'strategies': large-investment (honest) strategy; small-investment (exploitive) strategy
    • Courtship behaviors ... in birds, a "kind of regression to juvenile behavior on the part of the female" (200) i.e. she begs from the male using the same gestures as a young bird would use. Like in humans - woman lisps or pouting her lips, man finds attractive
    • Males are less fussy and will fuck anyone. Females are more fussy about who to fuck because children are more investment for them
    • "Man's way of life is largely determined by culture rather than by genes. However, it is still possible that human males in general have a tendency towards promiscuity, and females a tendency towards monogamy" (214)
  • "True warfare in which large rival armies fight to the death is known only in man and in social insects" (231)

  • Mems

    • Culture - most of what is unusual about man.
    • Cultural transmission is not unique to man
    • "Law that all life evolves by the differential survival of replicating entities" (248)
    • Genes are special bc they are replicators.
    • Memes = a new replicator, unit of cultural transmission aka unit of imitation
      • Memes leap from brain to brain via imitation ... propagates via books, spoken word, media, etc
      • With memes can we traverse through time???!!
    • Memes as modules
    • Genes as discrete allele competition; memes as continuous cost of attention
    • Memes and genes are both objective, blind replicators
    • "Even if we ... assume that individual man is fundamentally selfish, our conscious foresight - our capacity to simulate the future in imagination - could save us from the worst selfish excesses of the blind replicators" (260)

    "We have the power to defy the selfish genes of our birth and, if necessary, the selfish memes of our indoctrination ... We, alone on earth, can rebel against the tyranny of the selfish replicators" (260)

  • Nice Guys Finish First

    • Game Theory / Prisoner's Dilemma
      • In Axelrod's simulation of PD strategies
      • "The strategies in Axelrod's computer were definitely unconscious ... A strategy's niceness is recognized by its behavior, not by its motives nor by the personality of its author" (295
      • How relevant is MOTIVE vs END RESULT?
      • Kantian philosophy
  • The Long Reach of the Gene

    • "Without the gene's eye view of life there is no particular reason why an organism should 'care' about its reproductive success and that of its relatives, rather than, for instance, its own longevity" (303)
      • In genes, the intention or motive doesn't matter ... only the effect or consequence
    • Extended phenotype = "phenotypic effects of a gene can extend, not only to inanimate objects like stones, but to other living bodies too" (313)
      • it's like the genes can reach outside of their own body and manipulate the world outside
      • Is technology and human infrastructure and knowledge just extended phenotype???
    • "An animal's behavior tends to maximize the survival of the genes 'for' that behavior, whether or not those genes happen to be in the body of the particular animal performing it." (327)
    • Having a clear separation between growth and reproduction leads to a bottleneck. When you're born you're starting over (tabula rasa?) in a way ... back to the drawing board (verses if parts of you fall off and become a new plant)