Published in 1976, The Selfish Gene remains one of the most influential scientific books I’ve ever read. In this book, Richard Dawkins introduced the novel concept of the replicator: “the initial molecule that managed to reproduce itself and thus gained an advantage over other molecules within the primordial soup.” I was flipping through the first chapter of this book a few days ago, and the following passage gave me goosebumps all over again:
Four thousand million years on, what was to be the fate of the ancient replicators? They did not die out, for they are past masters of the survival arts. But do not look for them floating loose in the sea; they gave up that cavalier freedom long ago. Now they swarm in huge colonies, safe inside gigantic lumbering robots, sealed off from the outside world, communicating with it by torturous indirect routes, manipulating it by remote control. They are in you and me; they created us, body and mind; and their preservation is the ultimate rationale for our existence. They have come a long way, those replicators. Now they go by the name of genes, and we are their survival machines.
Take a moment to grasp the profundity of this rather unnerving passage. It begins to set-up the central premise of this iconic book, and its many-fold implications are unraveled with elegant prose and extensive detail.
Among other things, this excerpt alludes to the prevalence of behavioral traits that may not be beneficial to an organism (i.e., the vehicle) but still exist because they are favorable to the the genes (i.e., its drivers). The selfish genes do not “care” about their vehicle insofar as it can be used and manipulated for its own survival. Often, there’s no conflict between the long-term survival goals of the genes and and short-term survival motives of an organism. The gene’s longing for eternity is in accordance with an organism’s desire for a long life. But there are exceptions.
Consider the male spider, for instance. The sexual impulse of a male spider is beneficial to the “spider genes” because a potential copulation with a female spider increases their chances of surviving yet another generation. However, this often gets the male spider killed — by getting eaten by the female spider. Good for the spider genes, not so much for the poor male spider. Similarly, there are human traits and impulses that may be unfavorable to an individual, but are necessary for the survival of our selfish, manipulative genes. When I first read this book many years ago, this revelation blew my mind. It left an indelible impact on my understanding of evolution, and continues to shape my worldview even to this day.