Page 24 'Now, natural selection favours replicators that are good at building survival machines, genes that are skilled in the art of controlling embryonic development. In this, the replicators are no more conscious or purposeful than they ever were. The same old processes of automatic selection between rival molecules by reason of their longevity, fecundity, and copying-fidelity, still go on as blindly and as inevitably as they did in the far-off days. Genes have no foresight. They do not plan ahead. Genes just are, some genes more so than others, and that is all there is to it.
Page 66 'We shall continue to treat the individual as a selfish machine, programmed to do whatever is best for its gene as a whole. This is the language of convenience.'

But on the other hand the language clearly suggests that genes are selfish:

The title, 'The Selfish Gene'.
Page 2 'I shall argue that a predominant quality to be expected in a successful gene is ruthless selfishness'
Page 3 'Let us try to teach generosity and altruism, because we are born selfish'
Page 3 'Be warned that if you wish, as I do, to build a society in which individuals cooperate generously and unselfishly towards a common good, you can expect little help from biological nature.'
Page 4 'If you look at the way natural selection works, it seems to follow that anything that has evolved by natural selection should be selfish.'
Page 4 'It often turns out on closer inspection that acts of apparent altruism are really selfishness in disguise.'
Page 36 ' What are the properties that instantly mark a gene out as a 'bad' short-lived one? There might be several such universal properties, but there is one that is particularly relevant to this book: at the gene level, altruism must be bad and selfishness good. Any gene that behaves in such a way as to increase its own survival chances in the gene pool at the expense of its alleles will, by definition, tautologously, tend to survive. The gene is the basic unit of selfishness.'
Page 64-65: 'We must expect lies and deceit, and selfish exploitation of communication to arise whenever the interests of the genes of different individuals diverge. This will include individuals of the same species. As we shall see, we must even expect that children will deceive their parents, that husbands will cheat on wives, and that brother will lie to brother.'

To clear up this mess, I would like to make a few points about genes:

1.The function or aim of a gene is to act as a template for the production of various compounds. Nothing more! It does not have an aim to replicate itself. It is simply a chemical template made from adenine, cytosine, guanine and thymine. There are no extra codes on the gene that say 'replicate me' (other than for genes involved in reproduction, see point 2) or 'my survival first' (there are genes that say 'I should function first', for example, bone growth should occur before sperm production). The Dawkins' book was first published in 1976. A lot of science has been done since then. But no where has anyone found on a gene a code for selfishness. It is still all just innuendo, and that is where it is destined to stay.

2.The 'decision' to replicate a gene is made during reproduction by a subset of the total gene pool. These genes are not a special group of selfish genes. They perform a biological function like any other, and only replicate when told by other genes and physiological reactions.

3.It may look as though a gene (for eye color or claw length for example) promotes its own replication when its frequency increases through the generations. But in reality it is still just a template that is being tried and tested by the environment. It is the environment that will have the final say on how successful a gene will be. There is nothing the gene can do to alter its chances of success, other than mutate and change (which, if you need to anthropomorphicize it, is a change that seems to be an unselfish act!).

4.Some % of the DNA in an animal is considered to be 'junk'. Perhaps this is where the selfish codes live? (see page 45 'Biologists are racking their brains trying to think what useful task this apparently surplus DNA is doing. But from the point of view of the selfish genes themselves, there is no paradox. The true 'purpose' of DNA is to survive, no more and no less.). However, this surplus DNA is simply more proof of a human's animal companionship and history. A lot of genes and templates have come and gone over the course of human evolution. Those not needed by the current species may be called 'junk'. But there is nothing to say in the future, during the evolution of new species, that those junk genes or part of them might get used again to make a new gene that is functional. It is better to see the 'junk' DNA as a reservoir for potential mutation (template innovation).

5.Genes and DNA have to serve or fit the wildness of an environment to find their niche. Therefore, apart from acting as reliable templates, genes need to function as a fertile source of template innovation. This explains the use of the reservoir of 'junk' DNA. It also explains the value of sex, which is still difficult to explain in 'selfish gene' terms! (see page 43 'What is the good of sex? Sex appears paradoxical because it is an 'inefficient' way for an individual to propagate her genes: each child has only 50 per cent of the individual's genes, the other 50 per cent being provided by the sexual partner. If only, like a greenfly, she would bud-off children who were exact replicas of herself, she would pass 100 per cent of her genes on to the next generation in the body of every child.' Page 44 'If sexual, as opposed to non-sexual, reproduction benefits a gene for sexual reproduction, that is a sufficient explanation for the existence of sexual reproduction. Whether or not it benefits all the rest of an individual's genes is comparatively irrelevant. Seen from the selfish gene's point of view, sex is not so bizarre after all.' Page 274 'The problem of what sex is good for is still as tantalizing as ever.'). The simple answer is that genes are ordered around by the wildness of the environment, to do as it requires. One requirement in a creative environment is to produce new templates for the wildness to play with and test out. Sex gives an important source of template novelty. This requirement is well recognized by ecologists, who know the importance of sufficient gene pool novelty for the survival and adaptability of species. Hence the need for large national parks, or, at least, smaller parks linked by wildlife corridors.

Other errors were the examples of selfish behavior:

Page 5 'Blackheaded gulls nest in large colonies, the nests being only a few feet apart. When the chicks first hatch out they are small and defenceless and easy to swallow. It is quite common for a gull to wait until a neighbour's back is turned, perhaps while it is away fishing, and then pounce on one of the neighbour's chicks and swallow it whole. It thereby obtains a good nutritious meal, without having to go to the trouble of catching a fish, and without having to leave its own nest unprotected.' The mistake made here is to think that such behavior must be specifically programmed into the genes. Seagulls fill a niche where they are 'the scavengers of the sea'. This is a useful role for seagulls to fill in seashore ecology. Seagulls occasionally swallow a neighbor's chick because they are scavengers, and not because they were told to do it by their genes. All the genes need do is to tell them to be scavengers. The genes can then leave it up to actual ecological interactions and lessons to teach them how to scavenge. Chick swallowing opportunities will arise especially when nesting sites are overcrowded. If this behavior were inheritable, then you would expect the evolution of a seagull species that turned ever more on its own kind for food. However, I predict that the frequency of this mode of feeding is the same today as it was in seagull populations millions of years ago. It is simply another facet to the scavenging way of life. The behavior does not occur because the seagull is selfish, but because it has a role to fill in the environment as a scavenger. Humans might cringe at such behavior, so infer that something must be wrong in the very fiber of that species. But at least seagulls participate in and maintain the wildness, a system that allows millions of other species to flourish also. They are not as selfish as humans have become since dismissing the forces of their environment.

Page 5 'More well known is the macabre cannibalism of female praying mantises. Mantises are large carnivorous insects. They normally eat smaller insects such as flies, but they will attack almost anything that moves. When they mate, the male cautiously creeps up on the female, mounts her, and copulates. If the female gets the chance, she will eat him, beginning by biting his head off, either as the male is approaching, or immediately after he mounts, or after they separate. It might seem most sensible for her to wait until copulation is over before she starts to eat him. But the loss of the head does not seem to throw the rest of the male's body off its sexual stride. Indeed, since the insect head is the seat of some inhibitory nerve centres, it is possible that the female improves the male's sexual performance by eating his head. If so, this is an added benefit. The primary one is that she obtains a good meal.' This type of behavior has been observed in a number of invertebrate predators also (but Dr Beetle's species is not guilty!), including spiders. Once more, you need to look at the main drive or requirement that a species has to live in its niche, to better understand the various aspects of its behavior (put yourself in their shoes). Mantises have limited nervous system capacity in which to store a complicated range of hunting and social interaction skills. Their prime drive, that must stay close to hand, is to have the speed and control needed to seize a fly (have you tried doing it?). To achieve this feat mantises would require their genes and nervous system to tell them 'when hungry, seize in a flash anything that is small enough to eat'. This must be a powerful drive that a mantis needs for it to survive in its niche. Instructions that tell it to reconsider or avert its hunt under certain circumstances might be a complication not possible without a great deal of effort. Conflicting instructions might make the mantis less skillful and confused at ambush. When hungry, a female mantis might not be able to override its prime directive, even when a male approaches to mate, without first offering an elaborate ritual dance. This specific mantis behavior can be understood in terms of mantis ecology, rather than as a genetic requirement. The other fault in the example is that while the female is seen as selfish for eating the male, it could just as easily be argued that the male is altruistic for allowing himself to be eaten. Sure, the male genes will live on in the female, but that is at the expense of the male missing out on other mating opportunities that could have spread many more of its genes. Also, I cannot see how the 'selfish' female can produce offspring, half of which are 'selfish' females, and the other half 'altruistic' males. Or are we thinking in the wrong terms? As a final note, other work has shown that while cannibalism of the male can be frequent under caged conditions, especially when insufficient food has been supplied, the behavior is most likely an artifact of captivity and rare in nature (see 'The Insects of Australia, 1991, page 352). (more beetle).

Page 5 'Perhaps we can sympathize more directly with the reported cowardly behavior of emporer penguins in the Antarctic. They have been seen standing on the brink of the water, hesitating before diving in, because of the danger of being eaten by seals. If only one of them would dive in, the rest would know whether there was a seal there or not. Naturally nobody wants to be the guinea pig, so they wait, and sometimes even try to push each other in.'  This is yet another failed example of selfishness, and an obvious misinterpretation of natural behavior. From what I have seen on TV, penguins live a 'bumpy' kind of life. When standing or stalled in a group (on pack ice, or on the edge of a cliff), their natural behavior then is to try and crowd together for warmth. During this process they bump and jostle. Was a bump misinterpreted as a push? Jeffrey Masson, who knows penguin behavior better than me, regards the idea that penguins push one in to see what happens to be a myth. Another, Dr Polly Penhale, also observes that 'The birds are very active and are always milling around, and the birds in the back can't see what's going on in the front. So, I believe that this situation of crowding and moving and pushing causes the front birds on occasion to be accidentally pushed into the water.' As a side issue, when penguins crowd together for warmth, those on the outer perimeter strive at various times to get to the center of the group. Do they do this because they are selfish, or because they get cold? An evolutionary biologist will probably tell you it is because they are selfish! Note that the current short video of the penguin slap, where one penguin falls through the ice (only real part) due to a slap from another is a fake - cut and paste!

Page 102 and many others describe the habits of cuckoos, as examples of selfish gene behavior. The cuckoo lays its eggs in the nest of other bird species, transferring the effort of rearing to another. Cuckoos exploit the rule built into bird parents: "Be nice to any small bird sitting in the nest that you built". Page 133 'As soon as the baby cuckoo hatches, blindly and mechanically, but with devastating effectiveness, it throws the other eggs out of the nest. It gets underneath an egg, fitting it into the hollow in its back. Then it slowly backs up the side of the next, balancing the egg between its wing-stubs, and topples the egg out on to the ground.' What could be more selfish and horrifying to the judgemental human mind?! Brood parasitism occurs in a number of other species as well, such as 'cuckoo bees'. I would like to make some points that might make this behavior seem less demonic to the human. Cuckoo behavior has evolved to become a part of a whole ecology. Co-evolution with host birds has allowed defenses to evolve as well. These defenses, and other interactions, help to keep brood parasitism in its place at a certain level. It is a specialized form of parasitism that is good, in that it helps to strengthen the resilience of an ecosystem upon which all species depend. Generally, the more species the stronger an ecosystem. Interestingly, most parasites eventually evolve to minimize their impact on the host. If they over-parasitize and weaken their host, they themselves will die. For many lineages, the most evolved state of parasitism is symbiosis, where positive (or minimal) rather than negative effects arise for both parties. In an ecosystem, a whole range of animal behaviors is 'allowed'. Some of these appear to humans to be selfish, while others such as symbiosis, sociality, and the adoption of orphaned infants can seem altruistic. (Of course, biologists have found 'selfish' explanations for the 'altruistic' behaviors, but the reverse could be done also.) However, to see the truth in animals, it would be better to view them in terms of the hurdles they must overcome in order to earn their place in the wildness and become attuned with Nature. (Posted June 2011)

A useful book that also challenges the selfish gene mentality is Human Natures by Paul Ehrlich

Parable of The Selfish Drip, by Dr Beetle
Email questions received about my comments
Evolutionary psychology and its top ten failures

HomeNext exampleIndex

Bioblast indexNext Section (Wildness FAQ)

'The Selfish Gene',
comments by Dr Beetle

This book by Richard Dawkins (1999 printing) shows just how mistaken biologists can be on interpreting the tone of nature, and even further, of how digestible the contents are for the human society of today that seeks to justify its course of exploitation over nature and each other.
There are two components to this book. One is that the gene is the fundamental unit of evolution. This is logical in that genes are the main unit of heredity, and is therefore not particularly surprising. The idea of units of heredity being the units for evolution was given when Sutton and others combined the works of Mendel and Darwin. The sensationalized and erroneous component to the book that thrust it to prominence is that genes act selfishly in evolution, and therefore, animals are born selfish. But here, there are conflicting statements on whether the author means it or not. For example, on the one hand: