The Guardian has a little gem of a retrospective review of Richard Dawkins’ The Selfish Gene (first published 1976). The reviewer, science journalist Tim Radford, mentions that his copy of the book is the first paperback edition of 1978. Well, we have something in common – mine is a 1983 reprint of the same edition, and I must have first read it almost thirty years ago. One day, I need to broach the thirtieth anniversary edition of 2006, which has a new introduction by the author, plus other new material.
When I was young, I was struck not just by the book’s content but also (perhaps even more) by its beautiful explanatory clarity. This was how to write for a popular audience. The Selfish Gene made me a lifelong fan of Dawkins, not only as a thinker and a scientist, though of course there’s that, but above all as a writer. I would struggle if asked to name other non-fiction writers whose prose I enjoy so much, or who are so successful in communicating difficult ideas. Perhaps I could compare Bertrand Russell, or, in our current generation, Steven Pinker, who has a similar knack for images that organise his complex messages and convey them vividly to the reader.
Thus I’m always surprised when Dawkins is criticised for the “selfish gene” trope itself, as if it involves some kind of scientific or philosophical faux pas – as if, in fact, he were ascribing psychological motivation to tiny chemical strands, or perhaps talking about genes that code for selfishness. He is doing neither of those things, and neither of them occurred to me when I first read the book all those years ago. It’s all clear enough unless you bring your own murkiness to the text.
Genes do not, of course, have emotions or desires; they do not have interests, in anything like the sense that we do. A selfish gene is not like a selfish person who acts to advance her own narrowly understood self-interest without compassion or respect for other people. Nor does Dawkins suggest such a thing; if you read the book in this way, you are bringing in issues that are remote from what is before your eyes. Rather, the “selfishness” of genes is a small tweak on a common idea in biology, whose practitioners apply the word to behaviours that have the effect of helping the individual organism, whether or not it possesses any psychological motivation. When we tweak this just slightly, the thought is that the effect of genes on the world, when you look closely at what’s going on, is to replicate those same genes, rather than to promote the physiological welfare of anything else. In a biologist’s sense of the words, genes really can be described quite readily as selfish, as opposed to altruistic. All of this is explained in the book’s first chapter.
But we don’t need to think of such terms in any technical way to get Dawkins’ point. That is, we needn’t begin with any training in biology to “get”, intuitively, the relevant idea of selfishness. It’s clear throughout that we can begin with an everyday understanding of “selfishness”, which we can then deploy as a metaphor. Though sequences of DNA are not the kinds of things that can possess desires, or any psychological makeup at all, they act as if they were sentient things devising strategies to replicate themselves in successive generations. The process by which life continues and evolves is well explained at the level of what is needed for genes to achieve this “selfish” goal.
So, I’m bemused by all the misunderstandings, and I don’t think they relate to any lack of clarity in the text itself. Perhaps they highlight the intrinsic difficulty of the concept – but how hard is it really? – or perhaps it is simply the anxieties that some readers bring with them. We all have a tendency to interpret via our anxieties, which can get in the way of what is in front of us.
Radford is similarly bemused: