ร—

Theme Editor


Reset

Sign in / up
ร—

Littler Books cover of The Selfish Gene Summary

The Selfish Gene Summary, Notes, and Quotes

Richard Dawkins

4.7 minutes to read
Get full book

Download summary as PDF, eBook/ePub, DOCX

The Selfish Gene: One Sentence Summary

A landmark evolution book about the importance of genes and the birth of memes.

The Selfish Gene: Bullet Point Summary, Notes, and Quotes

  1. Intelligent life begins when it starts questioning why it exists. Charles Darwin provided the first credible explanation that humans evolved from simpler organisms.
  2. Genes (molecules that make up the DNA) are the fundamental unit of evolution. They are selfish replicators that strive to survive and make copies of themselves.
  3. For genes to survive, they need a well-functioning organism. That's why genes in one organism cooperate to build a working body (e.g., humans), a survival machine that helps the genes propagate by reproducing.
    1. โ€œWe are survival machines -- robot vehicles blindly programmed to preserve the selfish molecules known as genes.โ€
  4. Survival of the fittest suggests genes that promote selfishness are more likely to survive. However, altruistic behaviors still exist (e.g., parents putting their children before themselves), but these can still be explained by genes promoting their own survival since the parents and children share similar genes.
    1. Some scientists believe that altruistic behaviors are driven by the survival of the group, but this theory doesn't explain why selflessness hasn't died out, since putting the group first means you're less likely to live and reproduce. Also, a โ€œgroupโ€ is hard to define precisely.
  5. The universe's complexity arose from a simple beginning of atoms randomly bumping into each other. Eventually some atoms formed stable molecules and some even had the ability to self-replicate, starting the first instance of natural selection. These replicators became the foundation for life, competing for resources and evolving over time into the complex organisms we see today, including humans.
  6. All living things, from humans to bacteria, share the same basic chemistry. Their genetic instructions (DNA, made from segments of genes), are all built from the same molecule shaped like a double helix with a specific sequence of four types of building blocks (A, T, G, C). This sequence is the only difference between organisms, and it's shuffled and passed down through generations.
  7. A gene's chances for success depend on the environment and the gene pool. A gene to withstand cold will fail in warm climates. A gene for sharp teeth will fail if there's no genes to digest meat.
  8. Dawkins speculates that we die because deadly genes are more likely to be activated after we are past the age of reproduction.
  9. We reproduce because our genes are selfish replicators only concerned with their own survival, and building new bodies benefits their own continued existence even though only half their genetic information gets passed on.
  10. Neurons and brains evolved because they allowed organisms to react/move quickly, simulate situations, communicate, etc., increasing their chances of survival and reproduction.
    1. Memory arose as a way to refine these behaviors.
  11. Dawkins uses the analogy of computer programmers to explain how genes, despite seemingly giving brains a lot of control, are still ultimately in charge. They provide the long-term instructions and the brains make short-term decisions based on those instructions, similar to how a programmer for a chess-playing program only provides the code but lets the program make each move.
  12. Selfish genes want to survive and reproduce, thus animals compete for resources and mates. One might think that the most successful strategy is to kill rivals (e.g. cannibalism), but this is rarely seen in reality.
  13. Animal behavior can be explained through the evolutionarily stable strategy (ESS).
    1. Example: In a society with all doves (passive), no one gets hurt. If a hawk (aggressive) appears, it will win all fights until there are too many hawks that kill/injure each other and doves become more successful again. This creates a stable balance of hawk and dove behaviors.
    2. ESS explains why genes seem to cooperate. Genes that work well together form a stable unit that is hard for new unhelpful genes to infiltrate.
  14. Kin selection is a type of altruism that benefits relatives who share a higher number of genes with the organism. The degree of altruism is proportional to the genetic relatedness between individuals.
    1. Organisms don't calculate their genetic relatedness, but their genes program them with behaviors that favor those who seem to share more genes.
  15. Parents show more altruism toward their children than the vice-versa. This is because parents need their children to survive and reproduce to pass on their genes, whereas a child's genes benefit less from the parent's continued survival.
  16. Self-population control (not breeding as much as possible) might seem altruistic on the surface but it is still due to selfish genes. For example, birds lay fewer eggs than they can because raising too many reduces the chances of any offspring surviving, ultimately favoring genes that promote successful offspring over sheer egg production.
    1. Animals balance between bearing and caring for offspring.
  17. โ€œWild animals almost never die of old age: starvation, disease, or predators catch up with them long before they become really senile. Until recently this was true of man too. Most animals die in childhood, many never get beyond the egg stage. Starvation and other causes of death are the ultimate reasons why populations cannot increase indefinitely.โ€
  18. From a purely genetic perspective, a parent should ideally invest equally in all their children to maximize the number of their genes passed on. However, factors like a child's health or age can influence this investment.
    1. Children may compete for resources or try to manipulate their parents to get more investment. This might create a conflict with the parent's optimal investment strategy.
  19. Humans need to teach children altruism to counteract selfishness favored by nature.
  20. Mating behavior is driven by selfish genes. To maximize the genes' survival, females typically invest more in offspring due to the larger and less abundant sex cells (eggs), while males try to minimize their investment and inseminate as many females as possible with the more abundant sperm.
  21. The competition between the sexes to replicate their own genes leads to the evolution of various mating behaviors.
    1. Female birds require a lot of courting to make the males still invested after mating.
    2. Male mice secrete chemicals to cause miscarriages in female mice carrying another mouse's offspring.
    3. Male lions kill existing cubs when joining a pride.
  22. Tendency to be in a group can be explained by the selfish gene -- groups make goals (e.g., hunting prey, surviving against predators) easier to achieve.
  23. "Kamikaze" bees die as they sting, but this is not altruism. Only sterile bees sting, so no genes are lost.
  24. Dawkins introduces the concept of memes (from the ancient Greek word mimeme, meaning something imitated) as a new type of replicator emerging in human culture, analogous to genes but spreading through imitation of ideas, behaviors, and cultural artifacts.
    1. โ€œWe need a name for the new replicator, a noun that conveys the idea of a unit of cultural transmission, or a unit of imitation. 'Mimeme' comes from a suitable Greek root, but I want a monosyllable that sounds a bit like 'gene'.โ€
    2. Culture transmission is not restricted to humans. Research shows that some birdsongs are learned, not inherited.
    3. Culture helps us understand behaviors that are counterintuitive to biological drives (e.g., celibacy).
    4. โ€œExamples of memes are tunes, ideas, catch-phrases, clothes fashions, ways of making pots or of building arches. Just as genes propagate themselves in the gene pool by leaping from body to body via sperms or eggs, so memes propagate themselves in the meme pool by leaping from brain to brain via a process which, in the broad sense, can be called imitation.โ€
    5. Like genes, memes vary in their success and longevity, mutate as they are transmitted, and compete for limited resources like brain memory and media space. However, memes differ from genes in that they can replicate intact for long periods (e.g. religions), are shaped by psychological appeal, and are subject to human conscious foresight which allows altruism to overcome selfish tendencies.
    6. โ€œWe, alone on earth, can rebel against the tyranny of the selfish replicators.โ€
  25. Nature is a non-zero sum game (can have multiple winners). The benefit of cooperation outweighs exploitation.
    1. Fig trees and fig wasps cooperate through mutually beneficial pollination and nourishment, despite the potential for one side to exploit the other by overproducing eggs or shedding egg-laden flowers.
    2. โ€œNice guys finish first.โ€
  26. The phenotype (observable traits from your genes) can extend beyond the body of the organism. This idea is explored in depth in Dawkin's other book, The Extended Phenotype.
    1. For example, beaver dams and bird nests are considered phenotypic effects of genes because they help the genes survive.
    2. โ€œThe rabbit runs faster than the fox, because the rabbit is running for his life while the fox is only running for his dinner.โ€

The Selfish Gene: Resources