Nature can be both beautiful beyond imagination and gruesome at times. On one hand, we have worker honey bee committing suicide defending their colony, and on the other female praying mantises devouring her mating partner during copulation. These might as well look like opposite poles of the spectrum, unless it is not. Looking at evolution from the genetic point of view, the main theme of ‘The Selfish Gene’ has been to explain the ‘variety’ of life we see around us and how different behaviors have evolved. It puts forward a very logical and intriguing argument about the possible beginning of life. And from that, it’s very axiomatic how Richard Dawkins derives all the different behavior in plants and animals that we see.
I always thought of evolution as a ‘good of the species’ or ‘good of the group’ sort of selection, (at least that is what I thought I was taught, and most people around me believe) whereas Richard claims it is not the case. The apparent observations that leads to idea that behavior evolves which helps the species to survive is rather an emergent property that evolution from genetic level gives rise to. And then he goes on to slowly explain the whole process generally and later through examples.
What perhaps appealed the most to me was that the apparent altruistic behaviors that we observe in other animals can so easily be explained from the point of view of the selfish gene, very efficient replicators whose main target is to make copies of itself and pass it through the generation. What’s more, it also explains why mothers tend to be more caring to the children than fathers, and the opposite phenomenon in fishes. These explanations felt, to a great extent, very satisfying as these answers the wonders of life in a very undeniable manner.
Also, I must point out that in this book, Richard coined the term ‘meme’ which we have come to love so much. The 11th chapter, “Memes: the new replicator” has to be mentioned specifically because of its evident truth that we see all around us. On the same note, the last chapter where he points out the ‘extended phenotype’ where the genes in one’s body has effects on the phenotype of other organism and non-living objects was just mind-blowing to me.
Nonetheless, it’s important that although we are programmed by selfish genes which coded us to do what is best for us, our brain is the executives of the decisions we make, and thus it’s not impossible to resist these temptations and be truly altruistic towards other individuals. Also, “nice guys doesn’t necessarily need to finish last”. Look up “Prisoner’s Dilemma”.
Overall, reading the book was a very revealing experience, by far one of the best biology-related book I have read so far. This has made me respect the field so much more and even more interested to study further. The argument was very beautifully put, almost in a mathematical sense where he derives everything from first principles. I hope the examples I wrote will be enough to make anyone want to read the book. It should be a worthwhile read to any curious reader, especially those interested in the natural sciences.
- The Selfish Gene: A Worthwhile Read || Swagata Datta - September 7, 2020