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The Extended Selfish Gene
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Learn the key ideas of the book by Richard Dawkins

The Extended Selfish Gene

Evolution, from a genetic point of view

Does evolution favour the species, or the individual gene? According to evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins, genes are what drive individuals towards survival. All living beings can be identified as altruistic or selfish, and this is regulated by genetics. Beyond the inner circles of individuals, which share family ties, it is a dog-eat-dog world in which even altruistic behaviour can sometimes disguise selfish intentions. In The Extended Selfish Gene, Dawkins takes us on a fascinating journey through the mechanisms of evolution and life.

The Extended Selfish Gene
Read in 12 min.
Listen in 15 min.

Humans are born selfish: they do not act to preserve the species, but are programmed to protect, and pass on, their genetic heritage

Charles Darwin’s Theory of Evolution is still widely accepted today, but its implications have not yet been fully understood, and the idea that leads to the most uncertainty is that living beings evolve for the common good of the species or group. This statement stems from the belief that reproduction is dictated by a need to help perpetuate the species, and is also often used to explain altruistic behaviour. However, although evolution does indeed lead to the survival of the fittest, we must ask ourselves whether we are talking about the fittest group, the fittest race, or whether it is actually a matter of the fittest genes. If it were simply a question of genetics, the only thing that would really count would be the possibility of passing on an individual's specific DNA sequence. The author maintains that this is what natural selection is really all about: the gene. 

The theory of group selection has long been accepted by biologists, who agree that a group in which individuals are more likely to sacrifice themselves for the good of the others has a greater chance of survival compared to a group of selfish individuals. Individual selection, or as the author prefers to call it, ‘genetic selection’, provides an alternative to this theory, and would appear to be more accurate. Even among the altruistic group, there will be at least a few selfish individuals, who are probably the leaders, and who will pass on their genes through reproduction. In the long run, therefore, the altruistic group will be just as full of selfish individuals, and will be more likely to become extinct. In the short-term, however, the selfish individuals thrive at the expense of the altruists, even in times of hardship or strife.

In this context, the terms ‘altruistic’ and ‘selfish’ have a purely objective connotation, and refer to wider behavioural patterns, and not to morals or ethics. An example of selfish behaviour is the praying mantis, which eats its partner after or even during mating, or when animals, including humans, refuse to share water or food reserves. Altruistic behaviour, on the other hand, may be that of bees, which sting to defend the hive, even though it will cost them their lives, or a bird that reveals its location by launching a distress call to warn the flock that there is a predator nearby.


The key ideas of "The Extended Selfish Gene"

Humans are born selfish: they do not act to preserve the species, but are programmed to protect, and pass on, their genetic heritage
All living beings are machines, and are programmed to survive
Living beings compete with each other, in order to pass on their genetic heritage, and act according to evolutionarily sound strategies
Genes are only altruistic towards individuals with which they have a close relationship
The menopause may be a genetic adaptation to ensure a better chance of survival for offspring
The differences between the sexes are defined by genes, which establish male and female behaviour
Animals and group life: the benefits of altruism for selfish genes
Take-home message
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