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THE SELFISH GENE REVISITED

On the fortieth anniversary of the book that made him a scientific celebrity, biologist Richard Dawkins looks back at this “gene’s eye view” of evolution and finds it even more relevant today.

This article is the epilogue to The Extended Selfish Gene and the fortieth anniversary edition of The Selfish Gene, both published in 2016 by Oxford University Press. Copyright 2016. Reprinted by permission of Richard Dawkins and OUP.

Scientists, unlike politicians, can take pleasure in being wrong. A politician who changes his mind is accused of “flip-flopping.” Tony Blair boasted that he had “not got a reverse gear.” Scientists on the whole prefer to see their ideas vindicated, but an occasional reversal gains respect, especially when graciously acknowledged. I have never heard of a scientist being maligned as a flip-flopper.

A gene achieves its numerical success in the population by virtue of its (phenotypic) effects on individual bodies. A successful gene is represented in many bodies over a long period of time.

In some ways I would quite like to find ways to recant the central message of The Selfish Gene . So many exciting things are fast happening in the world of genomics, it would seem almost inevitable—even tantalizing—that a book with the word “gene” in the title would, forty years on, need drastic revision if not outright discarding. This might indeed be so, were it not that “gene” in this book is used in a special sense, tailored to evolution rather than embryology. My definition is the population geneticists’ definition adopted by George C. Williams, one of the acknowledged heroes of the book, now lost to us along with John

Maynard Smith and Bill Hamilton: “A gene is defined as any portion of chromosomal material that potentially lasts for enough generations to serve as a unit of natural selection.” I pushed it to a somewhat facetious conclusion: “To be strict, this book should be called . . . The slightly selfish big bit of chromosome and the even more selfish little bit of chromosome .” As opposed to the embryologist’s concern with how genes affect phenotypes, we have here the neo-Darwinist’s concern with changes in frequencies of entities in populations. Those entities are genes in the Williams sense (Williams later called that sense the “codex”). Genes can be counted and their frequency is the measure of their success. One of the central messages of this book is that the individual organism doesn’t have this property. An organism has a frequency of one, and therefore cannot “serve as a unit of natural selection” (not in the same sense of replicator anyway). If the organism is a unit of natural selection, it is in the quite different sense of gene “vehicle.” The measure of its success is the frequency of its genes in future generations, and the quantity it strives to maximize is what Hamilton defined as “inclusive fitness.”

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