The Selfish Gene, 30 Years Later

In the TLS, a look at one of Dawkins’ popular masterpieces, The Selfish Gene, 30 years later.

The impact of Richard Dawkins’s The Selfish Gene (1976) was such that people now trade stories about their first encounter with it, much as they do about other momentous events. For me, it was nearly three decades ago. Strolling the narrow streets along the Arno, I turned into my favourite libreria – a dusty Florentine mousehole sheltering a small but select group of books tended by the ancient Luigi, a gruff but kindly bibliophile. Greeting me with his customary “Buongiorno, Professore!”, Luigi bestirred himself from his chair, brushing his beloved tomcat Orsino from an ample lap. “I have some new books in English for you to see.” I sighed, realizing that there was only a small chance that among them I would find anything on the massacre of Huguenots at Wassy in 1562, my special interest at the time. As I scanned the books in their cardboard box, one of them caught my eye: a slim volume with a garish Dalí-esque cover, called The Selfish Gene. “That’s odd”, I said to myself. “I’ve been working on genes all my life, but I’ve never come across a selfish one.” I started to read the first chapter, which was intriguingly titled “Why are people?”:

Intelligent life first comes of age when it works out the reasons for its own existence. If superior creatures from space ever visit earth, the first question they will ask, in order to assess the level of our civilization, is: “Have they discovered evolution yet?”