The ‘selfish gene’ metaphor remains a sharp tool for clear thinking

J Arvid Ågren in Aeon:

In late summer of 1976, two colleagues at Oxford University Press, Michael Rodgers and Richard Charkin, were discussing a book on evolution soon to be published. It was by a first-time author, a junior zoology don in town, and had been given an initial print run of 5,000 copies. As the two publishers debated the book’s fate, Charkin confided that he doubted it would sell more than 2,000 copies. In response, Rodgers, who was the editor who had acquired the manuscript, suggested a bet whereby he would pay Charkin £1 for every 1,000 copies under 5,000, and Charkin was to buy Rodgers a pint of beer for every 1,000 copies over 5,000. By now, the book is one of OUP’s most successful titles, and it has sold more than a million copies in dozens of languages, spread across four editions. That book was Richard Dawkins’s The Selfish Gene, and Charkin is ‘holding back payment in the interests of [Rodgers’s] health and wellbeing’.

In the decades following that bet, The Selfish Gene has come to play a unique role in evolutionary biology, simultaneously influential and contentious. At the heart of the disagreements lay the book’s advocacy of what has become known as the gene’s-eye view of evolution. To its supporters, the gene’s-eye view presents an unrivalled introduction to the logic of natural selection. To its critics, ‘selfish genes’ is a dated metaphor that paints a simplistic picture of evolution while failing to incorporate recent empirical findings. To me, it is one of biology’s most powerful thinking tools. However, as with all tools, in order to make the most of it, you must understand what it was designed to do.

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