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The Selfish Gene

The Selfish Gene

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Published by: dusty_badger on Mar 25, 2012
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"The Selfish Gene" by Richard Dawkins - Complete Summary
[taken from
 last accessed 07/02/11]Hi there! The following is a complete summary and chapter summary of the Selfish Gene byRichard Dawkins. "The Selfish Gene" contains information that EVERY HUMAN should have an understanding of. I justfinished reading the book from start to finish taking notes along the way of concepts, ideas, stories, action steps andquestions that I found to be particularly valuable to myself in my current situation. This book quenched my thirst for theseinterests amazingly well and then some. Some of the concepts in this book are obviously controversial and may evenseem slightly outlandish at first. But Richard Dawkins is a man of extreme intellect and analytical mastery. His logicthroughout the book is very clear, solid and easy to follow. So without further ado let's get into the juice of: The SelfishGene.
We are all just a colony of genes, also to be thought of as survival machines, gene vehicles or "lumbering robots" createdby and for the benefit of our genes. We are the vehicles and the genes inside of us are the selfish replicators seekingimmortality. This is the same for all living organisms. Of course the genes are not really selfish in the sense that they havea consciousness. However, genes that survive and reproduce are able to live and increase their number, and genes thatdon't survive and reproduce are eliminated and no longer exist. Genes can therefore be thought of as having a selfish"desire" for immortality through survival and reproduction and as Dawkins states: "The predominant quality to be expectedin a successful gene is ruthless selfishness".
What is a Gene?
 A gene is NOT DNA and it is NOT a Chromosome. Richard Dawkins explains that a gene is somewhere between aCistron, which is an extremely small segment of DNA that is is involved in producing proteins, and a Chromosome, whichis a very long DNA molecule which contains hundreds or thousands of genes. A gene could be said to be a playing card or a page in a book and a Chromosome could be said to be a deck of playing cards or an entire book. Genes are thefundamental unit of natural selection because they are the most potentially immortal of all of the other known biologicalself replicating units (i.e. individual organisms, groups of organisms or even chromosomes because of their constantmutation and re-arrangement between sexually reproduced generations). After this foundation has been established, this book is mostly a study of the biology of selfishness and altruism based onthe Selfish Gene Theory.
Selfish Behavior in Nature
Richard Dawkins begins by presenting some examples of animals behaving selfishly in nature including:
Female praying mantises eating the heads off of male praying mantises during copulation
Black Headed Gulls eating their neighbors babies right out of their nests
Penguins pushing each other into "unknown and potentially dangerous water" as test guinea pigs
Altruistic Behavior in Nature
He then gives several examples of animals who seem to be behaving altruistically in nature including:
Small birds giving alarm calls to their flock when they see a predator, even at the risk of drawing attention tothemselves.
The parents of ground nesting birds who appear to predators as if they have broken their wing and distract thepredator away from their nest at high risk to themselves.
Gazelles who leap out in front of predators in order to distract them away from the heard in an act called "strotting"
Kamikaze worker bee's stinging intruders and then dying
Siblings, parents and children looking out for each other and helping one another to survive and reproduce.
Survival of the Stable
Richard Dawkins then introduces a principle called "survival of the stable". He explains that in nature things eventuallyfinds a stable state and once something has found a stable state, it has a tendency to stay that way. This is the case of most species in a population. They have found an Evolutionary Stable Strategy (ESS) that allows their genes to survive intheir current environment. The stable prevails.
The Chess Program Analogy
The reason your genes don't take control of your body is that they simply give the instructions. Dawkins gives the analogyof a chess program. A chess program is designed by the computer programmer and then it is "set loose" against a humanor other computer as an opponent. The programmer no longer has any control over the outcome of the game. He simplydesigns and the releases the program to do as it will.
The "A for Andromeda" Analogy
This is another analogy for why genes function the way they do, based on the book "A for Andromeda" by John Elliot andFred Hoyle. In this book, an intelligent society, 200 light years away from earth devises a plan to communicate with other intelligent civilizations across space. They reason that since it will take a very very long time to communicate with a distantintelligent society (with earth it would take at least 400 years just to get back a response from a message sent out) theycame up with a solution. They devise a code that was then transmitted as a constant stream of data out into the universe.200 years later the data is picked up by humans on earth. The signal is decoded and discovered to be a computer program. The scientists who discovered it then develop the program and find out that it contains instructions to build amore advanced computer with more advanced software. The government soon finds out about the project and takes over and the "Andromeda Computer" is build. They soon find out, however, that the Andromeda computer does not havecompletely altruistic intentions and soon begins controlling the minds of those around it. It also directs them to construct anew life form which eventually, with the computer's help, works to destroy the human race and take over the earth. Themachine and the lifeforms created with it's assistance are soon destroyed by the main character and the story ends shortlythereafter. This whole story is a good example of how our genes work like the broadcasted signal from Andromeda tocreate us, their lumbering robot machines, to do their bidding.
The Bird Census Game
Some species of birds are known to gather into close knit flocks in late fall or early winter. When they are doing this, theyare actually taking a census of their local population. They are each selfishly inspecting to see how many offspring theyare capable of rearing in the coming breeding season. This however is a game that can have certain strategies employedthat will result in a benefit to the genes of whichever individual employs them. One example is that a bird could try to makeas much noise as possible to simulate to the other birds that there are actually more birds present than there actually are.This may cause some birds to underestimate the number of potential offspring they can rear in the coming season. If abird in this situation were to employ this strategy effectively, it could reasonably expect that other birds may be fooled andit can expect more resources available to it's own offspring in the coming breeding season. This will then increase thegenes in that population of birds in the coming season who are capable of employing this strategy. This is seen in theactual populations that the noises made by these birds are indeed very loud during this "census gathering" every season.
The Selfish Gene Explanation for Why Women Have Menopause
Most children contain exactly 1/2 of the genes of each parent and most grandchildren contain exactly 1/4 the genes of 
each grandparent. Women have menopause because after a certain point in their lives, it is no longer beneficial to their genes for them to have any more children, either on purpose or by accident. After a certain period of time, it is moredifficult and the risks are greater for a woman to conceive more children. (This ends up usually being around the age of 50in modern human females). Because a woman's grandchildren contain 1/4 of her genes and her children contain 1/2 of her genes, it would be in her genes best interest to use her remaining resources to take care of any children andgrandchildren whom she may already have than to risk having any more of her own. This is the best strategy for her genesbecause they can better ensure the survival of the genes already present in her children and grandchildren who expect tolive longer than any she could conceive after a certain point.
The Blackmail Tactic in Birds Nests
It is believed that some birds actually screech loudly in the nests so as the parents feed them before predators hear themand come to the nest to eat them and their siblings. This is in a sense blackmailing their parents with the threat of havingtheir whole brood eaten including the blackmailing screaming chick so as to be fed quickly and sufficiently.
The Baby Honeyguide
The honeyguide is a bird who's behavior is very similar to the cuckoo in that it lays it's eggs in the nests of other birds. Thebaby honeyguide however is different than the cuckoo in that it is actually born with a sharp hook on the end of it's beakwhich, after hatching from it's egg, will instinctually and unconsciously use to slash away at and effectively kill any foster siblings of the actual parents who have hatched into the nest before or shortly after themselves. The baby honeyguidethen has the foster parents attention and resources all to itself.
Female Gametes Vs. Male Gametes
Female gametes (eggs) are much larger than the male gametes (sperm) in humans. This is because they contain muchmore resources for nourishing a developing embryo. This can be seen as the basis of why females are mostly seen as thesex who carries the burden of child rearing while males typically show less of an investment in the process. Males usuallydo less work than females in the child bearing and rearing process and are also more likely to leave the relationship.
The First Desertion Strategy
If a mating relationship is going downhill and about to end, and offspring have already been born, who will desert first? TheMale or the Female? Whomever deserts first leaves the other with the burden of deciding to raise the offspring left withthem (who should contain 1/2 of their genes unless there was any "sleeping around" on the part of the female) or shouldthe parent left with the deserted child also desert the child (to death or adoption) and seek reproductive opportunitieselsewhere? The strategy is rarely used but sometimes observed in nature and could in fact be a useful (but risky)reproductive strategy. When this strategy happens very shortly after birth it is also sometimes called "The Cruel BindStrategy".
The Domestic Bliss Strategy
The domestic bliss strategy is when a female will test a male to make sure that he is capable of faithfulness, persistenceand the ability to raise a family well. This is usually seen when a female is coy in order to test the male. The femalebasically gets the male to invest heavily in their relationship before copulation to ensure loyalty.
The Bruce Effect
If a female mouse is abandoned and another male mouse comes to court her, some species of male mice will actuallysecrete a chemical that causes the pregnant female mouse to abort her litter. This is called the Bruce effect. The reasonwhy this happens could be that the male will simply eat her young anyways when they are born and she will have wastedall of the time and resources in producing a litter of mice destined for a dinner. However, if she were instead to abort thatlitter she will be able to produce with the new male and have a litter successfully born and probably successfully raisedalso. This somewhat similar behavior is often seen in Lion prides when a new male or troupe of males take over a prideand eats the young so as to make room for their own children to be born in the pride.
The He-Man Strategy
The he-man strategy is a mating strategy found in nature in which the females basically resign themselves to getting nohelp from the father in child raising and end up choosing males just for their reproductive value (their sexiness, power,

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