“Selfish Gene” Metaphor Misleads Evolutionists

The Selfish Gene Artwork

Richard Dawkins’ 1976 book

By Randy J. Guliuzza

A recent opinion piece posted on the Chemistry World website1 notes that Richard Dawkins’ 1976 book The Selfish Gene deeply motivated a generation of biologists to adopt a gene-centered framework to explain why biological phenomena seem to operate for specific purposes. The book’s persuasion notwithstanding, the article notes ongoing challenges to the validity of Dawkins’ “selfish gene metaphor.” It also highlights other inconsistencies in evolutionary theory.

Atheist-inclined biologists thought The Selfish Gene provides satisfactory naturalistic explanations for biology’s apparent purposeful features. Most could see that creatures have microscopic molecular machines, tissues, and organs which give every indication that they function for a purpose. Creatures also seem to endlessly engage in goal-directed behaviors. As Philip Ball at Chemistry World opines, Dawkins asserts that the reason organisms have parts appearing like they were designed for a purpose, and why they are driven to do what they do, is because they are “survival machines” whose purpose is to act solely as a vehicle to perpetuate their “selfish,” self-replicating genes. Per Dawkins, selfish genes control what traits creatures possess in their ceaseless struggle to survive.

One science historian observed that almost everything that Darwin wrote about in his evolutionary theory may be seen as a succession of metaphors and analogies.2 Dawkins follows this tradition. In The Selfish Gene, an organism’s DNA is personified to be a group of ambitious microscopic agents with the selfish purpose of replicating themselves essentially at all costs. Ball adds,

Dawkins’ language, both here and elsewhere, conveys the sense of genes as individual units swimming in a broth of other units and competing with one another. The notion that genes are ‘selfish’ relies on that image…[which] has left many readers with the impression that this synthesis posits a pool of genes battling it out: the one for hydrogenase, say, landing furious punches on the one for keratin.

Dawkins’ other metaphor portrays organisms as passive intergenerational vehicles carrying selfish genes.

One major problem is with Dawkins’ basic premise. He believes that genes should somehow hold a status of their own—just like the organism they are a part of. Darwin’s selection concept “acts on” reproductive organisms where the “fittest” are the ones surviving deadly competitive struggles. Ball notes that Dawkins believes that genes themselves can be similarly “selected” since “the gene ‘is on its own as a ‘replicator,’ with its own unique status as a unit of Darwinian selection.’”

But where did Dawkins ever come up with the idea that genes are their own replicators, and that they somehow rule over the rest of the organism? Dawkins’ reasoning is like an aviation enthusiast arguing that the engines of a commercial airliner deserve a special status apart from the wings and the fuselage—as if the aircraft could somehow fly while missing any of it vital parts. Ball astutely points out the scientific error of Dawkins’ claim…


image credit: Original artwork based on the first edition book cover of “The Selfish Gene”