Richard Dawkins

Author of many popular evolution books, starting with The Selfish Gene (1976). In that first book, Dawkins proposed a glorious metaphor to explain many counter-intuitive features of evolution by natural selection, for example altruism: we bodies are mere vessels for the sometimes dangerous schemes and strategies of our individual genes.  To an undergraduate in Oxford in 1975, he was an enormously inspiring teacher, especially in his course "Gene Machines", which promoted earlier versions of the idea. 

To Dawkins, the idea is not merely a metaphor: he argues that selfish gene theory explains what evolution is "for."  Today, this seems perhaps the wrong question: evolution to me isn't "for" anything.  Nonetheless, since then, many genuinely selfish genetic elements have been discovered within genomes, and they are perhaps the major constituents of many genomes -- this was completely unexpected back in 1975, and is a major confirmation of the validity of Dawkins' idea. But selfish elements are themselves checked by natural selection on the whole genome, and contribute little to whole-body phenotypes.

It is sometimes not helpful to view genes as "selfish," even as a metaphor -- in heterozygous advantage for instance.  The equilibrium allele frequency is easily understood to include both allelic types because selection acts on the genotype as a whole; we are not required to imagine a spurious "collaboration" between the two alleles. It may therefore be better to view natural selection as acting on phenotypes, rather than on individual genes: this makes the change in the frequencies of alleles a non-tautological response to selection, rather than conflating evolution with natural selection.

As well as evolution, Dawkins today single-mindedly promotes materialism and arguments against theism.  His book, The God Delusion (2006) attempts to debunk all religions and promotes an uncompromising brand of atheism.  He argues that religion is to blame for many of today's problems in the public understanding of science, conflict and terrorism world-wide.  The book received a negative review from evolutionist H. Allen Orr in the New York Times, provoking a vigorous debate with Daniel Dennett, a fervent supporter of Dawkins.

Dawkins famously morphs into cartoon form in the series South Park, where he appears in bedroom scenes with the fundamentalist Christian and transvestite schoolteacher Mr/Ms Garrison.

The real Dawkins remarked on his blog about this: "I share neither [Garrison's] religious nor his sexual persuasion (that’s an understatement), and I’m buggered if I like being portrayed as a cartoon character buggering a bald transvestite. I wouldn’t have minded so much if only it had been in the service of some serious point, but if there was a serious point in there I couldn’t discern it."

In the two-part series, Garrison, after conversion to Dawkins' atheism, founds a new atheism movement which in the distant future leads eventually to global war between different atheistic cults. I thought it did make a serious point after all (though I hasten to add I agree with almost everying in The God Delusion), and found it very funny.  Yet putting myself in his shoes, perhaps I understand why Dawkins' own sense of humour was not tickled.

See also:

Finally, the 2007 song by the band Travis might have been related, but maybe isn't.  Here is a transcript:

Selfish Gene

Thanks for everything
You hung me out by my heart
You're just so selfish, gene
Yes you are

Hey you
Threw it all away
By holding everything in
Hey gene! Don't rock the boat
When you can't swim

With a perfect understanding of the finer things in life
A quite alarming knack of knowing when to twist the knife
Selfish gene

Here's to you
Who read everything
Left it out on the shelf
There's noone else to blame
Except yourself

Well, a perfect combination of good etiquette and charm
You keep the chocolate biscuits wired to a car alarm
Selfish gene

Well, I'm standing on my own
And this house is not a home
So sad to see you go
Things are high, and things are low
And it's good to know you know
If you've got nowhere to go
Well, you could spend the night with me
There will be no guarantee that I'll be here

In the morning
Or any time that you call
I hear you snoring, gene
Through the wall

So hey
Here's to everything
To peace and love in our time
Aw, gene, the slate is clean
I guess we're fine

Well I don't expect a miracle
Not asking you to change
If you can see me happy
Well, just look the other way
Selfish gene

Selfish gene


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Last updated: 23 Mar 2009