Selfish Gene Hypothesis

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The concept of the ‘selfish gene’, introduced in 1976 by Richard Dawkins in his book of the same name, is used to express the notion that the unit of selection at which evolution operates is that of genes, as opposed to that of individuals or groups. In order to assess whether regarding genes as selfish is useful to any extent, the theoretical underpinnings of the gene-centred view of evolution must first be considered, particularly with regards to the problem of altruism. The alternatives to the selfish gene hypothesis—claims that the unit of selection in evolution is instead the individual, or the group—will also be discussed, and evidence in support or contention of these views will be evaluated. The evidence for and against the selfish gene hypothesis will then be considered, in order to determine whether it is the optimal explanation for the unit of selection at which evolution operates, and thus whether it is useful to regard genes as ‘selfish’. An alternate proposal that evolution can operate upon different units of selection under different circumstances will also be discussed and evaluated. Finally, the connotations of the term ’selfish’ with regards to genes will be considered. Ultimately, it will be argued that the majority of evidence in the field best supports the claim that evolution operates at the level of genes, and while there perhaps are instances where the superior explanation is provided by appealing to a different unit of selection, this is merely an artefact of the fact that genes and individuals very often share a common fate. It will further be debated that while the term ‘selfish’ lends itself to some inaccurate connotations, it is a useful term that expresses a crucial aspect of evolution. Genes are sel... ... middle of paper ... ... in a useful manner—it provides a pragmatic, useful heuristic tool for thinking about selection. When invoking the individual or the group as the unit of selection for evolution, altruistic behaviour cannot be sufficiently explained. Instances of altruism can, however, be understood when one considers that the genes which endure are the ones whose evolutionary consequences service their own interests—that is, continuing to be replicated— rather than those of the organism. Though the interests of the individual organism and their genes generally tend to be in alignment, in cases where an animal is seen to be behaving altruistically, they are in fact acting in favour of the preservation of their genes rather than their individual existence. The concept of the selfish gene usefully expresses this notion—while the gene is being selfish, it leads to unselfish acts.
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