The Selfish Gene Quotes: 4 Key Passages to Know

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "The Selfish Gene" by Richard Dawkins. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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Are you looking for The Selfish Gene quotes? What are key messages of the book?

These four The Selfish Gene quotes highlight key concepts from Richard Dawkins’ book. They touch on topics including the concept of animals as survival machines and where consciousness comes from.

Keep reading to find four The Selfish Gene quotes and what they mean.

The Selfish Gene Quotes

“We are survival machines – robot vehicles blindly programmed to preserve the selfish molecules known as genes. This is a truth which still fills me with astonishment.”

The first of The Selfish Gene quotes shows that all forms of life on Earth begin with genes, and that the purpose of life is to make sure those genes survive. While many biologists would say that the purpose of life is to survive and reproduce at the organismal level, Dawkins argues that there are things that the organismal approach can’t explain, such as the prevalence of sexual reproduction when it leads to offspring that are substantially different from the parents. Therefore, it makes more sense to look at life from the perspective of a selfish gene doing anything it can to reproduce itself because, outside of random mutations, genes pass from one generation to the next unchanged. 

“Any altruistic system is inherently unstable, because it is open to abuse by selfish individuals, ready to exploit it.”

The second of The Selfish Gene quotes is about altruism versus selfishness. A population of altruistic animals could be easily overtaken by selfish individuals, and therefore can’t be considered stable. Similarly, a population of all selfish animals will be unstable because it’ll fight against itself, inevitably growing weaker until it’s overwhelmed by other types of individuals. 

However, there is a ratio of selfish to altruistic animals where the population will be stable. This is called the Evolutionarily Stable Strategy (ESS). In reality, there are countless details that go into forming an ESS, not just altruism and selfishness, but this simplified version will do. 

Any deviation from the ESS will be punished: If too many selfish animals emerge, they will compete against and weaken each other until the balance is restored. If too many altruistic animals enter the population, they will be exploited by the selfish ones until that ideal ratio is reached again. The best situation for a selfish gene is a balanced population that will allow it to keep reproducing itself indefinitely—which is to say, the ESS.

“Perhaps consciousness arises when the brain’s simulation of the world becomes so complex that it must include a model of itself.”

The third of The Selfish Gene quotes addresses consciousness. This ability to imagine and predict seems to have resulted in what we recognize as consciousness, though exactly how that happened is one of the biggest mysteries in biology. It may have something to do with creatures coming up with simulations that recognize and involve the creatures themselves—in other words, self-awareness.

However it came about, this self-awareness could be seen as the liberation of an organism from the control of its genes. For example, genes demand that a creature have as many offspring as is feasible, but a creature with self-awareness and imagination might come up with reasons not to reproduce at all. This is especially prevalent in humans—many people choose not to have children.

All this talk of brains and consciousness is background, so you understand that animal behaviors are controlled by genes only in an indirect—though still very real—way. As brains became more advanced, developing imagination and what we might call consciousness, they took more and more control away from the genes.

“The meme for blind faith secures its own perpetuation by the simple unconscious expedient of discouraging rational inquiry.”

The last of The Selfish Gene quotes is about faith. The idea of God is one of the most successful memes ever. It’s not clear how the idea entered the “meme pool,” but it has survived through almost all of human history. One explanation is that the idea of God has great psychological value—it’s comforting to think that there’s order to the universe, and that injustices suffered in life will be repaid after death. 

The God meme is spread through word of mouth, writing, music, art, and religious ceremonies. Over time the God meme has become linked with the Hell meme, which also has deep psychological impact—although for very different reasons. The two co-adapted memes reinforce each other and help ensure each others’ survival, just as some genes do. 

Religions tend to last for a very long time, reach a huge number of people, and be slow to change. In other words, they meet all the requirements of a successful meme—or gene. Biologists, therefore, may be inclined to wonder how memes such as God came to exist in humans. They would ask, “What is the survival value of believing in God?” 

The Selfish Gene Quotes: 4 Key Passages to Know

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Like what you just read? Read the rest of the world's best book summary and analysis of Richard Dawkins's "The Selfish Gene" at Shortform.

Here's what you'll find in our full The Selfish Gene summary:

  • Why organisms don't matter, only genes do
  • How all life forms begin with a replicating molecule
  • How species need to balance aggression and pacifism to survive

Rina Shah

An avid reader for as long as she can remember, Rina’s love for books began with The Boxcar Children. Her penchant for always having a book nearby has never faded, though her reading tastes have since evolved. Rina reads around 100 books every year, with a fairly even split between fiction and non-fiction. Her favorite genres are memoirs, public health, and locked room mysteries. As an attorney, Rina can’t help analyzing and deconstructing arguments in any book she reads.

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