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Dennis Lendrem
Dennis Lendrem
Making Data Make Sense
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Selfish Genes and The Selfish Gene

Apr. 27, 2013 5:49 am
Categories: R&D, Science
Dawkins coined the term "selfish gene" as a way of expressing the gene-centred view of evolution as opposed to the views focused on the organism and the group, popularizing ideas developed during the 1960s by W. D. Hamilton and others. [1]
Wikipedia - The Selfish Gene - March 29, 2013

There exists a myth that Bill Hamilton was the first to coin the term “selfish gene” as a way of expressing the gene-centred view of evolution.

This is untrue.

This myth is based on the observation that Bill Hamilton used the term “selfish gene” before publication of Richard Dawkins’ book “The Selfish Gene”. [2]

Did Bill use the term "selfish gene" before Richard?

Yes. Almost certainly.

Did Bill “coin the term “selfish gene” as a way of expressing the gene-centred view of evolution"?


Instead, Bill and others used the term in describing how a "selfish gene" might spread rapidly in a population of individuals carrying an "altruistic gene" and mechanisms by which an altruistic gene might persist in a population of selfish genes. [3]

To understand the debate we need some context.

At the time altruistic behaviours posed a major problem for evolutionary theory.

There was significant interest in how “altruistic genes” could possibly prevail in a population.

In a Darwinian world of "survival of the fittest", how could altruistic behaviours ever emerge?

The discussion on the conference circuit used the notion of a “selfish gene” to explore mechanisms by which apparently altruistic behaviours might arise in a population of selfish genes.

Bill Hamilton, John Maynard Smith, Bob Trivers and George Williams identified mechanisms by which such "altruistic" genes might evolve – through kin selection, games theory, reciprocal altruism and others.

In the extreme form, some of these mechanisms invoked what was, at the time, the heretical notion of inclusive fitness.

The idea that by sacrificing myself I ensure other copies of my genes persist in other individuals – even though I as an individual might perish.

Thus the altruistic gene survives by maximizing its own inclusive fitness.

The altruistic gene is itself a selfish gene.

Richard Dawkins’ book “The Selfish Gene” made this explicit.

See also Dancing with the Devil: Richard Dawkins and Bill Hamilton.


[1] This is the original version of the Wikipedia entry prior to March 20, 2013. On that date some well-intentioned but misguided Wikipedia contributor amended the word coined to used suggesting incorrectly – see the History page - that Bill Hamilton and not Richard Dawkins first coined the term as a way of expressing the gene-centred view of evolution. This is untrue – see above.

[2] Dawkins R 1976 The Selfish Gene. Oxford University Press: ISBN 0-19-286092-5.

[3] Hamilton WD 1971 Selection of selfish and altruistic behaviour in some extreme models. In, Man and Beast: Comparative Social Behavior, Eisenberg JF, Dillon WS (Eds) Smithsonian Institution Press:Washington. Anyone reading this chapter will be aware that the single use of the phrase “selfish gene” is in the context of a broader discussion of the population dynamics of such a gene. The phrase is used to explore mechanisms rather than as a way of expressing the gene-centred view of evolution.

Mike Sutton
April 27, 2013 at 10:41 am
Selfish Gene

Hi Dennis

Thank you, I enjoyed this thought provoking blog.

I understand the distinction between the work of Hamilton and Dawkins, which you have made wonderfully clear. But the very basic concept - as the phrase 'selfish gene' implies - is the same. Surely, the only other possible meaning of the phrase or book title 'Selfish Gene' would refer to a nickname for a parsimonious chap called Eugene.

Exactly as Dawkins enunciated - an altruistic gene is in fact a selfish gene. In this way Dawkins took Hamilton's basic (please note I write "basic" - and have always argued that point of distinction) concept and developed it further.

Now the telling question that you cannot answer without qualitative data is - why did Dawkins (1) not make the distinction between his use of the phrase and Hamilton's use of the phrase clear in any edition of his best selling book that uses Hamilton's phrase as its multi-million dollar title? And (2) why has Dawkins never once refuted the massively pervasive myth that says he coined the phrase? By the way, the Dawkins 1976 Selfish Gene Originator Myth began and spread because Dawkins never did (1) above.

By way of a telling analogy: Natural-selection, as the most basic concept implied in the term's use in explaining evolutionary theory for species, within a biological framework, is the most basic concept of natural-selection by Nature. In other words, 'natural selection' is, at the most basic level, the best dis-confirming evidence for species creationism. Moreover, it is nature's selfish-gene driven equivalent of human culture driven artificial selection. In other words, within this specific context, the phrase is the basic concept.

Patrick Matthew originated 'natural selection' as phrase and basic concept of evolution 29 years before Darwin. And Darwin and Wallace merely improved on it. Here's a funny thing though - Darwin never once admitted that Matthew coined the phrase 'process of natural selection'. Even though in his third edition of The Origin he admitted that Matthew had priority. And Darwin was worse than Dawkins in that he always denied he had read Matthew's book.

By the way, I have absolutely no problem with you citing my earlier blog post on this subject (here) as the known influence of what you believe is (a) a myth, and (b) of Wikipedia's change of "coined" to "used" to bust the myth that Dawkins coined the phrase and most basic concept. I enjoy the debate. It's most interesting.

Thinker's Post
Dennis Lendrem
May 1, 2013 at 1:09 am

Thanks Mike.

Mike Sutton
April 27, 2013 at 10:41 am

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