Chapter-by-Chapter Anaylsis

Why are people?

In his first chapter, Dawkins sets the scene for his book. He makes a clear statement of the purpose of the book, which is to argue that "the best way to look at evolution is in terms of selection occurring at the lowest level of all", by which he means the gene. He claims that other authors, including Lorenz, Ardrey and Eibl-Eibesfeldt, totally misunderstood how evolution works because they assumed that the important thing in evolution is the good of the species (or group) rather than the individual (or gene).

He illustrates how this group selection theory cannot be correct by considering a particular scenario in a group. The group selection theory postulates that individual members of a group would be prepared to sacrifice themselves for the welfare of the group and that these groups may be less likely to go extinct than a rival group, whose individual members put their own selfish interests first. Therefore the world would become populated mainly by groups consisting of self-sacrificing individuals. However, Dawkins argues that even in this group of self-sacrificers, there will almost certainly be a few individuals who refuse to make the sacrifice. Even if there is only one selfish rebel, he will benefit from exploiting the selfless individuals in the group and therefore have a greater chance of surviving and having children than them. Each of his children will tend to inherit his selfish traits and consequently go on to be successful in reproduction as well. After several generations of this natural selection, the group that was originally dominated by self-sacrificers will now be over-run by selfish individuals and will be indistinguishable from the selfish group. Therefore, he argues that groups consisting of self-sacrificers would eventually die out, thus demonstrating that the group selection theory fails to work.

Dawkins proposes that the fundamental unit of selection is not the species, nor the group, nor even strictly speaking the individual, but is in fact the gene – the unit of heredity. He argues that humans, and all other animals, are machines created by their genes. These genes have survived for millions of years in a highly competitive world and in order to do this, they have developed certain qualities – one of which is ruthless selfishness. Dawkins argues that this gene selfishness enables the genes to propagate themselves into the next generation and ultimately ensure their survival. However, he goes on to point out that, "there are special circumstances in which a gene can achieve its own selfish goals best by fostering a limited form of altruism at the level of individual animals". He defines altruism as acting "to increase another such entity’s welfare at the expense of its own" or more specifically for the purpose of this book, as acting to increase another individual’s lifetime number of offspring at a cost to one’s own survival and reproduction. Selfish behaviour has exactly the opposite effect. He points out that "an apparently altruistic act is one that looks, superficially, as if it must tend to make the altruist more likely (however slightly) to die, and the recipient more likely to survive" but in fact "it often turns out on closer inspection that acts of apparent altruism are really selfishness in disguise". Therefore, he sums up that the book will show how both individual selfishness and individual altruism are explained by the fundamental law that he calls gene selfishness.

He goes on to describe some examples of "apparently" altruistic and "apparently" selfish behaviour. One example of apparently altruistic behaviour that he quotes is the stinging behaviour of worker bees, which is a very effective defence against the honey robbers but is also fatal to the worker bee. The example of apparently selfish behaviour he uses is that of the macabre cannibalism of female praying mantises who, if they get the chance, will eat the male during mating, the benefit being a good meal!

The replicators

Dawkins explains how natural selection can explain the beginning of the universe. He claims the prerequisites for life on earth were:

  1. The existence of certain kinds of atoms
  2. The presence of energy, ultimately from the sun

  By PanEris using Melati.

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