To many evolutionary biologists, the central challenge of their discipline is to explain adaptation, the appearance of design in the living world. With the theory of evolution by natural selection, Charles Darwin elegantly showed how a purely mechanistic process can achieve this striking feature of nature. Since then, the way many biologists have thought about evolution and natural selection is as a theory about individual organisms. Over a century later, a subtle but radical shift in perspective emerged with the gene's-eye view of evolution in which natural selection was conceptualized as a struggle between genes for replication and transmission to the next generation. This viewpoint culminated with the publication of The Selfish Gene by Richard Dawkins (Oxford University Press, 1976) and is now commonly referred to as selfish gene thinking.
The gene's-eye view has subsequently played a central role in evolutionary biology, although it continues to attract controversy. The central aim of this accessible book is to show how the gene's-eye view differs from the traditional organismal account of evolution, trace its historical origins, clarify typical misunderstandings and, by using examples from contemporary experimental work, show why so many evolutionary biologists still consider it an indispensable heuristic. The Gene's Eye View of Evolution concludes by discussing how selfish gene thinking fits into ongoing debates in evolutionary biology, and what they tell us about the future of the gene's-eye view of evolution.
The Gene's Eye View of Evolution is suitable for graduate-level students taking courses in evolutionary biology, behavioural ecology, and evolutionary genetics, as well as professional researchers in these fields. It will also appeal to a broader, interdisciplinary audience from the social sciences and humanities including philosophers and historians of science.
Introduction: A New Way to Read Nature
1. Historical Origins
2. Defining and Refining Selfish Genes
3. Difficulties of the Theory
4. Inclusive Fitness and Hamilton's Rule
5. Empirical Implications
Conclusion: The Gene's-Eye View Today
J. Arvid Ågren is a Wenner-Gren Fellow at the Department of Organismic and Evolutionary Biology at Harvard University, USA. His research focuses on genomic conflicts and he has published widely on their biology and implications for evolutionary theory.
"Science needs ingenious points-of-view that help us understand the world. Few perspectives are more famous – or notorious – than that of the selfish gene. Merging biology and history of science, Ågren unravels its origins, explains why it is useful, and when its utility has been overstretched. Whether you're a fan or a critic, this is an essential guide to the gene's eye view."
– Tobias Uller, Professor of Evolutionary Biology, Department of Biology, Lund University, Sweden
"Arvid Ågren has undertaken the most meticulously thorough reading of the relevant literature that I have ever encountered, deploying an intelligent understanding to pull it into a coherent story. As if that wasn't enough, he gets it right."
– Richard Dawkins
"Since its inception in the 1970s, the "gene's eye view of evolution" has been a controversial idea in evolutionary biology. In this lucid and scholarly book, Arvid Ågren provides a masterful treatment of the intricate and often confusing debates over the value and limitations of the gene's eye view. I highly recommend his book to anyone seeking a deeper understanding of this important issue."
– Samir Okasha, Professor of Philosophy of Science, University of Bristol, UK
"The idea of the selfish gene revolutionised evolutionary thinking and led to many new insights. But from the outset it received strong criticism, not all of it baseless. In the first dedicated book on the idea since it was proposed, Arvid Ågren expertly explores the power and nuances of the selfish gene concept. At times taking sides, at others leaving history to decide, he is always perceptive, scholarly, balanced and good natured. Interwoven with asides on the principal players, this fine book succeeds in being both enlightening and engaging."
– Andrew Bourke, Professor of Evolutionary Biology, University of East Anglia, UK
"Somewhat like evolution itself, argumentation in evolutionary biology has proceeded along one path in a sea of possibilities. The past and present players all have their own backgrounds – where they were trained and whose writings had impressed them. Meanwhile, the basics are simple: Once there's variation that is linked to fitness, as well as heritability, evolution is bound to happen. The result is a fascinating tension: undisputed principles coexist with strong opinions, and depending on who you ask, pondering 'if I were that gene, what would I do to improve my success?' either offers deep insight or is a serious waste of time. If you want to know why, read this masterful book."
– Hanna Kokko, Professor, Department of Evolutionary Biology and Environmental Studies, University of Zurich, Switzerland
"This book's conversational style, clear presentation and well-planted surprises make it ideal for both general readers and students in a broad range of fields. The selfish gene is alive and well and continues to inspire and irritate, which is why we see gene level arguments of fans and critics alike in past and present debates. Best of all, as we follow the gene's eye view around in Ågren's book, we find ourselves educated about current views in exciting subfields – from evolutionary systems theory to Major Transitions and Selfish Genetic Elements – and rewarded with a treasure trove of references."
– Ullica Segerstrale, author of Defenders of the Truth and Nature's Oracle, Professor of Sociology, Illinois Institute of Technology, Chicago, USA