The best books about selfish genes

J. Arvid Ågren Author Of The Gene's-Eye View of Evolution
By J. Arvid Ågren

Who am I?

I’m an evolutionary biologist and a Wenner-Gren Fellow at the Evolutionary Biology Centre at Uppsala University, Sweden. My research focuses on the biology of genetic conflicts and what they can tell us about the evolution of conflict and cooperation more generally. I develop population genetic theory and perform comparative analyses to ask how and why such conflicts occur and how they fit into models of social evolution. I also work on the foundations of the so-called gene’s-eye view of evolution, also known as selfish gene theory. I studied at Edinburgh and Toronto and was a postdoc at Cornell and Harvard.

I wrote...

The Gene's-Eye View of Evolution

By J. Arvid Ågren,

Book cover of The Gene's-Eye View of Evolution

What is my book about?

Few phrases in biology have caught the imagination of professionals and laypeople alike the way Richard Dawkins's ‘selfish gene’ has done, and it changed how both groups thought about evolution. The debate over the value of taking a gene’s-eye view of evolution has raged for over half a century and it pitted 20th-century Darwinian heavyweights such as John Maynard Smith and W.D. Hamilton against Richard Lewontin and Stephen Jay Gould in the pages of Nature as well as those of The New York Review of Books. My book is about that debate and I explore the origins and developments of the gene's-eye view: what it is, where it came from, how it changed, and why it still evokes such strong emotions. 

The books I picked & why

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The Extended Phenotype: The Long Reach of the Gene

By Richard Dawkins,

Book cover of The Extended Phenotype: The Long Reach of the Gene

Why this book?

When I read Richard Dawkins’s The Extended Phenotype I knew I wanted to become an evolutionary biologist. The book is the most ambitious articulation of the gene’s-eye view (a work of ‘unabashed advocacy’, as Dawkins put it). Less famous that The Selfish Gene, it also includes responses to the criticisms that The Selfish Gene received, which also made debates in theoretical biology seem so exciting. In many ways, that excitement has never left me. 

The Ant and the Peacock: Altruism and Sexual Selection from Darwin to Today

By Helena Cronin,

Book cover of The Ant and the Peacock: Altruism and Sexual Selection from Darwin to Today

Why this book?

The gene’s-eye view of evolution emerged in the 1960s and 1970s. Arguing that biologists are better off thinking about evolution in terms of genes rather than organisms was controversial, but still quickly gained popularity. An important reason for this was that it helped make sense of old, long-standing problems in the field. Two of those were sexual selection (how extravagant traits like the peacocks tail can evolve) and altruism (like the sterile worker ant devoting its life to the queen). In The Ant and the Peacock, Helena Cronin shows how the gene’s-eye view provides a powerful way to solve these puzzles. 

Defenders of the Truth: The Sociobiology Debate

By Ullica. Segerstrale,

Book cover of Defenders of the Truth: The Sociobiology Debate

Why this book?

The theory of evolution touches us in a way other scientific theories do not. It deals directly with who we are and where we come from. But how exactly? The Selfish Gene came out only a year after E.O. Wilson’s Socbiology and both books helped ignite an ill-tempered debate over this question. Ullica Segerstråle's book is a comprehensive history of this particularly intense disagreement and is full of personal anecdotes and insights from all the major players. 

Evolution and the Levels of Selection

By Samir Okasha,

Book cover of Evolution and the Levels of Selection

Why this book?

I did my PhD in biology, but one of the books that affected my thinking the most was written by a philosopher: Samir Okasha’s Evolution and the Levels of Selection. I came to biology not through a love of natural history, but through a fascination with the logic of evolution by natural selection. The debate over the gene’s-eye fitted perfectly into this and it led me into the huge literature in the philosophy of biology that deals with the so-called levels of selection debate – does natural selection act on genes, individuals, or groups? Okasha’s book is a great demonstration of how philosophy can help science. 

Genes in Conflict: The Biology of Selfish Genetic Elements

By Austin Burt, Robert Trivers,

Book cover of Genes in Conflict: The Biology of Selfish Genetic Elements

Why this book?

The biggest strength of the gene’s-eye view is that it helps us make sense of things that seem impossible to understand from the perspective of individual organisms. One example is selfish genetic elements. These are genes that in one way or another have hijacked the system by which genes are replicated and passed on to the next generation. This ability allow them to spread in a population, even if they are harmful to the organism that carries them. I was given Burt and Trivers's book as an undergraduate by the professor who would later become my PhD advisor. That was over ten years ago, but every time I pick up this book I am reminded of how awestruck I was. Selfish genetic elements and genetic conflicts are a weird and wonderful world and Genes in Conflict is the best guide there is.  

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