The Selfish Gene (1989 edition)

By Richard Dawkins


Richard Dawkins was born in Nairobi in 1941 after his father had moved to Kenya from England during the Second World War to join the Allied Forces. He lived there for the first eight years of his life, before his family returned to England in 1949 when his father inherited a farm just outside Oxford. He came to Oxford University in 1959 to study zoology as an undergraduate and eventually found himself under the spell of Niko Tinbergen, the Danish biologist. Author of The Study of Instinct (1951) and winner of the Nobel Prize in biology for his pioneering work on animal behaviour, Tinbergen was one of the first of the modern ethologists (biologist who explore and explain the nature of animal behaviour). He would ask questions such as "What is instinct?" "What behaviour is learned?" How do animals communicate? How do animals behave differently in groups than they do as individuals? Why do animals co-operate? How do they compete? Dawkins developed a special protégé-mentor relationship with Tinbergen, who was to have a huge influence on his later work.

Dawkins graduated in 1962 but remained at Oxford to work for his doctorate with Tinbergen. After a stint at the University of California at Berkeley (1967-1969), where he took his first job as an assistant professor, he returned to Oxford to become a lecturer in zoology and a Fellow of New College where he remains to this day.

Dawkins dual interest in the nature of machines and the machinery of nature took place amid the rise of molecular biology. After Francis Crick and James Watson discovered the double helix (1953), there was an increased ability to track and explain what the genome was and what it was doing. This in turn radicalised the way nature was observed. Centuries of animal breeding had created an explicit awareness of links between genetic endowment and behaviour but now the double helix became the new scaffold for erecting theories of evolution on.

Soon after this, Richard Dawkins the ethologist rapidly mutated into an evolutionary biologist. In 1965, he hit upon an idea breathtakingly simple to understand but extraordinarily powerful in its implications. In essence, Dawkins argued for the ethology of the gene: How do genes communicate? How do genes behave differently in groups than they do as individuals? Why do genes co-operate? How do genes compete? The same questions ethologists ask about individuals, Dawkins began asking about the genome and its genes.

Dawkins published his first book, The Selfish Gene, in 1976 and it became an immediate international bestseller, being translated into all the major languages around the world. Its sequel, The Extended Phenotype, followed in 1982. His other bestsellers include The Blind Watchmaker (1986), River out of Eden (1995), Climbing Mount Improbable (1996) and Unweaving the Rainbow (1998). He won both the Royal Society of Literature Award and the Los Angeles Times Literary Prize in 1987 for The Blind Watchmaker and a television film of the book, shown in the "Horizon" series, won the Sci- Tech Prize for the Best Science Programme of 1987. He has also won the 1989 Silver Medal of the Zoological Society of London and the 1990 Royal Society Michael Faraday Award for the furtherance of the public understanding of science. In 1994 he won the Nakayama Prize for Human Science and in 1995 was awarded an Honorary D.Litt by the University of St Andrews. He also won the Humanist of the Year Award in 1996. Since 1996, he has been Vice President of the British Humanist Association and he was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature in 1997. In 1997, he also became the winner of the 1997 (Fifth) International Cosmos Prize in commemoration of Expo' 90.