[audio:selfishgene.mp3] Transcript after the jump.
Richard Dawkins is the bestselling author of The Selfish Gene and The God Delusion. He’s also a pre-eminent scientist, the first holder of the Charles Simonyi Chair of the Public Understanding of Science at Oxford, and is a fellow of New College, Oxford. Called “Darwin’s Rottweiler” by the media, he is one of the most famous advocates of Darwinian evolution. His most recent book is The Oxford Guide to Modern Science Writing, a collection of the best science writing in the last century.
This is the third in a series of podcasts we’re running from an interview with Dawkins. You’ve heard him speak about Alan Turing, the father of the modern computer, and Watson & Crick, the men who discovered the shape of DNA. Now, Dawkins tells us a bit more about his new book and reflects on the men who influenced his own theories.
RICHARD DAWKINS: Yes, I selected them in collaboration with the OUP editor Latha Menon. We’ve worked together before; we worked together on my own collection of writings, which is called A Devil’s Chaplain. And so we worked well together, and we chose them together.
DEVINS: And how many different scientists are represented in this book?
DAWKINS: I haven’t counted.
DEVINS: It extends back to-the earliest writing is…
DAWKINS: Go back to the sort of Eddington-gene sort of time, I can’t remember what date they are, but sort of early part of the twentieth century. The decision was not to go back to the nineteenth century, that would have been a nice thing to do but it would have opened up a whole new vista which I didn’t feel like taking on.
DEVINS: And it would have necessitated your eliminating some of these people, I suspect. So, I see you have George Williams in here.
DAWKINS: George Williams was a very important influence in modern evolutionary theory. In 1966, he wrote a really seminal book called Adaptation and Natural Selection, which once and for all destroyed the theory of group selection, which was a very important thing to do at that time. And he substituted the view of evolution which I later christened the theory of the selfish gene. Williams didn’t use that phrase, but in effect the selfish gene was a new way of putting the theory that Williams had put forward in the 1960s. Oddly enough, I didn’t get it from Williams, I got it from Hamilton. Bill Hamilton, W. D. Hamilton, who’s also in the book and a very wonderful, eccentric character who I deeply loved and who died, tragically, not that long ago (about oh, well, actually maybe seven or eight years ago now). And Hamilton and Williams, I think, could be seen as the founding fathers of the selfish gene theory.
DEVINS: And what part did Hamilton bring in?
DAWKINS: Well Hamilton invented what Maynard Smith actually called kin selection; the idea that animals behave altruistically towards kin because they share genes. And in a way, you could say that everybody knew that about offspring, everybody knew about parental care, but what Hamilton showed was that the same principle as parental care works for brothers and sisters, nieces and nephews, etc.