Believe it or not, when The Selfish Gene, by Richard Dawkins, was published 40 years ago, it was greeted with warmth and interest. There was no shrieking, no alarm. Only recently has it come to be considered offensive – with its capacity to upset and outrage growing with every year.
While the reviews in 1976 were ‘gratifyingly favourable’, as Dawkins wrote in the preface to the 1989 edition, ‘it was not seen, initially, as a controversial book. Its reputation for contentiousness took years to grow, until, by now, it is widely regarded as a work of radical extremism.’ In the 21st century, The Selfish Gene remains one of the most disputed pieces of scientific writing.
As The Selfish Gene’s repute spread, its perceived ‘biological reductionism’ or ‘determinism’ came to be regarded as an affront to notions of the soul, to free will and human agency. Christians mistrusted it as much as the secular left. If the 1960s was the decade in which everything seemed possible, The Selfish Gene seemed to epitomise the 1970s spirit of defeatism and fatalism.
That decade also saw the re-emergence of the right in Britain under Margaret Thatcher, and it was unfortunate that a book with ‘selfish’ in its title should appear concurrently with the rise of the woman famed for proclaiming there to be ‘no such thing as society’, even if she was misquoted. Dawkins argued that ‘a dominant quality of our genes is ruthless selfishness, which will usually give rise to selfishness in individual behaviour… We are born selfish.’ Dawkins was thus deemed the biological godfather for the tooth-and-claw capitalism of the 1980s, and the casino capitalism of the 2000s. Others couldn’t help but point out that, in the wake of The Selfish Gene’s appearance, anti-humanist genetic determinism started to take a foothold in Western cultural discourse. ‘It’s my genes’ was now a defence and an excuse.
As Dawkins wrote in the original, and has had to restate for over 40 years to those who deliberately misunderstand his thesis, he didn’t state that human behaviour was self-seeking. As a Labour supporter, he certainly didn’t advocate that it should be.