The selfish gene at 30: the origin and career of a book and its title

Soraya de Chadarevian


The 30th anniversary of Richard Dawkins's The selfish gene coincides with the opening for historical scholarship of the production files of the book's first edition at the archives of Oxford University Press. Using the information collected in the files, the essay reconstructs the Press history of the book, the author's and his enthusiastic editor's pre-publication expectations, and the early reception and subsequent career of the book, which made an impact on the scientific debate on behaviour and evolution as well as on the popular market. It also reflects on the changing notions of popularization and the place of The selfish gene in those debates.

A curious document found its way into the production files of the first edition of The selfish gene that scholars can now access at Oxford University Press. The title reads ‘Anatomy of a flop’. The document is unsigned and undated, but the reader learns that the author was asked to write the note overnight, with no files or figures to hand. The introductory paragraph states: ‘To make a real success of a book requires three things: good raw material, editorial knowledge, and editorial enthusiasm. A good idea is not an adequate substitute. Nor are distinguished authors.’ The document then goes on to analyse a case in which the three basic requirements were apparently missing.1

The book in question was quite clearly not The selfish gene. Yet judging from the place of the document in the run of the file, we can understand how Richard Dawkins's first editor—if he himself solicited the memo or not—might have assured himself about the project he was embarking on. Having convinced Dawkins to offer his first manuscript to Oxford University Press, the publishing house had decided ‘to pull out all the stops’ and produce the book in less than six months.2

It is of course only with hindsight and in the light of the book's career that the presence of the document in the file can strike the reader as curious. Since publication in 1976, Dawkins's gene-eye view of evolution arguing that organisms are nothing else than survival machines for selfish genes, has sold over a million copies.3 The first hardback edition was followed by a paperback edition two years later, by a second revised and enlarged edition in 1989 and a 30th anniversary edition in 2006. It has been translated into over 20 languages and its title has become a set phrase in the English language.

After 30 years the book has not only made history but has become a historical object in its own right, as witnessed by the (routine) opening of the archive for the papers dating 30 years back. Here I suggest taking this transition seriously and looking at the book historically. After all, anniversaries are invitations to reflect on the making of what have come to be viewed as significant events. The questions we seek to answer are: How was The selfish gene produced and received 30 years ago? What does the book represent now? And why do we mark its 30th anniversary?4

Let us start with a backstage view of the making of the first edition of the book. As reception theory has taught us, a book is to a large extent what readers make of it, but what they make of it, and who picks up the book to start with, depends in important ways on how the book presents itself. Title, cover, blurb, length, price, press imprint and display are all the product of lengthy negotiations that impinge on what the book becomes.

Dawkins, then a young lecturer in animal behaviour at Oxford University, was in conversation with the commercial publisher Jonathan Cape for the publication of his first manuscript before a contact was made with Oxford University Press through a New College fellow and Delegate of the Press. First there was only the title. Michael Rodgers, one of the science editors at the Press with a special interest in science books for general audiences, who was entrusted with the project, was enthralled from the beginning. To a colleague in the Press he remarked, ‘All I have at the moment is the title, but this is quite lovely: The selfish gene.’5 Once in possession of the first 8 of the proposed 11 draft chapters of the book, he read them overnight. The rather dry list of editorial points drafted on the same day for the file hides his immediate enthusiasm for the manuscript. To a colleague in the Press New York branch he wrote, ‘The MS impressed me to the point of excitement. …I believe it is the sort of book that could create a real stir and do very well… I am anxious to get hold of it.’6 Rodgers assured himself of Dawkins's scientific credentials, but above all was eager to forestall depreciative opinions on Oxford University Press and its ability to handle a book like Dawkins's. Dawkins for his part was worried that the question of the social behaviour of animals was going to take on ‘bandwagon proportions’ and that the proposed spring publication date would be too late for the book to make the maximum impact.7 A few days later, Dawkins had made his decision and Oxford University Press was committed to publish the book in a record six months.

The book did certainly not lack an enthusiastic editor.8 Rodgers found the writing as well as the topic gripping and did all that was in his power to convince his colleagues that The selfish gene was a special book and needed special treatment. Not everyone liked the title. Some felt that ‘selfish’ was a ‘down word’ that would not sell—and alternatives were discussed, the ‘Gene machine’ finding most approval. In the end, the original title was retained. Rodgers's position on this point was that juxtaposing ‘selfish’ with ‘gene’ was ‘so unexpected’ that the title was positively ‘arresting’.9 The jacket illustration was chosen to make a real impression. The choice fell on a four-colour print of the painting ‘The Expectant Valley’ by local artist-cum-biologist Desmond Morris, author of the popular bestseller The naked ape (1967)10, featuring pink fantasy organisms in an abstract landscape (this remained the only illustration of the book) (figure 1). The blurb presented the book as a scientific thriller. It also willingly depicted it as controversial, announcing that it exploded cosy views about animal and human behaviour. Even as the manuscript grew substantially over the proposed 200 pages, the price for the hardback was rigorously kept below the ‘psychological £3 barrier’.

Figure 1

Cover of the first paperback edition of Richard Dawkins's The selfish gene (Oxford University Press, 1978), with painting by Desmond Morris entitled ‘The Expectant Valley’. (Reproduced by permission of Oxford University Press.)

The publication of E. O. Wilson's Sociobiology: the new synthesis one year earlier had stirred up widespread debates in academic circles as well as in the media.11. Interleaved in the production file of The selfish gene are various reviews of the book and general discussions of sociobiological issues, including an authoritative piece on the evolution of altruism authored by Oxford zoologists John Krebs and Robert May in Nature; a second piece by May in the same journal; various pieces in the New Scientist, including one by Wilson himself; and a two-part interview adapted from a Radio 3 programme in The Listener, featuring Nature editor John Maddox in conversation with evolutionary biologists William Hamilton of Imperial College and John Maynard Smith of the University of Sussex.12 As Rodgers pointedly put it to his colleagues, the area of sociobiology was ‘red hot’ and this could not but help sales of The selfish gene.13 In his eyes the book had the potential to open a new era for science publishing at the Press, matching perhaps the fantastic success of Morris's The naked ape published by Cape. Dawkins was cautious of being associated too closely with Morris, whose book was a popular success but was received less favourably by scientists.14

Krebs and May started their Nature review article stating:

It is an astonishing fact that many professional biologists still do not understand the essence of Darwinian natural selection. Many people still think, and write, that adaptations evolve by natural selection because they are ‘good for the species as a whole’. …Natural selection is a matter of differential survival and reproduction of individuals (or to be precise of genes), not of species.15

Published in March 1976, the explication in brackets in particular clearly prefigured Dawkins's thesis. Dawkins was anxious to acknowledge this point. Throughout the production process he insisted on the fact that the ideas he presented were not new and indeed were viewed as orthodoxy by many biologists. What was original was the way of presenting them; that is, rigorously adopting the gene's-eye-view. In relation to Wilson's hefty tome that propagated the same basic understanding of evolution and was said to have sold 40 000 copies, Dawkins's book had the advantage of being highly readable—Rodgers presented it as the ‘plain man's guide’ to the subject.16 In respect to the most contentious point in the debate, that of human behaviour, Dawkins strongly diverged from Wilson, arguing that cultural evolution allowed humans to overcome the tyranny of the genes—the strongest evidence in his eyes being the use of contraceptives.17

The BBC picked up the notion of the ‘selfish gene’ before publication and planned a Horizon programme with that title to be aired in the same autumn that the book was launched. Against initial expectations, Dawkins's participation in the programme was eclipsed by Maynard Smith's charismatic performance in the role of main presenter, and in the film's acknowledgements Oxford University Press was not even mentioned. Unperturbed, the Press produced a ‘crowner’ for the book inviting people to view the programme and read the book. By that time, The selfish gene was selling ‘briskly’.

The daily press took less notice than both the publisher and the author had hoped. In the days after publication in Britain, only two papers drew attention to the book: the New Scientist reprinted an edited version of the last chapter on cultural evolution under the title with a brief introduction to the topic and, a week later, carried a review by Cambridge philosopher Bernard Williams. The Sunday Times published a review by zoologist Anthony Storr. Both reviews were rather favourable.18 Several months later Dawkins still wearily remarked that the problem was not with what the reviews said but that there weren't that many.19 He helped publicity by authoring an article in Vogue and granting an interview on Woman's Hour.20 The Press used these media appearances for its own publicity of the book.

According to Dawkins's later recollection, the book became controversial only several years after publication.21 Yet certainly by spring 1977, critical if not hostile reviews by British sociologist Steven Rose in the Times Educational Supplement and by Harvard zoologist Richard Lewontin in Nature had appeared. Two at least equally critical pieces by Stephen J. Gould, another Harvard biologist, and molecular biologist Gunther Stent of the University of Berkeley, published in Natural History and the Hastings Center Report, respectively, followed later that year. The Harvard Crimson carried a particularly nasty review.22 The general point of contention was the atomistic, reductionistic and deterministic view of genes and their role in human behaviour, Dawkins's view on the role of cultural evolution notwithstanding. Increasingly, the book was sucked up into the general discussion on sociobiology and its political and ethical implications. What could perhaps not have been foreseen is the extent to which the notion of the selfish genes tied in with Conservative social policies in 1980s Britain (a useful exercise would be to search Conservative politicians' speeches to establish whether—and if so when—the notion did in fact enter their vocabulary). The assumptions made were heavy enough for Dawkins to feel compelled to mention in the second edition of The selfish gene that he voted Labour.23 More generally, the new edition offered an occasion for Dawkins to take a position regarding his text and the way in which it had been received.

Perhaps as part of a broader attempt to dissociate his book from political interpretations and certainly emboldened by its wide reception, Dawkins revised his views on popularization and thus re-evaluated his scientific contribution in writing The selfish gene. As he explained in the preface to the new edition, presenting scientific ideas in non-technical terms was a ‘difficult art’. It required ‘insightful new twists of language and revealing metaphors’. If these were pushed far enough, they could produce ‘a new way of seeing. And a new way of seeing…can in its own right make an original contribution to science’. Dawkins concluded that science and its popularization could not be clearly separated.24 Indeed, The selfish gene has been celebrated for becoming a popular bestseller while at the same time making an impact on the scientific debate on evolution and social behaviour (this did not overcome the fact that that in some scientific circles it remained unrespectable to cite the book).25

Dawkins's views on popularization were to carry some weight. In the mid-1990s he resigned his Readership in Zoology to become the first holder of the Chair for the Public Understanding of Science at Oxford University, endowed by Charles Simonyi, then a leading computer scientist of Microsoft's research division and deviser of the user interfaces in Word and other software packages. The ‘manifesto’ for the chair, drawn up by Simonyi with Dawkins's input, distinguished between (mere) popularizers and scholars who are able to communicate their subject matter to a broad audience. It specified that the holder of the chair was to be of the latter kind.26

A closer look at the second edition of The selfish gene shows that the text itself was undergoing a complex evolution. When approaching Dawkins for a second edition, the Press convinced the author that a page-by-page revision of the original text was inappropriate. The first edition was carried by a ‘youthful quality’ and a whiff of revolutionary spirit that the Press was keen to preserve.27 The new edition nonetheless contained various new features. Apart from a new preface, it included two new chapters that extended the ideas of the book by responding to new work in the field of animal behaviour (somewhat incongruously, these were tagged on to the chapter on cultural evolution) as well as a substantive body of notes and an updated bibliography. In my view, this presentation of the original text reflected a change in the status of Dawkins's account as well as a tension between two different ways of reading it.

If the first edition represented a fresh voice in an ongoing debate, the decision to reprint the text unaltered 12 years later conferred on it the status of a (literary) classic whose value lay beyond the actual state of the debate. Indeed, the notes that—as in other classical works—provided a running commentary on the original text conceded some weaknesses and occasional lapses, including for instance an overindulgence in metaphors and cases in which these were used too literally. Yet the reader was always again invited to excuse such uses. At the same time the inclusion of the notes radically altered the reading experience of the original text by drawing the reader into an ongoing debate about the text with multiple references to and quotes from other texts, including especially Dawkins's own further elaborations of the topic in The extended phenotype.28 This multi-layered and self-reflexive structure of the text must be seen as a concession to the academic reader or perhaps the student rather than the layperson. It established The selfish gene as an object of academic study in its own right.

The 30th anniversary edition of The selfish gene continued the trend towards the canonization of the text. In contrast with the second edition, no new material was added except for a brief introduction by Dawkins, and three brief extracts from contemporary reviews (all laudatory), but the original foreword by Robert Trivers, one of Dawkins's intellectual heroes who championed the gene-centred view of evolution, was restored. The original dust jacket illustration by Morris, which had given way to plainer designs with scientific imagery, was also recovered for the anniversary hardback edition. In the new introduction Dawkins professed once more that there was little in the book he would take back or change; he also stood by the personification of genes that had exercised so many people. In his view, such attributions were as innocuous—because clearly metaphorical—as they were useful for the exposition of complex ideas. He did, however, express some second thoughts about the title and mused that The immortal gene, The altruistic vehicle or The cooperative gene might have been better alternatives. The experiment is difficult to do, but it is most likely that the reception of the book would have been different. As Dawkins himself acknowledged, many people ‘read a book by title only’. Certainly somewhat polemically, he also referred to the book as a ‘large footnote’ to the title.29

Dawkins shows himself somewhat disheartened about the fact that The selfish gene continues to impress readers more than his seven subsequent books in which he greatly expanded his ideas on the evolution of animal behaviour. He consoles himself by arguing that the scientific message of the book that explains altruistic behaviour by kinship (that is, by organisms that are likely to carry the same genes) rather than species selection has remained valid.30 Of course this point matters for a book about science. Had the principle been disproved, The selfish gene might not have been reprinted. Yet its continuing success and the canonization of the text can hardly be explained by the career of the principle of kinship selection. Rather than the validation of the science, the anniversary celebrates a publishing success based on the coinage of a phrase that caught the imagination of its first-time editor and its readers. Public interest in the debate about sociobiology has retreated or shifted to other fields such as evolutionary psychology, but the obsession with questions of our genetic make-up keeps the interest in the ‘selfish gene’ alive—Dawkins's repeated affirmation that the book is not about genetics notwithstanding.31

Dawkins wrote The selfish gene to share his astonishment about the workings of evolution. The ‘manifesto’ for his Chair confirms that ‘the goal is for the public to appreciate the order and beauty of the abstract and natural worlds which is there, hidden, layer-upon-layer. To share the excitement and awe that scientists feel when confronting the greatest of riddles. To have empathy for the scientists who are humbled by it all.’32 This position might be seen as consonant with broader aims of science education at the time, although significantly Dawkins did not participate in the campaign for the public understanding of science launched in Britain in the mid-1980s. This is indicated by the fact that he was neither on the editorial board nor ever contributed to the discussions in the journal carrying the movement's (and his chair's) title. Yet independently of how one might view that relation, since then the public's position towards scientists has changed and a more reflexive and critical approach to science and its role in society is expected from scientists communicating with the public.33 It would be a fitting tribute to The selfish gene if its anniversary could be used to reflect on how popular science books might respond to this new need.


I thank Martin Maw at Oxford University Press for insightful and efficient guidance during my visit at the Press archives, and Maria Kronfelder and Manfred Laublicher at the Max Planck Institute for History of Science in Berlin for their expert advice. I also thank an anonymous referee for perceptive comments. The quotes from archival material appear by permission of the Secretary to the Delegates of Oxford University Press.


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