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Altruism. “The Selfish Gene” by Richard Dawkins Essay

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Updated: Nov 25th, 2021


The book that brought Richard Dawkins into prominence was named The Selfish Gene. It relates to evolution and was in print by 1976. It builds on the foundation theory which was presented in the volume Adaptation and Natural Selection authored by George C. Williams’s. His theory indicates that the motif behind evolution is true altruism but for a greater cause. An organism tries to evolve to capitalize on its inclusive fitness i.e., the numerous replicas of its genes passed on globally rather than by a certain individual. This leads to populations being headed towards an evolutionarily stable approach. The book introduces the term meme as an element of human cultural evolution parallel to that of the gene, proposing that such “selfish” copying may also represent human culture, in a distinct manner. Memetics has emerged as the theme of numerous researches after the publication of this concept.

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By calling genes as being “selfish”, Dawkins should not be misinterpreted that his intent is to imply that genes are determined by any motive or will and should be understood that only their impacts suggest as if they are really “selfish”. (Dawkins, 2003) The argument is that the genes which are passed on are the ones whose outcomes serve their own inherent interests to carry on being duplicated and not essentially those of the organism which contains it. This viewpoint makes obvious the occurrence of altruism at the personage level in existence, mainly in family relations when an entity relinquishes its own existence to safeguard the lives of relatives, and by doing so it acts in the goodwill of its own genes.

There is a range of approaches explicitly oriented towards the moral and normative basis for behavior some of which address pro social behavior, and its subset altruism, as predictors of environmentally friendly behavior. For example, Borden and Francis (1978) suggest that individuals with a selfish and competitive orientation are less likely to act in environmentally favorable ways and that individuals who have met their basic needs will act in more environmentally responsible ways because they have the resources to do so. Another approach which examines an explicitly pro environmental value orientation is the New Environmental Paradigm which when first developed in the mid 1970s held that implicit within the growing practice of environmentalism there was a fundamental reorientation of views about the interrelation of nature and humans (Dunlap et al., 2000). Despite becoming the foundation for a widely used measure of environmental concern, the New Environmental Paradigm has been criticized for being too ambiguous in nature; this is not surprising since it is used as a way of assessing not only an endorsement of a worldview, but also of assessing attitudes and even lower level values (Stern et al., 1995).

Another influential approach which falls under the heading of moral and normative approaches is that of Schwartz (1977) which suggests that pro social behaviors are a function of personal norms. As shown in Fig 4, there are two antecedents to a personal norm according to Schwartz, awareness of consequences of actions and acceptance of responsibility for those consequences; additionally, the strength of the relationship between a personal norm and pro social behavior is dependent on the strength of the antecedents. An approach which combines the New Environmental Paradigm and Schwartz’s Norm Activation Theory is Stern et al.’s (1999) Value Belief Norm Theory. Important limitations of the New Environmental Paradigm and similar approaches to pro environmental behavior include the tendency to take too linear of an approach to addressing behavior that is harmful to the environment. Linear approaches assume that environmental knowledge influences attitudes towards the environment which in turn influences behavior. Thus, altruism exists in society but it is present in a mixed form.

On the other hand there is Ethical Egoism. Ethical Egoism is also known as egotism and according to it moral agents should do what they want to as per their individual self-interest when in a normative ethical situation. Egotism is completely different from ethical altruism which says that moral agents must help and attend to others’ needs. Although egotism does not say that moral agents should ignore the welfare of other people, it also does not say that moral agents should abstain from thinking about the welfare of others during moral consideration. This is because something which may concern with the self-interest of the moral agent can also accidentally have beneficial, detrimental or completely neutral effects on other people. It is very important and also a basic necessity that our actions be morally right so that our self-interest gets maximized. Thus, it can be well stated that even though egoism, in the ethical form, does support egocentricity, it is not aligned with the parameters of wrong decisions or approve any idiocy. Ethical egoism has also sometimes been viewed as a philosophical basis which supports individualist anarchism and libertarianism.

Religion is another aspect on this issue. Buddhism would be embraced by the Chinese only after they transformed the belief system somewhat. The work Mou Tzu- The Disposition of Error (the author is unknown) helped make Buddhism more palatable to the Chinese. In this apologia for Buddhism, the unknown writer asserts that good Chinese citizens can also be good Buddhists (Gregory, 2003). Significantly, the author attempts to present Buddhism as similar to Confucianism and Taoism. Mao Tzu asserts that all three religions shared some common beliefs. These included altruism and strict moral standards. Later on, Buddhism would be greatly influenced by these native Chinese religions. Buddhists in China would later conclude that human beings have souls and that the spirit inside each individual can achieve immortality (Gregory, 2003).


In conclusion, true altruism is a mixed reality. However, the forms that exist are a form of art: the art of understanding, the art of using logic, reason and rationale to understand how we human beings fit in larger scheme of things. The human beings are the only species who have the capability to think insightfully, so it should be taken advantage of. When a child is shown a sophisticated toy for the first time, he is obviously fascinated by how wonderfully it works. But when someone teaches how to operate it and he is given the control of it, is it not a wonderful feeling for him? He tries to understand the intricacies of its work. Such is the natural inquisitiveness of a human brain. And we should make our efforts to quench its thirst. Though philosophical and moral issues which go beyond the reach of science are serious contentions which occupy the human mind, the power of knowledge seems to be the only feasible solution.


BORDEN, R.J. and J.L. FRANCIS (1978) Who cares about ecolgoy? Personality and sex differences in environmental concern. Journal of Personality. 46 190-203.

DAWKINS, R. (2003). The Selfish Gene. Auckland: Auckland University Press.

DUNLAP, R.E., VAN LIERE, K.D. MERTIG A.G. and R.E. JONES (2000) Measuring Endorsement of the New Ecological Paradigm: A Revised NEP Scale. Journal of Social Issues. 56(3) 425-442

GREGORY, P. (2003). Tsung-Mi and the Sinification of Buddhism. LA: University of Hawaii Press.

STERN, P.C. (2000) Toward a Coherent Theory of Environmentally Significant Behavior. Journal of Social Issues. 56(3) 407-424.

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