Before Richard Dawkins became famous as an anti-religion crusader, he reshaped the theory of evolution with his 1976 book The Selfish Gene. In the book, Dawkins proposed the idea that genes, rather than organisms, compete with each other for the chance to propagate themselves. While the theory has now been widely accepted for decades, a new study in the July issue of the journal Genetics claims to have isolated the first concrete proof of a selfish gene.
One of the main consequences of selfish gene theory is natural altruism. Animals will routinely lower their own chance of reproducing by helping a sibling raise its chance. While pure natural selection can’t explain any behavior that lowers an individual’s chance of passing on its genetic material, selfish selection explains that by helping a sibling, an individual is helping facilitate the passage of the common genes shared between the two individuals.
The Genetics study focused on bees: specifically, the gene that renders worker bees sterile. In evolutionary terms, reproduction is everything, and an animal that cannot reproduce might as well have never lived at all. A gene that causes infertility, the study says, could only have evolved if genes are selfish, as a sterile bee increases the chances of its fertile sister bees passing on their shared genetic material at the expense of ever reproducing itself. By helping the hive as a whole to pass on its genes in general, the sterile bees make the ultimate evolutionary sacrifice, in service to their genes.