The Selfish Gene
by Richard Dawkins
In its own way, this book is as bleak and paranoid as any science fiction vision has ever been. What if, it asks, we were not creatures chasing our own destiny and passing on our characteristics to our children, but rather, we are merely more and more elaborate machines built by our genes for the express purpose of helping the genes survive longer and populate the environment with as many copies of themselves as possible? This idea has lain latent in the concept of evolution since Darwin -- that survival of the fittest implies that something distinctly non-human is making the choice about what fitness is -- and Richard Dawkins explodes it to its fullest implications, positing the how cooperation evolved, the idea of the meme, and inventing evolutionary psychology along the way.
Although it's been a while since this book came out (1990), the core of its ideas still are powerful. While Dawkins is careful to acknowledge that there is no one 'right' way of looking at anything, the central part of this book shows that taking a gene-centric view of life, where plants, animals, lichens, and everything in between are simply more and more complex machines constructed by genes in order to assure and abet their reproduction, is as valid a way of explaining biology as anything else that's been thought up yet. That premise alone is worth reading the book for.
Dawkins explores the implications of being 'survival machines' for our decisions and behaviors, and in so doing finds some non-obvious derivations. Because your brothers and sisters, and to a greater extent your children, contain many of the same genes you do, if we were survival machines we would have a high inclination to try and benefit our siblings and children, even at the risk to our own life. Not only does the 'survival machine' thought experiment explain this behavior much more satisfactorily than conventional evolutionary theory, there's a fascinating section on honeybee genetics that shows behavior matching the predicted response in a family situation (all honeybees in a hive are half- or full sisters) nearly perfectly.
But the many other exciting ideas along the way double the value of the book over and over again. While explaining the ferocious competitive environment that the earliest strands of replicating organic chemical inhabited, Dawkins positing the idea that a similar competitive evolutionary space may be developing among the many ideas competing for neurons in the human brian, thus giving rise to the word 'meme' (as the unit of idea reproduction).
Another mind-bender at the time was the evolution of cooperation, and the implications of game theory for biology. You may have heard of the classic "Prisoner's Dilmena" problem, in which there is a modest payoff for two cooperating people; a large penalty for being double-crossed and a correspondingly large payoff for double-crossing; and a modest penalty for two people trying to double-cross each other. There is no optimal strategy for going through the Prisoner's Dilemna once; you have to try and psych out what the other person will do. But the excitement came from a much more real-world question: What if you played the Prisoner's Dilemna over and over again with the same opponent? This question turned out to have some surprisingly robust answers: Tit for Tat (doing whatever the other person did to you last time) is a surprisingly optimal strategy for dealing well with a whole variety of counter-strategies. From these early ideas came the idea that compassion, kindness, and cooperation are not a purely human idea, but a well-founded strategy for evening out successes and failures among a population (I've had a saying for years that the difference between evil and good is whether someone is going for short-term or long-term gain to themselves).
You may be familiar with some of Dawkins' ideas from the many other authors and researchers who have carried on expanding and interpreting his work (such as his student Steven Pinker). If so, read this book to see the original. If you're not familiar with these ideas (some of which have since come in for serious criticism), then you need to read this book to catch up on some key insights into how we came to be what and who we were.