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Forty years ago, Richard Dawkins’ book The Selfish Gene popularised the notion that the gene, rather than the individual, was the true unit of evolution. That view has dominated evolutionary genetics ever since. But in The Society of Genes, biologists Itai Yanai and Martin Lercher say that it’s time to replace the selfish-gene metaphor with a new one that focuses on relationships.
“We are not the simple sum of our genes,” they write. “The members of the society of genes do not live in isolation. Working together, forming rivalries and partnerships, is the only way they can form a human body that can sustain them for a few decades and propel them into the next generation of humanity.”
Their book is not a dry academic argument. Instead, Yanai and Lercher use the idea of a society of genes as a vantage point from which to reintroduce the entire field of evolutionary genetics. It is analogous to modern society, which is full of cooperative and competitive interactions. As in any industry, some genes are workers and builders, while others manage the operation as a whole. This helps us understand the complex genetic networks regulating metabolism and development, where many genes work together and each has multiple functions.