This is in reference to the book The Selfish Gene by Richard Dawkins. Further,

Because there is a law such as gravity, the universe can and will create itself from nothing. Spontaneous creation is the reason there is something rather than nothing, why the universe exists, why we exist. It is not necessary to invoke God to light the blue touch paper and set the universe going.

— Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow, The Grand Design, 2010

What was the spontaneous creation that led to this selfish gene?


This is a very introductory question to evolutionary biology. While the book "The selfish gene" is very pleasant to read and directly offers some key notions of modern evolutionary biology, it offers little to no introduction to the basics of evolutionary biology (which is not its goal). I highly recommend that you have a look at a short intro to evolution such as Understanding Evolution by UC Berkeley for example.

Below, I give a very brief answer to your question but taking an intro course to evolutionary biology would probably be more helpful.

What is evolution?

Evolution is a change in allele frequency in a population through time.

An allele is a variant of a gene (or any other sequence at any locus). A locus is a position in the genome.

How do alleles come to existence?

Alleles are created from previous alleles, through mutations. The process of mutation is random in the sense that the effect of the new allele is "unknown to the organism" which creates this allele. The mutation just occurs and it just has some effect on the phenotype and the fitness.

What are the forces of evolution?

There are a number of forces that affect evolutionary processes such as genetic drift, migration and natural selection for example.

What is natural selection?

Natural selection is the change of frequency of of the alleles at a given locus caused by differential fitness among the individuals carrying the different alleles.

Why one ought to expect that altruism should not exist in nature?

Here the term selfish and altruism are defined in terms of fitness effects. An altruistic individual is one that is performing a behaviour (or having some other phenotypic trait) that is positively affecting the fitness of an individual of the same species while decreasing its own fitness.

Imagine an individual (let's call him the "actor") that has a mutation causing him to be altruistic (in opposition to being selfish). Such "actors" will have a low fitness while its neighbours will take advantage of the altruism of the "actor". There is therefore a differential in fitness between those that are selfish (higher fitness) and those that are altruistic (lower fitness) which ultimately yields a decrease in the frequency of the alleles causing the altruistic behaviour until it completely disappears from the population.

The above paragraph explains why one would expect that altruism should be absent from nature. However, the story is definitely not that simple. But this extension is a story for another time. You will have to understand the difference between "true (lifetime) altruism" and "false altruism", you will have to learn some game theory and finally Hamilton's extension of game theory.

What Dawkins means by selfish gene

In his books, Dawkins uses "selfish gene" often to refer only to genes that are causing meiotic drive (which might be confusing) and to talk about the existence of intra-genomic conflict. There are various mechanisms that can cause meiotic drive. You can learn more about that in Haid and Berstrom 1995, Jeanike 2001 or Jeffrey and Neuman 2002 for examples.


The existing answer provides a very thorough discussion of evolution, which is actually the biological part of the question. I will address more literally the spontaneous creation part ("What was the spontaneous creation that led to this selfish gene?" - OP) and touch a bit on how the first self-replicating molecules came into existence.

Remark: Note that the authors of the quote in the OP are both theoretical physicists - indeed, the question here is more about "how life emerged" rather than "how it evolved".

Spontaneous creation is a reference to a concept known as spontaneous symmetry breaking in physics, as emergence in philosophy, and as self-organisation in chemistry. One could think of a symmetric universe as a place where chemical elements (or elementary particles) are distributed uniformly over the space, regardless of where we are or which direction we look at. (This is a simplified vision of what is understood by symmetry in physics, but it suffices for the purposes of this discussion.) Obviously, this is not what our universe looks like: patches of very dense matter, such as stars, alternate with vacuum, some parts are extremely hot and others are extremely cold, etc. Things get even more complicated when we look at highly organized dynamic matter, such as the living organisms.

Symmetry breaking
All this complexity is a result of a chain of symmetry breaking events. The interactions between the particles, chemical elements, etc. make the symmetric states unstable, and so they disintegrate into the less symmetric ones. Exactly which less symmetric state is chosen is a matter of accident - e.g., a mutation defining a new direction of evolution an emergence of a new trait is accidental.

Example: particles and anti-particles
As an example: every particle has an anti-particle, so one could have expected that the world contains equal number of protons and anti-protons, as well as of electrons and positrons (anti-electrons). Yet, in practice the atoms are made of protons and electrons, and there are very few anti-atoms made of anti-protons and positrons in the universe. This is the result of a symmetry breaking event that happened some time shortly after the Big Bang, when the symmetry between the particles and the anti-particles was broken.

Example: chirality of organic molecules As a similar but more biologically minded example, one can think of the chirality of organic molecules. When these are artificially synthesized, one usually ends up with an equal proportion of the molecules of both chiralities. Yet, only one chirality is encountered in the living organisms. This is a result of another symmetry breaking event, somewhere at the time when the first self-replicating molecules had emerged and those of one chirality, by pure chance, gave rise to living organisms, while the others were less lucky.

Emergence and evolution of micromolecules has been also analyzed as a symmetry breaking event, notably by Manfred Eigen, although this requires more abstract notion of symmetry.

Order from disorder
While it is fair to say that we understand well how symmetry breaking comes about in non-living matter (in physics and chemistry), and how evolution happens (in biology), it is not immediately obvious that the scientists agree on how the non-living matter becomes a living one. The interdisciplinary nature of the question certainly complicates it. Prigogine and co-workers believed that the dissipative structures were the answer, but Phil Anderson disagreed. Perhaps one could reproach Dawkins and his brand of militant atheism for hiding under the carpet the unanswered scientific questions, for the sake of fighting creationists (who are arguably a minority even among the religious folks.)


  • $\begingroup$ there is no difference between living and non-living matter, it is all just chemistry. $\endgroup$
    – John
    Jul 23 at 16:54
  • $\begingroup$ @John the degree of organization and complexity. I know that appeal to authority is a logical fallacy, but note that all the people that I named are Nobel prize winners (Schrodinger, Phil Anderson, Prigogine, Eigen). $\endgroup$ Jul 23 at 17:10
  • $\begingroup$ @John why do you think biology texts refer to a cell as the elementary unit of life? Are viruses alive? $\endgroup$ Jul 23 at 17:31
  • $\begingroup$ crystals are far more ordered than living tissue and a rock is just as complex, they are all part of the same spectrum of chemical interactions. living and nonliving matter are both results of the exact same laws of chemistry interacting in the same ways. None of the papers you link claim otherwise. the rest are books by people with no expertise in the subject. a nuclear physicists opinion on the fundamentals of biochemistry is as bad as a biochemists opinion on the fundamentals of nuclear physics. $\endgroup$
    – John
    Jul 23 at 17:32
  • $\begingroup$ Is ice a rock? Is pluto a planet? Is cereal a soup? Is a taco a sandwich? is self replicating RNA alive? Is a single member of a sexual species alive? human subjective categories have no impact on the function of matter. This is the reason there is no universal definition of "alive" or "life" because there is a continuous spectrum of matter that both living and nonliving matter fall on. cells are the elementary unit of life as defined as things made of cells. $\endgroup$
    – John
    Jul 23 at 17:40

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