Life on Earth appears to swim against the flow of death and disorder, by sustaining its order and even creating higher orders. Three key ingredients are required for this magic: 1- Cellular boundary to separate self from the outside, 2- Energy collection and utilization through metabolism, 3- Intelligent codes (genes) to maintain the recipe of life from one generation to the next.
Single cell organisms appeared on Earth only 0.5 billion years past the plant’s cooling and the liquid water appearance. For 3 billion years after that, the single cell lifeforms ruled the planet, by copying and pasting their genes again and again. Technically, a single cell organism can be immortal; that is as long as it is not consumed by another lifeform or killed by a change in its environment, the single cell creature can simply copy its genes and split its cell into two identical “daughter” cells.
Of course, under environmental change conditions (e.g. temperature and atmospheric composition) the single cells had to evolve and adjust, or face extinction. Approximately 99.9% of all the species that have ever appeared on Earth are extinct now. Therefore, natural-selection and evolution has always been a bloody competitive sport! Genes contain the core information of any lifeform, and their survival or demise has determined the evolutionary success or failure of a creature. Hence, the survival of genes is a matter of life and death.
Selfish Gene is a biological concept proposed by Richard Dawkins for expressing the gene-centred view of evolution. A lineage is expected to evolve to maximize the number of copies of its genes that are passed on, generation after generation; or lose the survival competition. Also, as the competition for gene propagation takes precedence over individual breeding, the more two individuals are genetically related, the more sense (at the gene survival level) it makes for them to behave generously with each other.
In describing genes as being “selfish”, Dawkins does not mean to imply that they are literally driven by any motives or emotions, but merely that their functional consequences can effectively be described as selfish. In other words, evolutionary natural-selection appears to indicate that the genes that are passed on are the ones whose evolutionary consequences serve their own implicit interest in being replicated.
But by designating genes as the smallest “selfish” unit of natural selection of lifeforms, Dawkins does not mean that each gene is trying to maintain its own molecular-self at the cost of every other DNA strand. Rather, he maintains that genes behave as though they are trying to collectively sustain their “genetic kind”. Therefore, Dawkins expects that genes of the “same feather” would be helpful and altruistic towards one-anther, because being “selfish” towards your own kind can endanger your gene’s chances of survival. Hence, being selfless and generous is also explained as part of the survival mechanism of being selfish.
The unit of natural-selection and chronological-evolution for a single-cell lifeform that can continuously duplicate and is theoretically “immortal” can very well be its genes. However, every “order” is expected to demonstrate a different “unit” of evolutionary competition. The “unit” for quarks, atoms, molecules, plants, animals, cultures, civilizations, stars and galaxies would be quite different; but similar trends are expected to exist.
Global evolutionary trends, such as creating orders and higher-orders within an existing order, at the expense of more disorder outside those orders, can also be figuratively characterized by being “selfish”. After all, any self-sustaining entity that has been subject to the process of physical and natural selection should have been “selfish” or would not have survived amid the global trend of increasing disorder (entropy). Hence, being “selfish” can be a connecting thread of governing equations (fractals) that has maintained a global similarity in core behavior and functionality, from the smaller and simpler orders to the larger and more sophisticated lifeforms.
Picture: Fractal equations create recurring orders that transcend scale.
Reference: Selfish Gene, by Richard Dawkins.