The Society of Genes

By Itai Yanai and Martin Lercher

Itai        Martin

Harvard University Press, 2016


Nearly four decades ago Richard Dawkins published The Selfish Gene, famously reducing humans to “survival machines” whose sole purpose was to preserve “the selfish molecules known as genes.” How these selfish genes work together to construct the organism, however, remained a mystery. Standing atop a wealth of new research, The Society of Genes now provides a vision of how genes cooperate and compete in the struggle for life.

Pioneers in the nascent field of systems biology, Itai Yanai and Martin Lercher present a compelling new framework to understand how the human genome evolved and why understanding the interactions among our genes shifts the basic paradigm of modern biology. Contrary to what Dawkins’s popular metaphor seems to imply, the genome is not made of individual genes that focus solely on their own survival. Instead, our genomes comprise a society of genes which, like human societies, is composed of members that form alliances and rivalries.

In language accessible to lay readers, The Society of Genes uncovers genetic strategies of cooperation and competition at biological scales ranging from individual cells to entire species. It captures the way the genome works in cancer cells and Neanderthals, in sexual reproduction and the origin of life, always underscoring one critical point: that only by putting the interactions among genes at center stage can we appreciate the logic of life.


“The Society of Genes is punchy, provocative, and timely and a must-read for us all.”
— Michael Levitt, Professor of Structural Biology, Stanford University and Recipient of the 2013 Nobel Prize in Chemistry

“Written by two of the smartest young thinkers in their fields, The Society of Genes is an absorbing, thought-provoking exploration of the intersection of genetics, evolutionary biology, and society.”
— Eric Lander, Professor of Biology at MIT and founding director of the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard

“The writing is engaging and clear, providing ample introductory material to ensure that the interested lay reader will be swept along by both the science and the evolutionary story…For the general reader, Yanai andLercher’s discussions of cancer, immunology, sexual reproduction, and population genetics are well worth exploring.”
— Publishers Weekly 2015-10-19

“[This] 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. […] Yanai and Lercher take care to assume no prior knowledge, explaining even elementary concepts such as the gene, natural selection and heredity. Readers meeting biology for the first time will be well served by this richer, more nuanced, way of viewing genetics, while those with a deeper background will find plenty of interest, notably in the vivid clarity of the explanations.”
— Bob Holmes, New Scientist

About the Authors

Itai Yanai is Associate Professor of Biology at the Technion–Israel Institute of Technology and a Fellow at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Studies at Harvard University.

Martin Lercher is Professor of Bioinformatics at Heinrich Heine University, Düsseldorf.