These observations and their evolutionary implications were not widely known among biologists, however, in part because meiotic drive and supernumerary chromosomes were perceived as genetic peculiarities rather than important general phenomena. Three parallel threads then set the stage for more serious considerations of selfish genetic elements (SGEs) and genetic conflict ideas. First, empirical and conceptual developments in genetics and evolutionary biology led to wider acceptance of a gene-centric view of evolution (Dawkins, 1976c; Williams, 1996). Noteworthy in this regard was Dawkin’s (1976) influential book entitled The Selfish Gene, which described genes as “selfish replicators” encoding phenotypes that increase their transmission to future generations and organisms fundamentally as “vehicles” for the transmission of genes. Second, rapid advances in molecular biology began to reveal that many eukaryotic genomes contain large amounts of repetitive DNA without any clear function, although their potential role within the genome was the subject of much speculation (Britten and Davidson, 1971). Seminal papers by Doolittle and Sapienza (1980) and Orgel and Crick (1980) first proposed that repetitive DNA could be considered parasitic or selfish replicators. Cosmides and Tooby (1981) explicitly introduced the concept of genetic conflict between nuclear and cytoplasmic (e.g., mitochondrial) elements over sex determination. The idea of SGEs and genetic conflict remained highly controversial, however, and a counterview was that such elements exist because they play important regulatory roles in cells and in evolution. Third, an increasing number of genetic studies began to uncover non-Mendelian and other elements within diverse organisms that appeared to have “self-promoting” features that cannot simply be explained as adaptations for the organism. These included discoveries of meiotic drive in diverse organisms; heritable elements, such as killer plasmids; and a genome-eliminating supernumerary chromosome that was an unequivocal example of a nonadaptive self-promoting replicator (Nur et al., 1988).
Werren et al. (1988) published the first general review of selfish or parasitic genes and defined an SGE as an element that has characteristics enhancing its own transmission relative to the rest of an individual’s genome but neutral or detrimental to the organism as a whole. Examples include transposable elements (TEs), meiotic drivers, supernumerary B chromosomes, postsegregation killers, and heritable microbes and organelles that distort sex determination. In 1988, the idea that elements in the genome could be parasitic was still contrary to prevailing opinions of many molecular biologists, who viewed the cell and organism as a highly integrated machine, and therefore considered the idea that components of the cell could be maintained because of their selfish replication as a bizarre and foreign concept. In contrast, the SGE model