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The Selfish Gene

by Richard Dawkins, 1976

Review is copyright 2016 by Wil C. Fry. All Rights Reserved.

Published: 2016.07.29



Copyright 2015 by Wil C. Fry.
Some rights reserved.
Full Title: The Selfish Gene
Author: Richard Dawkins
Year: 1976 (mine was 2006, 30th anniversary paperpack)
Genre: Nonfiction, Science
Publisher: Oxford University Press
ISBN 978-0-19-929115-1
View It On Amazon
Wikipedia Page


Summary


Listed as number 10 on The Guardian’s “100 best nonfiction books of all time”, Richard Dawkins’ The Selfish Gene explores a “gene’s-eye view of evolution” in a re-imagining of Charles Darwin’s theory of natural selection. He explains his thesis concisely in the first chapter:
“I shall argue that the fundamental unit of selection, and therefore of self-interest, is not the species, nor the group, nor even, strictly, the individual. It is the gene, the unit of heredity. To some biologists this may sound at first like an extreme view. I hope when they see in what sense I mean it they will agree that it is, in substance, orthodox, even if it is expressed in an unfamiliar way.”

—pg. 11

This book is also the origin of our current English word meme, for better or for worse. While I typically use “meme” to refer to image files shared on social media platforms, usually with text typed over the image, the actual word refers to: “an idea, behavior, or style that spreads from person to person within a culture”. Not every common word in our tongue has a definite point of origin, so it’s a minor pleasure of mine to read a book that is known to have originated a new word. (My first experience with this was reading Isaac Asimov’s short stories that contained the first usages of the word “robotics”.)


What I Liked Least About It


As with the last book I reviewed (Tyson’s Origins), perhaps my primary difficulty with this book was not a fault of the author, but rather my own lack of scientific knowledge, especially in the field of biology. Consider that my high school biology course was taught by an elderly Christian woman who stated early that she wouldn’t teach evolution because she didn’t believe in it, and my college biology course was taught by a licensed minister in a denomination that denies evolution’s existence. So I knew next-to-nothing about evolution until the past few years when I began to read about it in earnest. Many of the concepts Dawkins uses in this book leapt over my head at first, and some required multiple re-readings of many sentences and paragraphs.

However, Dawkins’ writing style is clear, and most terms are explained as he introduces them.

Another downside was the placement of the footnotes, which might have been the fault of the publisher rather than the author. These notes were added in a later edition, marked in the original text with asterisks, and found in the back of the book. Most of them dealt with new information that had arisen since the original publication and so were enlightening and helfpul, but their placement in the back of the book means the reader regularly has to flip to the back to find the note that accompanies the just-found asterisk. I would have greatly preferred to find the notes at the bottom of each applicable page. (I do understand the arguments against such a placement, especially since a few of the notes were lengthy.)


What I Liked Most About It


Despite regular accusations from the anti-science crowd that “science is a religion” (example) or that evolution is a matter of “faith” (example), I found no leaps of faith or baseless assertions in this book (or in any other science-related book I’ve read recently). Where something is unknown, the author said it’s unknown. If something is assumed, he said it is assumed, and explained why it’s assumed. For example:
“The account of the origin of life that I shall give is necessarily speculative; by definition, nobody was around to see what happened... We do not know what chemical raw materials were abundant on earth before the coming of life, but among the plausible possibilities are water, carbon dioxide, methane, and ammonia...”

—pg. 14

This kind of language is exactly why I like science. It uses terms like “as far as we know”, “to the best of our knowledge”, “recent studies have shown”, “with a few exceptions, which I will mention below”, and so on. When contrasted with the firm language of religion (“absolute”, “always”, and “every”), it shows that science is a quest for knowledge rather than an assertion of it. Science tends to recognize what it doesn’t yet know; in fact, what isn’t known is the very reason for the existence of science.

I also liked the ideas presented, because they make sense, intuitively, given the knowledge of genetics and DNA that science has uncovered. The idea that natural selection works on genes — rather than individuals, groups, or species — is logically sound.
“Individuals are not stable things, they are fleeting. Chromosomes too are shuffled into oblivion, like hands of cards soon after they are dealt. But the cards themselves survive the shuffling. The cards are the genes. The genes are not destroyed by crossing-over, they merely change partners and march on. Of course they march on. That is their business. They are the replicators and we are their survival machines. When we have served our purpose we are cast aside. But genes are denizens of geological time: genes are forever.”

—pg. 35

The idea that individuals are complex “survival machines” built by genes to ensure future replication is powerful and humbling, yet surprisingly difficult to dispute. It does what a good scientific theory should; it explains observed phenomenon.
“Different sorts of survival machine appear very varied on the outside and in their internal organs. An octopus is nothing like a mouse, and both are quite different from an oak tree. Yet in their fundamental chemistry they are rather uniform, and, in particular, the replicators that they bear, the genes, are basically the same kind of molecule in all of us — from bacteria to elephants. We are all survival machines for the same kind of replicator — molecules called DNA — but there are many different ways of making a living in the world, and the replicators have built a vast range of machines to exploit them. A monkey is a survival machine that preserves genes up trees, a fish is a machine that preserves genes in the water; there is even a small worm that preserves genes in German beer mats. DNA works in mysterious ways.”


It Should Be Noted


The theory proposed, described, and defended by Dawkins in this book is not entirely his own, as he hurries to mention in his book. The gene-centered view of evolution first began to arise not long after DNA was first correctly described in the late 1950s, and was pioneered by scientists George C. Williams and John Maynard Smith in the 1960s. But, as Robert Trivers (another scientist) wrote in the foreward to The Selfish Gene, it was Dawkins’ book that “for the first time... presented [this theory] in a simple and popular form”.

This idea is also not without its detractors. There are notable scientists who disagree with the central tenets of Dawkins’ views, among them famed paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould (now deceased) — one of two men responsible for the punctuated equilibrium theory. Gould believed natural selection worked on several levels, but learned toward the species as being the fundamental unit of selection. He also argued against the acceptance of the idea that many behaviors are genetically determined.

My own view (which is relevant here, since this is my book review) is that they’re probably both right. My view doesn’t arise from any scientific knowledge — my lack of which I have already mentioned — but purely from my observational experience that two-sided arguments are often artificial, that both sides often contain enough truth to be valid. It would surprise me if scientists as a whole someday determined that natural selection only works on the genetic level or only worked at the species level (or only at any other level: group-selection, kin-selection, individual selection, etc.) While one level or another might turn out to be more important than the others (and that most important level could easily turn out to be the genetic level), it stands to reason that the other levels carry weight as well.

Dawkins and Gould are probably both right on the determinism argument as well. Based on my own experiences with addictive behavior (not to mention many studies published in the decades since Gould and Dawkins disagreed) shows that genetic determinism must play at least some part in many behaviors. At least, I am currently convinced of this. But also clear is that behavior is often influenced by our views and beliefs, and our views and beliefs are changeable, so it stands to reason that some of our behavior is not genetically determined. (I am using “reason” here in the sense of “common sense”, which I recognize is often shown to be incorrect; intuition is not always right — take for example that it’s “common sense” that the Sun moves while the Earth does not, something that was eventually disproven.)

Conclusion


I would recommend this book to anyone interested in science in general, though I would advise first building a rudimentary knowledge of biology and evolutionary theory. As already mentioned, my own shortcomings in these areas made it difficult to understand parts of this book.








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