Given the amount of dreck published about this book over the past two decades, it seemed a worthwhile exercise to reread and comment on it for a new generation of readers. As with Darwin's Origin of Species, more people have commented on this work than have read or understood it. Dawkins is a superb writer, able to convey his ideas with clarity and wit. As he has stated elsewhere, however, those very ideas still challenge those whose minds are locked by preconceptions. Dawkins must be, and is, a staunch advocate in presenting to us what genes are all about. He does so in order that we better understand ourselves.
He begins by anticipating the outcry of those who must see humans set apart from the rest of life. "Why Are People" examines several behavioral aspects of animals and people. Altruism receives particular attention because the term "selfish" applied to life returns us to the concept of nature "red in tooth and claw" which he wishes to avoid. Genes are not conscious entities who make decisions about their existence or future. Genes are simply replicators, using whatever resources are available to make more of themselves. With luck, the environment in which they do this allows them to survive and continue replicating. If not, the gene, and whatever characteristic it represents, goes extinct. Enough bad matches and a whole species follows the gene into extinction.
In the beginning our very earliest ancestors weren't likely to even have been organisms, but simply chemicals. From this, Dawkins traces the development of the DNA molecule and the organisms that came to carry it in their cells. These organisms, "survival machines" in Dawkins' expression, carry the genes, supplying them with the raw material to continue replicating. It's a discomfiting idea to many to be brought face to face with the idea that they are but "gene machines", but Dawkins shows us in crisp prose that this is simply how life works. Because animals, particularly human animals, seem to exhibit "purpose", there is ongoing objection to the idea that actions can be gene driven. Dawkins explains that genes have had more than three billion years to develop survival techniques that give the appearance of "purposiveness."
The apparent display of purpose is covered through much of the book in his discussion of "game theory". Game theory applied to life has moved well beyond simple win or lose situations. Game situations now involve highly complex interactions in which the players don't win or lose, but survive where possible. Players don't reach a terminal finish through their activities, but reach a modus vivendi. Parents, particularly mothers, sacrifice to bear and raise offspring. Plants, deprived of an optimum niche, adapt to occupy another, less desirable one.
Finally, in what might prove to be the most telling innovation in this book, Dawkins introduces a new descriptor of social behaviour: the meme. The revolution in thinking about why humanity performs some wholly illogical actions has only begun. Ideas, habits, faiths, characteristics that humans like to think separate us from the other animals, arise and replicate just like their biological counterparts. They form, replicate, find a suitable environment and continue replicating. Susan Blackmore's THE MEME MACHINE, is a must companion to this volume with its full and penetrating examination of this aspect of life.
Dawkins' critics are loud and vociferous. It would be pointless to assess motivation in their continued diatribes against this book. Darwin was forced to weather the same type of criticisms for just the same reason: their ideas jerk the pedestal of divine origins from humanity. Even trained scientists find it difficult to shed the concept that because humans have achieved so much, their origins must transcend pure biology. Dawkins' critics nearly all descend to the pejorative, labelling him and his adherents, "Ultra-Darwinists". Few phrases are as meaningless as this one. How one can be "beyond Darwin" eludes definition.
This book is a fine starting point in understanding how life, particularly our form of life, operates. It should be standard classroom fare, both in biology and philosophy classes. If you didn't encounter it there, buy it here. Read it carefully and closely. You will be rewarded with excellent writing, stimulating ideas and you may gain deep insight into what you are. [stephen a. haines - Ottawa, Canads]