on 22 November 2011
It's ironic that I should have read one of Dawkins' earliest works after reading his newest - doubly so given that the quality of the former eclipses that of the latter by a substantial margin. The Selfish Gene represents Dawkins at his very best: lucid and witty without ever sacrificing his intellectual rigour, he presents his arguments with an unassailable logic that precludes disagreement. Perhaps it is a cliché, but everyone who has an interest in Darwinian evolution should read this book.
That said, there are times when Dawkins belabours some of his points unnecessarily and, occasionally, over-indulges his proclivity for observing the niceties of academic modesty, but the prose never ceases to sparkle and these minor issues really are the harshest criticisms I can muster! The 30th anniversary edition has been updated with some insightful endnotes that enhance (but not interrupt) the original text and bring The Selfish Gene up to date, making it a worthy addition to any library collection.
on 28 June 2006
While you might expect Dawkins' classic to be terrifically interesting (and you'd be right), you'd probably expect it to be a bit of a slog. In this respect you'd be completely mistaken - it flows beautifully, and is seriously difficult to put down. And the whole way through you have the wonderful sense that you're being educated as well as entertained.
The book starts right from first principles, describing a plausible theory for the origin of life, and explaining how more and more complex molecules could have formed in the 'primaeval soup'. Eventually a molecule arose that could replicate itself, and life has never looked back. Dawkins goes on to define a gene, which turns out to be quite an important step (I thought I knew what the word meant already, but I was wrong), and relates how genes have indirect control over what he calls 'gene machines', i.e. living things. Subsequent chapters then detail various survival strategies, 'altruism' and how it can be explained genetically, tensions between sexes and generations, and a new replicator, the 'meme'.
One of the most fascinating aspects of the book is the way that Dawkins draws on game theory to assess mathematically the most sensible way for a gene machine to act. In particular, the sections on 'the Prisoner's Dilemma' (a specific game theory scenario which crops up all over the place in nature) are, to me at least, a radical new way of thinking of many problems in (human) life, and how we should approach them. It could have ramifications for politics, social policy, economics, and the environment, to name only a few. Like all the difficult concepts in this book, Dawkins explains this simply and thoroughly, and the reader never feels patronised. And if you ever feel a bit stuck, a captivating, and often extremely bizarre, illustration is selected from the animal kingdom to clarify the point. Dawkins is also refreshingly willing to state that certain aspects of this theory are +the truth+, a brave claim in our muddled, PC society.
I would therefore thoroughly recommend this book to the general reader. It's stuffed with hugely stimulating concepts (Dawkins' own 'meme', or replicating idea, is a paricularly rich one), and wonderful snapshots of the animal kingdom. Be warned though, it may take over your life for a while - personally I feel tempted to jack everything in and go and take a bilogy degree!
on 5 August 2015
This book is still as good a read as when I first saw it in 1975 but you should be aware that it is probably more controversial now (2015) than it has been for years. This edition came out in 2005 and Prof Dawkins' additional comments in the introduction and the end notes are well worth reading.However since then reasoned academic arguments have been appearing in reputable journals, which oppose the ideas that the book promoted. As a counterbalance you should read EO Wilson " The Social Conquest of Earth" section iii,"How Social Insects Conquered the Invertebrate World" which summarises his and others' arguments against at least some important elements of the "Selfish Gene".
Nevertheless I still like reading it from time time (5-10 year intervals is about right).It is not my favourite of his books...that is "The Blind Watchmaker" ....but it should still be on any educated person's shelf (I n my view) and, of course,Hamilton's theory of "Inclusive Fitness" that "Selfish Gene" was written to explain and support, may still defeat the attacks of it's opponents.
on 21 October 2006
This is a landmark piece of writing without any doubt. This was in fact the book that sparked a whole genre. Until the success of 'The Selfish Gene' popular science writing was spectacularly under-read. After this popular science sections became noticeable in every self-respecting bookshop.
The book itself tackles what in essence could be a very difficult subject (the level at which natural selection acts) but it articulates it so well. Many since have tried to contribute to the debate but none have the prose skills of Dawkins nor the ability to put over a difficult subject with the reader seeing it as outstandingly obvious and common sense. Dawkins also initiates the idea of the meme as a unit of cultural evolution here for the first time. In the long run this may turn out to be Dawkins biggest original contribution to science and it has spawned many books on the subject since.
I have a particular fondness for this book. It was having read this and 'The Blind Watchmaker' which sent me back to full-time education at the age of 29 to read Genetics and subsequently develop a career in science myself. Truly an inspirational piece of work - one of the outstanding books of the Twentieth Century.
on 14 October 2006
As far as evolutionary biology's concerned I'm very interested, but nevertheless a layman. Richard Dawkins has however the rare ability to explain any scientifically difficult subject to practically everybody. His style is easy to read, very understandable, sometimes funny, and he uses very good examples to explain. Anybody having difficulties to understand evolution (and there are many out there) should read Dawkins' The Selfish Gene. A very good book: convincing, informative, readable book.
on 19 September 2015
This book has added so much light to my view of the world. It has helped build a better picture of the truth about humanity and nature. You will likely find yourself reflecting on the past and becoming more aware in the present and future situations. Really this is a book that builds on the Darwinian theory of evolution. The title most certainly does not fully reflect the content and this is well explained by Richard Dawkins in the book.
While the book as a whole is very interesting and the way which Richard Dawkins writes, the simple and complex logic is beautiful. One of the brilliant examples is when he explains evolutionary stable strategy (ESS) in the human context. Saying that there are 3 kinda of people, the fool, the cheater and the grudger. Really thought provoking and a book worth reading not just once.
If this is the standard Richard Dawkins has I will surely read all of his books.
on 20 April 2001
I always find it best when a critic first outlines the platform upon which they stand. I'll do just that by saying I'm a 2nd year Zoology student, an avid follower and believer of evolutionary theory and an agnostic.
Do these facts colour my views on "The Selfish Gene"? Yes, no one is completely objective, not even the fiercest of scientists (anyone who tells you they are doesn't understand that the observer is as much a part of the system as the observed).
In my opinion, "The Selfish Gene" represents scientific writing (not just of the popular variety) at its finest. Richard Dawkins' fluid prose and vivid analogies illuminate the most complex of concepts. This is the perfect introductory text to evolutionary thought and I recommend it to lay and professional audiences alike.
As a matter of note, unlike many of the reviewers on Amazon, I reserve 5 stars for the truly exceptional works - those that represent milestones in their genre and medium. I class this book as one.
Dawkin's hard-line on evolution is not universally held in the field (many of his contempories label him an "Ultra-Darwinian") but the conviction with which he outlines his interpretation of Darwin's theory is intoxicating.
Please understand (precious few do) that though many in the scientific community do not completely mirror Dawkins in their perception of evolution, they still believe in it. Too many when viewing the ranks of biologists mistake debate for dissension.
There have been many people who have posed rather flimsy arguments against the claims this book makes. I implore that the prospective reader not be dismayed at any creationist criticisms that are slung against evolution; the same arguments have been repeated year after year for the last 140 since Darwin produced the masterly "The Origin of Species". They have all been effectively countered in the past and hold no water. Their constant recurrance has to do with the ignorance and stubborness of those who wield them; unlike the scientific camp which listens and constantly molds its views based on the validity of new evidence and arguments, that camp steadfastly sticks to their sandy ground.
Richard Dawkins, like the great Stephen Jay Gould, teaches us that there is "a beauty in this view of life" (Darwin, 1959). Spirituality and science are not at odds, irrationality in the face of evidence is the foe, not religion.
To those eager for more, I recommend "The Blind Watchmaker" by Richard Dawkins. This offers an equally well-written (unlike "The Extended Phenotype") and slightly more in-depth, if not as groundbreaking, account of evolution. Also, "Darwin's Dangerous Idea" by Daniel C. Dennett, outlines the social and philosophical impact of the theory of natural selection. Though this tome is daunting in its size, you will struggle to find a better tribute to the idea that changed man's view of himself and his position in the universe.
on 20 September 2014
I'll stop short of saying I hated it, but I really did not enjoy the book after some high expectations.
Being a biologist, I was very much looking forward to reading up on the theory of evolution and natural selection in this popularised form (having only experienced the textbook version). However, as other reviewers have mentioned, I found the style very dry, overly wordy and to be honest, very repetitive. I persisted through the first two chapters but then glancing through other chapters (in the hope that things would improve) I saw the same concept applied to different aspects of the species from physiology to behaviour and I just could not bear being beaten over the head with the same idea over and over again. Ok Dawkins, you had a good idea, but a whole book? Really?
The book at the moment has two problems for me. The first is its age. I think people going to university in the 90s and 00s must have learnt about evolution/natural selection with Dawkins' ideas in the background anyway and so probably the novelty of the concept has worn off over time. Second, is that Dawkins has taken a vaguely interesting idea too far. A thinking person will not buy into his many assumptions, oversights (especially in the second chapter) and sometimes circular arguments. It then becomes very difficult to stay with the author on his journey once you feel his scientific footing is dodgy.
I can see why the book has gained popularity among non-scientists as it does make Darwin's ideas accessible and his (many) examples are well-illustrated. Those already familiar with Evolution and Natural Selection: be warned.
on 14 August 2015
I have followed Richard Dawkins pretty since the first publishing of this book in 1976. I am already aware of the content' and I have kept myself abreast of the following edition updates. From the very first time I read this exceptional and well ahead of it's time insight to the role of our genes in 'predicting' the future of our lives, but more so the powerful acknowledgement that genes are in humans. the 'prime mover' pretty well in all things. Yes, 'nurture certainly has it's role to play, but in the end we are all product's of our gene's, like it or lump it! When I became aware that the gene that produces a horrific terminal neurological disease called Huntington's Chorea, remains dormant and undetected until late twenties, or our thirties, simply because the 'gene' has the awareness that it's 'continuation' to the next 'generation' is reliant on 'procreation', the gene remains 'quiet' until those years when we are most likely to procreate, guaranteeing it's future. At this moment in time, the only 'cure' is not for the sufferer, (they will die a 'horrific' death,) but the advice given to the 'families' of Huntington's is DO NOT HAVE ANY FURTHER CHILDREN, YOU WILL MOST LIKELY BE SENTENCING THEM TO A TERRIBLE FATE! The gene is cathode down the matriarchal line. That is the only way to eradicate this disease in families that have the genetic marker. STOP your hereditary lineage now! Dawkins reveals the world of our gene's in a very cleaver account, their is no room for emotional biochemistry here! This is indeed nature very much in the raw! Heartless and totally unforgiving! As then years have thundered by, so has nature taken it;s toll. My eyes are not what they used to be, so I invested in this MP3 version of the Selfish Gene, (unabridged,) read by the author and his wife, Lala Ward. I have transferred the CD through my Mac on to my I-Pod and I listen to varying chapters over and over again to grasp the complexity of his arguments, which are in my opinion beyond critical negative comment. They have certainly stood the test of time in almost all their original observations. However, one thing I will recommend about this MP3 version is this. If you have sight loss, it's a life saver! If you also want to listen, (and many of us interpret the spoken word better than the written one in certain situation,) this MP3 version is for you! However their is a last caveat. Both Richard Dawkins and his wife Lala ward, have the most beautiful diction, (their voices are like honey to the
ear,) and I often listen to this and imagine myself in the lecture theatre taking this stuff in like the 'ambrosia' that it is! I am elderly now, but thankfully I appear to be avoiding the 'devil' of our ageing process, loss of cognitive ability! This MP3 format, presenting some of the major works of the past years in the spoken word, is indeed the 'sweetest fruit' from the tree of knowledge. Highly highly recommended, both in 'content' and intellectual argument that has proved itself right in most things however, you get an extra bonus here. Listening to an intellect that on occasion leaves me breathless and coming up for air. I have "The Blind Watchmaker" on MP3 format and I have an abridged version of the "God Delusion!" I ask you imagine this is you please. Charles Darwin and Richard Dawkins sitting round the table at Down House in Kent! What I would have been to have been an invited (non participating) guest!
Describes the functions of genes and of reproduction as an explanation of how living organisms survive, behave and change, in immmensely clear language.
The only rivals to this book in explaining biology and evolution in accessible language which anyone can understand are some of the works of the late Stephen Jay Gould such as "Bully for Brontosaurus" and "The Flamingo's smile".
At the start of the book, and repeatedly at various stages of it, Dawkins makes clear that he is describing what is, not what he thinks ought to be, and he says that "my own feeling is that a human society based on the gene's law of universal ruthless selfishness would be a very nasty society in which to live."
So, having read this book when it first came out 30 years ago, I was quite surprised when at University shortly afterwards, I heard it desribed as a racist and sexist book. As Dawkins predicted, some readers cannot make the distinction between his descriptions of what is and what ought to be.
Many of Professor Dawkins' more recent books are characterised by attacks on religion, but this one is not. While Darkins makes no particular attempt to hide his atheistic views in this book, there was nothing in it which I as a devout Christian found offensive or remotely troubling to my beliefs. (Probably a complement which Dawkins would not welcome!)
However, the sort of religious believer to whom this book is not a threat are those who Dawkins once called "Old-Earth Theists" e.g. those of us who accept that the earth is billions of years old and that evolution took place. A creationist brave enough to read this with an open mind would find it a serious challenge to his or her views.
In the introduction to this 30th anniversary edition, Darkins remarks that when he speaks to audiences about his more recent works they "show gratifying enthusiams, applaud politely, and ask intelligent questions." Then they line up to buy, and ask him to sign, "The Selfish Gene."
Could it possibly be that this is because this book is far better than anything else he has written?
P.S. As mentioned I am what Dawkins calls an "Old Earth Theist" and did not try to hide that when I originally wrote this review though I did try to be impartial.
If the people who read this review have a view on whether you like the book and this review, and why, I'd be most grateful if you could please leave me a comment to let me know what you liked or didn't like and where you are coming from. I'd be fascinated to know whether I've upset the creationists by praising the book, the politically correct by saying it isn't racist or sexist, or the church of St Dawkins and All Atheists by teasing them with the original last line of the review !!!