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 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 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 7 October 2006
I was 14 when I read the book and to be honest was expecting a bit of a slog, having to re-read all the scientific bits again and again, but I was pleasently surprised. I couldn't put the book down. Dawkins writes wonderfully fluently and explains things wonderfully, I couldnt have asked for more. But what I found most interesting was that where other book leave questions unanswered, Dawkins goes one step further and left me with new questions (much deeper questions) forming in my head. This is, in my opinion, the best of Dawkins book and a must read whether you be theist, agnostic or atheist.
I have to smile. A fellow reader has given up on "The Selfish Gene" for two reasons. Firstly, Dawkins is too arrogant. Secondly, it is too difficult to read on a bus and you have to skip to the appendices sometimes. Well, there are plenty of good reviews here, so rather than add one more, can we just consider these two obstacles for a moment?
Yes, arrogant could describe the tone. Still, what's in a tone? Telephone directories are pretty insipid (and ungrammatical) but I still use them now and then. I think my fellow reader is put off because he is suspicious of anyone who presents an argument with this force and passion. My advice - if that bothers you, concentrate on the message rather than the voice. Call me biased, or converted, but Dawkins is entitled to push hard, because.... like it or not, he's probably spot on.
Difficult to read? Well, not for me, but everyone is different. And personally, I find anything more demanding than Peanuts pretty hard going on public transport. So - read it at home - on the sofa instead of a week's worth of EastEnders, or locked in your bathroom if your dad is a Creationist.
And who said books have to be linear experiences? Joan Collins? Skip around. Read ALL the appendices first, twice. I promise I won't tell anyone.
So what if it is "difficult to read"? Since when did everything worthwhile have to be Big-Mac easy? Maybe in some cases what you get out is proportional to what you put in... Ask the shades of Edmund Hillary or Winston Churchill. If you're a lottery winner then this is all patently false, but then you probably wouldn't be bothering with Dawkins or buses.
I'm guilty of feebleness too. Doctor Zhivago is a wonderful novel, but I'm told you only get the full measure of it if you read it in Pasternak's original Russian. Well, I'm ashamed to say I would love to experience it for myself, but I've never made the effort to learn the language. It's a closed book to me. But for all its quality that is just a top bit of fiction. "The Selfish Gene" is - whether you find it easy to accept or not - a lucid account of the almost certainly real, astonishly beautiful process by which the universe managed to produce you, me and an author called Boris who wrote about love and revolution.
And it's already in English! So please give it another go.
I found this book surprising and fascinating and not really what I was expecting.
The basic idea of this book is to promote the idea that when Darwin talked about the survival of the fittest, he was really - although he didn't know it - talking about the fittest gene. There are various candidates for what the "fittest" might be referring to. It might be the fittest individual organism, it might be the fittest group, but Dawkins makes the argument that it is the genes and the attributes they give their host bodies that enables them to survive that makes them the best candidate.
The term "selfish" simply refers to the genes that survive are those with the attributes that enable them to best survive - it is fairly tautological, it doesn't mean they will be self-destructively selfish, if being unselfish enables them to survive better, they will be unselfish - so the term, although just a metaphor - is not particularly helpful.
What I found surprising about the book is the amount of detail devoted to what are called Evolutionary Stable Strategies (ESS) and various problems of game theory. These are essentially simplified models of survival - or rules of engagement - that organisms might adopt. A simple example might be Hawks and Doves, a Hawk being an organism with aggressive rules of engagement and a Dove being one with submissive rules. If a Hawk and a Dove meet, the Hawk will fight and will always win. If two Doves meet neither will fight, if two Hawks meet each has a 50% chance of winning, the loser suffering various degrees of damage. Fighting itself also expends a certain amount of energy. If you put together a computer model of varying numbers of Hawks and Doves you find a level at which a certain amount of Hawks and Doves can live together.
Much of the book enjoys looking at varying the parameters in this sort of model - for example there may not be a steady state, but a repeating cycle of proportions of Hawks and Doves, or imagine a hybrid Hawk-Dove which does not initiate a fight but will fight back if attacked etc.
These type of models are susceptible to computer modelling and can be used to explain how organisms with varying attributes come to survive. To illustrate the usefulness of these models a number of fascinating examples from nature are provided - so the different chapters explain bizarre behaviour or strange external attributes, then show how this can be expressed in a computer model and the model then shows how the behaviour or attributes make the organism successful in surviving.
What this book shows is the delight Dawkins takes in explaining something. This also makes him a readable author, because he has a mind that enjoys breaking something down into clear and well-understood parts. No wonder this book has sold so well - an author who can explain something clearly is naturally going to survive in the market of books that popularise science.
But this also leads me into the problem perhaps people have with Dawkins. As is well-known, Dawkins doesn't like religion, and there are a number of asides in this book where he makes this clear. But I have also noticed in his engagements with the media that Dawkins seems to not always come across well.
I read an interview with him in a Sunday paper where he was being very off-hand and unpleasant, yet he himself clearly was unaware of this. At one point the journalist says the way Dawkins treated the photographer was the worst behaviour they had seen, but when they questioned Dawkins about his behaviour he seemed to be totally unaware of how he had behaved and thought his encounter with the photographer had gone rather well.
In a book review program on Sky I watched recently Dawkins was in the studio with three other people discussing various books, and everyone seemed to be very off with Dawkins - he really seemed to have rubbed them all up the wrong way. My guess was that Dawkins had realised the other guests were being hostile to him, but was unaware of what he had done to upset them.
My point is that Dawkins doesn't appear to like things that are complicated and messy. He likes everything to be clear and straight-forward. In the book review program he was discussing a book he had written for children about how stories and myths about creation are wrong. The other authors were trying to show that stories have different levels of meaning, different layers, were open to different readings and interpretations, we can enjoy a story at many different levels, we can enjoy its ambiguity, its openness, the fact that it leaves some parts unresolved etc, but Dawkins didn't seem to get this - a story was an account that was either true or false.
So of course there are times when it is important to simplify and clarify things and Dawkins is good at it. But there is much in life that is mysterious, is unexplained, that we don't have a simple model for, that has layers of meaning, is full of complexity and before this huge unknown we need some humility. One of the strange experiences of listening to Dawkins and his wife read this book is that much of it sounds as if they are reading it in a sarcastic tone. They read it as if they are looking down their noses at anyone who would dare to disagree with them. At one level listening to this book is about learning how Dawkins understands evolution to work. At another level it is the whine of someone disdainful of those who want to see beyond his simplified model of the world.
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]