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21 of 25 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars The Sarcastic Gene, 10 Mar 2012
This review is from: The Selfish Gene: 30th Anniversary edition (Paperback)
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.
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Showing 1-6 of 6 posts in this discussion
Initial post: 17 Mar 2012 13:02:59 GMT
J. Mann says:
I've just watched the Dawkins debate with Rowan Williams and have to say I found him a lot better mannered than my review gives him credit. He seemed to me polite and respectful of both Williams and Kenny (who chaired the debate).

What struck me about the debate is that they were rather talking at cross-purposes. It just seems to me that humanity has always been telling itself stories about itself - why we are here, how we should live, who we are etc. Religion is part of this great collection of stories. Science is a special type of story, where we try to look at a very specific set of data and tell a story that is as true as possible to that data. Religious stories - or non-scientific stories - can be broad and all encompassing and can include metaphor, myth, poetry, magic - all sorts of methods and techniques. Science has very limited ways of telling its stories and making sense of things.

In the debate things were mostly about the science story, so Rowan Williams didn't seem to me to have much to contribute. When we got outside of the science story - such as how do we make sense of a wasted life - we were closer to the religion story, and although Dawkins had nothing really to say expect "stuff happens", strangely even here Williams didn't really engage as the overall debate was about science.

A pity really as it seemed a good opportunity to clarify the line between science and religion.

Posted on 20 Apr 2012 19:43:32 BDT
Quoting, "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."

Actually I think Dawkins' argument is a little more specific and the, "survive", may be more clearly stated as, "survive, reproduce and evolve (change)", meaning the genes themselves, not the host bodies. Of course, survival of the host body makes gene reproduction more likely up to a certain body age in most living things, so one tends to follow the other.

We are the vehicles of reproduction and evolution, via sex, for our genes.

Posted on 31 Mar 2013 18:13:11 BDT
bella says:
I have to agree with your assesment of Dawkins as a someone who deals with things at a very simplistic level, and completely with your assessment of his book. It is simple to read but it is oversimplified. Which would be fine were the author not immune to anything remotely complex or outside of his notions of what is right. He has become a fairly arrogant and unpleasant bloke. The religious asides got irritating after a while as well. It is supposed to be a science book, not the god delusion.

Whilst I agree with much of what he says about religion, in terms of science he has stopped listening to anyone that doesn't agree whole heartedly with him. This book does oversimplify the complex evolution of behaviours which is fine in that that should have been his aim. What isn't fine is that that he then seems to sit back and look down his noses at anyone adding anything new into the mix. Dawkins does not tend to take kindly to newer research, any criticisms (indeed it is difficult to criticise Dawkins without being accused of being a believer or worse anti science) or to any views that disagree with his own - which in this book hail from the 1970s. In short he is becoming what he held in so much disdain in the religious - a man that no longer listens.

In truth the evolution of the brain and behaviours are far from simple and are multi faceted. Dawkins needs to stop thinking in such simplistic terms and simply try listening to newer research and the fact we may not yet be able to explain everything.

In reply to an earlier post on 3 Jun 2013 23:21:15 BDT
What happens if, in the future, what nature has chosen (in its divining) to be the 'fittest gene' turns out to be a dud one and a whole species dies out? Is it co-incidence that it seems to have worked out well so far (at least in that we consider ourselves quite sophisticated and evolved with a belief in 'progress') or not?

In reply to an earlier post on 4 Jun 2013 07:35:51 BDT
"Nature" does not "divine". Gene changes, or mutations, happen by chance because "nature" is not perfectly controlled. Species, or changes, that are not suitable have regularly, "died out". How many dinosaurs have you seen in the park lately? Those few random gene changes that have given a reproductive advantage have survived simply because they give that advantage. I think that, compared to a dinosaur, I am quite sophisticated and "evolved" and I do believe that progress happens, or we lose out as a species and die.

I do not believe, however, that we humans are necessarily the species that will continue to evolve at the expense of all others. Who knows what lies ahead. "Nature" certainly does not.

In reply to an earlier post on 26 Jun 2013 00:07:21 BDT
D. Rice says:
I think your questions might be answered if you read the book.
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