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 1 May 2012
Wonderful book, let's say that up front. There are however SO MANY annoying mistakes in the Kindle edition and this is SUCH a shame! Especially with dates. eg 19705 for 1970s and 19805 for 1980s.
In the 'Extracts from Reviews' the first (Pro bono publico) was (will be rofl) written in 7977. Then in 'Genes and Memes' we see 'during the 19605 and 19705'. This is just sloppy.
I've picked those 2 because it was easier to back-page to find them, than to search the whole book for the other spelling mistakes. But there are lots. I'm just a reader, not a proof-reader, so the errors should have been picked up by a professional before publication. Gill.
on 9 December 2014
This book could be a good book, if the author made it clear that most of the ideas in it are really just speculations, as they have never been proven. Yes, everyone knows that genes have an important role in inheritance, but whether they have the role the author and many others believe they do, has not been proven by anyone. There are many scientist that believe that genes cannot contain all the information needed to build e.g. an organ, and considering that in spite of all the efforts, nobody could prove the opposite, it would be probably a good idea to take them more seriously and point this out in a book like this.
My other complaint is about the author's attitude towards people who do not agree with this book: in his view, they are all intellectually challenged, religious folks. And this is very disappointing from a scientist, as he behaves exactly like some religious fanatic: if you cannot understand something, then revert to your beliefs. I guess it would help if he were more curious, more humble and had a lot smaller ego.
on 3 April 2007
I read The Selfish Gene (2nd edition, 1989) because it is one of the twenty books Charlie Munger recommends in the second edition of Poor Charlie's Almanack (which I have recently read and recommend very strongly indeed).
I'm going to quote Dawkins from the preface to the original edition as he provides an excellent summary of the central message of the book and its effect upon him (and me):
"We are survival machines - robot vehicles blindly programmed to preserve the selfish molecules known as genes. This is a truth which still fills me with astonishment. Though I have known it for years, I never seem to get fully used to it."
Using one of the many excellent analogies utilised throughout his book, Dawkins explains that we are like a chess computer program that has been programmed by its creator to play in its absence. The programmer (genes) takes no part in the game (life) but instead provides the tools for its vehicle (animal, plant etc.) to play the game on its behalf.
I am glad that Dawkins says that he never gets fully used to this idea. I find it very difficult to replace the idea of my primacy in my body with the idea above. It requires a sort of `flip' in one's perception - but it is so different to what our senses tell us that it flips back without a conscious effort (or so I find, anyway). But how many of us have not regularly had to do battle with themselves to do what they know they should do rather than what they feel an urge to do? Dawkins' ideas provide an excellent framework in which to help understand these problems, which I suspect is a major part of the reason why Munger recommended this book.
For example, Munger believes that what he calls `reward and punishment superresponse tendency' is the most powerful of the psychological biases that affect humans (and other animals). Dawkins provides a very convincing explanation of why this should be the case: because it is a method that the programmer (genes) can use to provide rules that its vehicle (us) can use to learn to cope with its environment better in the absence of the programmer. It is thus much more efficient than providing an endless number of detailed rules and copes with the problem of an environment that may be different to that `expected' by the genes. Even so, these rules do not always help us today - for example it helps to explain why rich societies have a problem with obesity: our genes did not expect us to have access to such plenty that the rule to reward us for putting sweet things into our mouths would cause problems.
Our selfish, almost immortal genes do not care about us - their short-term, throwaway vehicles. We should also expect to find that we have been programmed with selfish behaviour in our creators' image. However, he makes two very important caveats, which mean that overall I think the book has a rather hopeful message:
1. We are likely to have a statistical propensity towards selfishness, but that does not mean that individually we are doomed to that behaviour. We have a choice.
2. In my favourite chapter, `Nice guys finish first' (one of the two chapters added for the 2nd edition) Dawkins uses the Prisoner's Dilemma gambling game to show that if certain conditions are met (which often are in nature), paradoxically, the best outcome is for selfish individuals to cooperate. And that the `good' character traits of niceness, forgivingness and non-enviousness can therefore be the most successful.
I believe that unless we wish to rely on luck throughout our lives we need to embrace reality as closely as possible, which is what a first-rate book like Dawkins' helps us to do.
on 2 October 2000
This book is undoubtedly a must-read for fans of great popular science writing. If you've not already read it - why not? Call yourself a fan of popular science? ;-) But in case you might be put off or worried by the review (29th Aug 2000) below, it should be noted that that view of 'The Selfish Gene' is "misleading and has some glaring flaws in it". For example...
...the claim that the primeval soup is part of a chain of what Fortean Times has called BLL (bloody loose logic), whereby "imagine that there was..." becomes a fact a while later. Slight problem: the 'primeval soup' is based on well-founded hypotheses about what the earth was like 4½ billion years ago, not something Dawkins just dreamed up to cover a hole in his argument. It is one of the best (and best-known) 'abiogenesis' (life from non-life) models. And in any case it is not in the slightest "crucial in developing his ideas about how genes might behave". It is one proposed (naturalistic, scientific) way of getting replicators. In fact it matters not a jot or tittle to Dawkins' thesis how replicators actually came about, the book (and Darwin's theory) is about what happens once you've got 'em. Dawkins himself uses another idea (Cairns-Smith's clay crystals) in 'The Blind Watchmaker'. Interested parties are referred to that, to Maynard Smith and Szathmary's 'The Origin of Life', or Cairns-Smith.
... Also, the claim of cicrcularity (sic) in the kin selection arguments. It only 'presupposes' the mechanism to the extent that the mechanism is a reality, a provable fact, in mathematical cost-benefit models - and the real world matches it once the unit of selection is realised to be the gene, as this book proposes, and not the species nor the individual. That's not circularity, that's science. As Jim Royle would say, seductive rhetoric my arse!
The writer's comments are interesting because they show how easy it is for those with preconceptions (is there a clue in the 'dismantling God' and 'murder of the sensitive soul' comments, I wonder?), or those who are "intellectually weak", to say things with far less meaning than they appear to have. If 'The Selfish Gene' is an example of what "our times are accommodating", be very very grateful - in former times Galileo was imprisoned for promoting scientific theories. Dawkins' world-view, that we are vehicles for our genes, offers no theological comfort, but that's not what science is for - it's a search for reality, not for cosiness. (Mind you, creation offers a God that presumably also deliberately created Plasmodium (malaria), lyssavirus (rabies), HIV and Ebola. I'll take hard reality thanks.)
This is a fabulous, exciting and challenging book intellectually, and one of the key items for the bookshelf of anyone interested by evolutionary theory, or ideas in general, containing as it does the coinage of 'meme'. In the second edition, Dawkins sensibly leaves the 1976 text intact and adds copious notes (though this means constant flicking back and forth for those who read it before!).
The introduction gives the example of the necker cube, of how this 2-dimensional line drawing of a transparent 3-D cube can seem to 'flip' faces as you look at it. Similarly, this book will make you see the same world in a wholly new, fresh, revelatory way, through thinking and writing as clear and sharp as cut lead crystal. This book is much maligned, mostly by people who object to what they think it stands for (eg genetic determinism, which it does NOT) - or even just the title! - rather than for the quality of its writing, its logic, or its science. Buy it, if only to see how frighteningly easy it is, were it not for clear thinkers like Dawkins, for bigots to mislead you.
on 30 June 2015
I had to review this for my coursework, I found it so so tedious to read and my course mates agreed, really struggled to write my review even though I didn't do too badly it starts off interesting then it gets very repetitive in my opinion I wouldn't recommend it to anyone
on 20 March 2016
(Note: This review is for the audiobook version)
This book is required reading for my degree at university. As someone who rarely reads and struggles to keep up concentration on a book, I decided (on the recommendation of a lecturer) to buy this audiobook version. I was not at all disappointed. it is read by Dawkins himself and this enables a greater understanding of the text than you could ever get from just reading the book. You can easily tell which elements of his argument make him passionate, and which he felt simply had to be included. Another advantage of this is the placement of footnotes. Having been in discussions with friends about this book, I noted that some found arguments hard to follow because so much of what Dawkins says that is important is contained in footnotes and endnotes. In the audiobook, these are slotted into the text in logical places, preceded by Dawkins saying loudly 'endnote/footnote'.
The only issues with this are it does take a long time (it's well over 16 hours) so you may want to have a good place to sit to listen to it. If you're a heavy commuter this will be perfect for you. The other issue is (for me at least) this cannot be played in a CD player, it has to be played on a computer or other device (e.g. an MP3 player).
In terms of the book and its contents, again, I heartily recommend the selfish gene. Whether an undergraduate, expert in the topic or simply curious about the natural world, this book will be a thrill from start to finish.
on 21 September 2012
It's important to note that this is a book written back in the 1970s. The author who wrote it should not be mistaken for the divisive figure that he has become within the last 10 years. The edition I picked up was the 30th anniversary edition, which comes with 3 prefaces and a foreword.
Reading the first few chapters, the most striking thing is Dawkins' engaging narrative style. It can be little surprise that subsequent to writing this he was made a professor for the public understanding of science, as his written communication is crystal clear. In addition to the main text, there are some lengthy endnotes which appear to be mostly the product of later editions where there is an extremely defensive tone, in some exasperation of opposition born out of misunderstanding of the ideas and terminology used in the first edition.
Although the title of the book implies a book on genetics, this is largely confined to the early couple of chapters with the majority of the book looking at animal behaviour from a gene's point of view. It is easy to see why some might take him for an atomist from these discussions, as he gives little countenance to causes other than genetic inheritance. This may simply be a consequence of his emphasis rather than reflecting his actual views, though such atomism is common, in my experience, amongst those who cite Dawkins as a major source of their scientific knowledge and understanding.
However, one has to recall warnings given early in the book about Dawkins' use of terminology. Much of the book is written in simile and metaphor, with many adjectives loaded with the capacity to be misread if one reads the text as a literalist.
One of the key themes is altruism. That is, how do organisms end up helping one another out if their genes inheritance follows a rough pattern that might be described as "selfish." Aren't selfishness and altruism polar opposites? Dawkins argues that this is not so. In so doing, the prime target in Dawkins' crosshairs are proponents of "group selection" who (very broadly speaking) favour the idea that animals and plants behave in such a way as to ensure the survival of their particular group. Dawkins argues convincingly that this is an illusion and gives examples where such a theory is left somewhat lacking where the selfish gene theory can provide a reasonable hypothesis.
With all this said, though, it has to be noted that Dawkins includes very little hard evidence in his book. To keep things interesting and engaging for the lay reader, we are presented with multiple anecdotes rather than scientific studies. So, reading with due scepticism, one should be wary of accepting all of Dawkins' ideas unquestionably. Indeed, shortly after finishing the book, I was given a link to a paper (though unfortunately, it is hidden behind a paywall) which calls into question Dawkins' "kin selection."
This brings us to the weak points of the book. It begins in chapter 10, `You scratch my back, I'll ride on yours' where Dawkins make a quite startling comment for a scientist: "One cannot really speak of `evidence' for this idea, but...." (it's on page 182 of the 30th anniversary edition, if you want the full quote, it's rather too long to copy) - yet in the next chapter, where Dawkins introduces the idea of a meme, he makes his statement that faith is "blind trust, in the absence of evidence, even in the teeth of evidence."
Of course, his definition has now become almost as famous as it is erroneous. Yet that fame could mistakenly lead one to think that this was an early example of Dawkins' departure from science into the world of atheistic diatribe; it absolutely is not. It is merely an example that he used to illustrate his innovative idea on the transmission of information. Of course, subsequent decades of works on memetics have proved fruitless, and it is now abandoned as a serious line of enquiry by all but a vocal minority. If this surprises you, I would point you to the last ever edition of the journal of memetics where the situation was summed up quite nicely.
Following on from this, Dawkins looks at game theory which may seem out of place in a biology book, but which serves as a useful introduction to anyone who has not encountered it before. The book concludes with an additional chapter not included in the original edition. It is a concise summary of the follow-up book, The Extended Phenotype. It's not an extract for a sequel, which I have seen in some publications, but it serves the same purpose, as an advert for the reader to make a further purchase. In this respect, it is quite successful, as it is as immensely fascinating as the rest of The Selfish Gene.
Though some of its ideas have now had severe doubt cast upon them, The Selfish Gene still stands as a wonderful pop science book on biology, and I would recommend it to anyone interested in science.
on 31 October 2003
This is one of the great classics of science writing, and re-reading it again recently I was deeply impressed by its freshness, the quality of Dawkins logic, the engaging style, and the trenchant, confident approach to this aspect of genetics.
This is a book to be read by any person, young or old, who wishes to learn more about biology. But it is also an important book of general interest which people with no particular scientific background should read. It is essential for a rounded, modern education.
In the original preface of the book, Dawkins says that he aims to make his meaning clear to three different types of reader- the expert, the layman, and the student. Speaking as a layman I found this book very accessible. The analogies and examples that pepper the book are all clear and memorable.
Other reviewers have done a much better job than I could of summarising the contents of the book, so I will be brief. Principally, this book is about balance. The way Dawkins describes it, the swinging-pendulum approach to evolution, genetic success and failure, 'cause and effect', makes total sense.
This is a straightforward discussion of the fundamentals of life, a complete theory and set of principles (I'd steer away from the word 'rules'), to the extent that you end up feeling that you can take any event, trend, or habit, from society or from nature, and use the selfish gene principle to explain it.
On reading this book I can understand now why Richard Dawkins was a fan of the work of Douglas Adams, and vice versa. In a strange sort of way, this book is to fact what Adams' work is to fiction.