21 of 27 people found the following review helpful
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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