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Customer Review

5 of 7 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Ok until chapter 6 and then he commits every scientific error possible, 13 Feb. 2013
This review is from: The Selfish Gene (Paperback)
This was Dawkins' first popular science book that presented to the world the idea of the selfish gene. The problem is that while this idea often appears in the popular science literature it has not had such a large impact in biology where it is mainly a footnote to studies of evolution. The essential problem is that Dawkins does not have a very good grasp of molecular biology and so his idea of gene is flawed from the start. He redefines the term to suit his own needs and own meaning and then provides six chapters of carefully crafted arguments about this new use of the term gene. This is OK - he is perfectly correct in creating this hypothesis and suggesting how it agrees with current experiment.

Then it all unravels after chapter 7 when he starts to commit serious scientific errors. He first is guilty of bias in his selection of the literature and his interpretation. It all becomes a collection of "just so" stories that have more in common with Lamarck than Darwin. He makes the decision about what he is going to find and then bends the evidence to fit his view. Science works the other way around. You have an idea and collect evidence to test it, you don't make the evidence conform to your idea. Nature is not wrong. He points out only weakly that many of the key supported literature had been refuted by the time he wrote the new edition - such as the work on Game Theory by Maynard-Smith which has been displaced by Axelrod's more complete work which he covers in an added chapter but which destroys his ESS idea.

In the last few chapters he makes an even worse mistake by talking of progressive evolution. This is heresy to evolutionary biology. Evolution is blind chance - it is not progressive that is precisely why Darwin came into conflict with the Church of England. Progressive movement towards a goal is what religion wants people to believe. This is the core of the teleological ideas that pervade Marx and Teilhard de Chardin. These are the enemies of reason according to Popper and they are certainly not in agreement with Darwin's much more indifferent view of evolution.

So while it is a book to be read so that you know what all the fuss is about - the answer to that is, not a lot, because most of it is wrong and bad science.
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Showing 1-8 of 8 posts in this discussion
Initial post: 24 Apr 2013 12:10:43 BDT
Nobby says:
Thanks for this review. Very helpful.

Posted on 19 Jun 2013 13:27:57 BDT
Joe says:
please quote where he "makes an even worse mistake by talking of progressive evolution"
this is not what I gathered from the last few chapters, I think it may be out of context

In reply to an earlier post on 19 Jun 2013 17:58:36 BDT
Andrew Dalby says:
He gives examples in the last chapters of evolution going toward some outcome and there is an inference that evolution knows what is best which is not true. This is the key reason Darwin was unpopular with the churches because he rejected teleology. Evolution accidentally finds solutions by wasteful random exploration and survival of progeny. It does not have a target and it is the implied targets in the later chapters that I object to because this is progress and not Darwin's view. This is common mistake among biologists who work at the whole organism level who forget that changes happen to genes but selection happens to organisms.

Posted on 22 Jul 2013 16:59:13 BDT
gilipsietwo says:
"He points out only weakly that many of the key supported literature had been refuted by the time he wrote the new edition - such as the work on Game Theory by Maynard-Smith which has been displaced by Axelrod's more complete work which he covers in an added chapter but which destroys his ESS idea."

Could you be more specific as to what respect Game Theory/ESS as first published by J. Maynard Smith has been displaced by R. Axelrod's work and how it no longer supports ESS as a valid reasoning for Dawkins' argument? Or point me to the chapter you are referring to? (I have only read the first 6 chapters of the Selfish Gene (30th Anniversary edition) to date.)

In reply to an earlier post on 22 Jul 2013 17:25:43 BDT
Andrew Dalby says:
Dawkins talks about the weakness of the original ESS in the additional chapters and the notes. He talks about what we know now. I cannot remember the exact details. So the model needed another more complex strategy to take into account those who move between strategies or those who pretend to have one strategy when actually being the other.

A bigger problem is that the models can be tautologous. You define how fit they are and the ratios between the Hawks and the Doves. In reality it is the characteristics of the hawks and doves that evolve.

In reply to an earlier post on 24 Jul 2013 21:38:07 BDT
gilipsietwo says:
It's a shame you can't remember the details! I guess I shall have to plod on to see if I can find the bit you are talking about. Already being quite familiar with Game Theory as it is taught at university today, it still seems like a very good model indeed for explaining how attributes of individuals oscillate and plateau when looking at the behaviour in the terms of the group population, which is I think Dawkins' point as far as the model itself is concerned.

In reply to an earlier post on 30 Dec 2013 07:29:12 GMT
Last edited by the author on 30 Dec 2013 07:32:14 GMT
yeah I'm skeptical of Dalby's objections and he didn't give a proper refutation when questioned. His idea that scientists are going around regularly making this simple "fallacy" in their life's work is a little ridiculous. Some things are quite likely to evolve in organisms, for one reason or another. Photoreceptors are one. While new DNA may be random, there are certain patterns in the output, and you cannot just reference this back to Marx and the old ideas of evolution having a fateful outcome or whatever as it's completely different.

In reply to an earlier post on 1 Jan 2014 20:09:03 GMT
Last edited by the author on 1 Jan 2014 20:12:04 GMT
Andrew Dalby says:
Dalby's objections are that Dawkins fails to carry out the scientific method. Which is create a hypothesis, carry out an experiment to validate this hypothesis, reject the hypothesis if it does not fir the data and repeat. Science never proves anything it just does not find evidence from current experiments. Dawkins problem is that he has an opinion and a view and he uses experiments in a discursive way to support his view. So this is what would be called a post-hoc analysis or in more common terms "talking out of your posterior". He admits this in the Extended Phenotype in the introduction and asks for his reader's lenience as it is an argument without following scientific method. The selfish gene contains none of this warning. What he is doing is thinking out loud and the problem is that his interpretation of the data is as valid as his opponents who have a different view of evolution such as Gould or Mayr. Unlike Gould and Mayr he has never carried out experiments to test his view and he has not come up with a refutable hypothesis. So his work is ultimately flawed. He does point out the problems and the need to deal with complexity for example and says that this will be how his theory will develop in the future. But it never does. He never includes chaos theory or what has come to be known as systems biology. The best example of why he is talking nonsense in spouting genetic determinism is the Achilea clones in different environments. The environment multiplies genetic effects and so a plant that is fittest in one environment fails in another. This example is often used by Richard Lewontin in his writing, and I would suggest reading his works before forming any firm view on Dawkins.
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