I’ve remarked here before that I’ve never actually read any of Richard Dawkins’ books. That’s soon to change, as I’m about to finish reading his 1976 bestseller The Selfish Gene. (It’s the 30th anniversary edition, so at this point there’s an introduction, two prefaces, a forward, and endnotes, much of which has been added in the intervening years … but still, I feel pretty late to the game. I’ll hide behind the fact that I wasn’t alive to have read the book when it first came out. I guess that’s legitimate.)
I’m generally much more interested in Dawkins’ science books than his atheist ones. So, I figured, what better place to start than his first book, seminal in the field of evolutionary biology and widely read as popular science as well? The essential point of the book is that the basic unit upon which natural selection acts is not the species or the individual, but rather the gene, and that what might appear to be altruistic behavior on the part of individuals for the good of the species is actually selfish “behavior” (if one may call it that) on the part of the genes for their own survival. It’s also the source of the now familiar term, meme.
It’s fascinating to see which ideas that were new and controversial in 1976 have since become widespread scientific consensus — and which ideas that have since become scientific consensus still haven’t quite caught on in the public’s understanding. I also smiled at the small anachronisms, such as the comment that “you could pack only a few hundred transistors into a [human] skull.” (Yes, this is corrected in an endnote.) Most of all, though, I’ve enjoyed Dawkins’ writing style. I’ve never been much of a fan of nonfiction for my leisure reading, but far from being a dry recitation of facts, it was more like a good friend of mine was explaining the book’s content to me personally. In fact, there were more than a few points where I thought, “Hmm, but what about this alternative explanation?” or “Uh-oh, I hope he clarifies this potential misunderstanding,” only to have my thoughts addressed in the very next paragraph. I found it an engaging read all the way though.
I was initially apprehensive that reading a thirty-year-old popular science book would be mostly a rehashing of stuff I already knew, but there was plenty of material I never knew before, and even the parts I thought were familiar were explained in ways that added new insight or illustrated with vivid examples I wasn’t aware of. This is definitely a book I’d recommend.