Review: The Selfish Gene

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.

Leave a comment

2 Comments

  1. Here’s Douglas Adams, discussing his deconversion and that same work:

    I was extremely doubtful about the idea of god, but I just didn’t know enough about anything to have a good working model of any other explanation for, well, life, the universe, and everything to put in its place. But I kept at it, and I kept reading and I kept thinking. Sometime around my early thirties I stumbled upon evolutionary biology, particularly in the form of Richard Dawkins’s books The Selfish Gene and then The Blind Watchmaker, and suddenly (on, I think the second reading of The Selfish Gene) it all fell into place. It was a concept of such stunning simplicity, but it gave rise, naturally, to all of the infinite and baffling complexity of life. The awe it inspired in me made the awe that people talk about in respect of religious experience seem, frankly, silly beside it. I’d take the awe of understanding over the awe of ignorance any day.

    Adams wrote Dawkins afterward and the two started a decades-long friendship.

    I, too, think The Selfish Gene is fabulous. (Better than The Blind Watchmaker, I think—I find creationism rather dull, though of course it’s important that the fight against it go on. Even when I believed in God, I thought Paley’s Watchmaker Argument was stupid.) I had a similar kind of epiphany experience to the one Adams describes when I read The Selfish Gene.

    I don’t think Dawkins has ever surpassed it. The God Delusion is an adequately good book—but it’s much more important for what it represented externally (consciousness raising/”preaching to the choir” in the best sense) than for the strength or ingenuity of its contents. Selfish Gene, by contrast, seems to me fantastic and exciting.

  2. Ubi Dubium

     /  November 9, 2010 at 9:11 am

    The Selfish Gene is one of those rare books for me, one that changed the way I looked at things. It’s been awhile since I read it, so I think it’s probably time for a re-read. I like The Blind Watchmaker and Climbing Mount Improbable as companion pieces, but I usually suggest reading The Selfish Gene first.

    Another book that was like that for me was Godel Escher Bach by Douglas Hofstader. It’s much more challenging to read, and it took me about three tries over the years before I finally read it all the way through. Worth it if you can do it, though.

Leave a Reply