Friday, 11 June 2004

The Selfish Gene – Richard Dawkins *****

Richard Dawkins is the doyen of the new evolutionary biologists, and puts his message across with masterly ease. The topic of evolution is not just one that causes controversies on the news, it is fundamentally important to us all, and when Dawkins wrote this book back in 1976, he was to have a huge impact on the general public. Dawkins writes very smoothly – this is not only a classic of popular science, it is one of the most beautiful examples.
Evolution, and its impact on genetics is indeed crucial to us all, but it has also been fundamentally important to biologists and zoologists. Before evolution they were very much second class scientists, more concerned with collating information and categorizing species than applying any scientific theory to explain what was observed. Because of this, biologists were said to suffer from “physics envy”, because they felt inferior to the hard sciences. Evolution was to change all that – which is great, but the only irritating side effect that comes through a little in this book (and more so in the works of some other writers like Daniel Dennett) is the idea that evolution is not only a very important theory, but actually is MORE important than everything else. Dawkins opens the book by saying “If superior creatures from space ever visit earth [sic], the first question they will ask, in order to assess the level of our civilization, is ‘Have they discovered evolution yet?'” This is just plain silly. But don’t let it put you off the rest of the book, because it is superb.
The only part of the book that is open to significant question is the chapter or memes – Dawkins’ idea of a conceptual equivalent of genes that allow anything from ideas to advertising jingles spread through society. It was a nice thought, but has been too often taken as scientific fact in popular science writing, where it is anything but a proven concept. But that’s a minor part of the book.
Anyone who has any doubts that “evolution is just a theory” needs to read this. And I stress to read it. All too often, people have just come across the title, or heard it being talked about and assumed that Dawkins is literally suggesting that genes have conscious will, and act in order to make things better for themselves. In fact, Dawkins is master of metaphor, and that’s all it was ever intended to be. As he points out, there is no suggestion that we are puppets to our genes, and have to act in a manner that furthers the benefit of our genes. Many of us choose to act differently. But there is equally no doubt of the power of genetic evolutionary pressure. Also, a lot of the problem is that most people have a very poor grasp of probability and statistics, and find it difficult to see evolution, and its impact on genetic action in these terms. Some will always struggle against the concepts here, but everyone should have this book on their reading list.
The Selfish Gene is now in a third edition, also known as the 30th anniversary edition, which has extra prefaces in the front, but unless you are particularly interested in the development of the attitude to evolution and genetics, our advice is to skip these and get onto the main text.
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Review by Jo Reed

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