Skip to main content

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.

Paperback:  
Using these links earns us commission at no cost to you 
Review by Jo Reed

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Four Way Interview - Jim Al-Khalili

Photo by Nick Smith Jim Al-Khalili hosts The Life Scientific on BBC Radio 4 and has presented numerous BBC television documentaries. He is Professor of Theoretical Physics and Chair in the Public Engagement in Science at the University of Surrey, a New York Times bestselling author, and a fellow of the Royal Society. He is the author of numerous books, including Quantum: A Guide for the Perplexed; The House of Wisdom: How Arabic Science Saved Ancient Knowledge and Gave Us the Renaissance; Life on the Edge: The Coming of Age of Quantum Biology; and The World According to Physics. His latest book is The Joy of Science . Why joy?  While I focus more in the book on the process of science itself to gain knowledge about the world, I also wanted to get across the fact that science is so much more than hard facts and lessons in critical thinking.  Science helps us see the world more deeply, enriches us, enlightens us.  The closer we look, the more we can see and the more we can wonder. I feel

Wonderdog - Jules Howard *****

As Jules Howard acknowledges, there have been plenty of books about what makes a dog tick, whether they are training manuals, evolutionary examinations such as The Wolf Within or ethological studies of humans' closest animal partner such as If Dogs Could Talk . But most of Jules Howard's Wonderdog takes us into the roles that dogs have played in advancing science. Some of this material is fairly gruesome. We discover, for example, dogs' importance to medical research, particularly at a time when experimenting on animals had few ethical limits. What makes the book enjoyable is the way the Howard ties in his history with engaging stories - such as the brown dog statue, put up in Battersea in 1907 as a memorial to a dog horribly misused by vivisectionists, only for the statue to be destroyed by the council to bring an end to frequent attacks by infuriated medical students. (The statue has since been replaced.) Similarly, dogs have proved valuable in widening our understandin

Project Hail Mary - Andy Weir *****

‘Pretty much the perfect science fiction novel’ – that’s how I described Andy Weir’s first book, The Martian , when I reviewed it on this site a few years ago. But now that I’ve read this latest offering from him, I’ll have to revise my definition of perfection. Weir has simply excelled himself in every way. Project Hail Mary is even stronger on ‘real’ science than The Martian was, and its high-stakes plot is even more exciting and cleverly constructed. The book does, however, pose something of a problem for the reviewer. The way the story unfolds makes it extremely difficult to write a meaningful review that’s totally spoiler-free. Strictly speaking, I can’t even tell you its setting or the protagonist’s name, or the rationale behind the ‘project’ of the novel’s title, because they only emerge as the story progresses. But even the publisher gives these things away in their publicity material, so I will too. Rest assured there are plenty of twists and surprises that I won’t even hint