Thursday, December 11, 2014

REVIEW: The Selfish Gene by Richard Dawkins
Original Publication Year: 1976 (I have the 2011 Audible edition however which includes extensive end notes and two additional chapters first added in a 1989 edition.)
Genre(s): Non-fiction, Biology
Series: NA
Awards: None
Format: Audio (from Audible)
Narrated by: Richard Dawkins and Lalla Ward

The Selfish Gene is an important and somewhat controversial book in the world of evolutionary biology.  In it Dawkins presents his own and other’s theory that the gene is the primary mechanism of evolution. It is evolution not just from the perspective of the gene but being wholly absorbed with the gene and its survival.

“We are survival machines – robot vehicles blindly programmed to preserve the selfish molecules known as genes.”
At the basis his argument is that all living organisms are simply a repository (“survival machine”) meant to protect the replicators (genes) and ensure their survival into the future.  In his own more detailed words:
“Individuals are not stable things, they are fleeting. Chromosomes too are shuffled into oblivion, like hands of cards soon after they are dealt. But the cards themselves survive the shuffling. The cards are the genes. The genes are not destroyed by crossing-over, they merely change partners and march on. Of course they march on. That is their business. They are the replicators and we are their survival machines. When we have served our purpose we are cast aside. But genes are denizens of geological time: genes are forever.”

First of all I have to say I wish Dawkins had been my Genetics and/or Evolutionary Biology professor in College. He has quite a brilliant way of presenting complex information and systems in their simplest form. His presentation of his theory and the evidence and biology supporting it not only allows anyone to understand it but also to go further and speculate on what it all means.  Not to mention that it is obvious from his narration that he is an engaging and animated speaker. 

It did take me a couple chapters to get involved with the book.  There are one or two prefaces and then the first chapter or two focus mostly on explaining basic genetics; genes, chromosomes, alleles, the process of meiosis (sexual reproduction) etc… which was a nice primer and review but not terribly engaging.  It is when he begins to present the selfish or “immortal” gene theory and elucidating the evidence for this mechanism of evolution and contrasting with other theories such as group selection etc… that things get really interesting.  If you have any interest in biology, evolution or genetics, even if you have not studied any of it in school, there is a good chance you will be drawn in to his narrative. 

One question I had throughout was how to explain us pesky humans.  The selfish gene theory necessitates that altruism only makes sense with close relatives, who share some proportion of ones genes.  It makes it hard to explain why humans on a regular basis will endanger themselves to help other humans (or even non-humans) whom they have no relation to.  The two additional chapters that were added in the 1989 edition address this specifically. I found the idea of the Prisoner’s Dilemma as an argument for altruism that doesn’t negate the theory of the selfish gene utterly fascinating. Also I was astonished to hear Dawkins start talking about Memes.  I hadn’t realized it but this book is the origin of that term though his meaning is slightly different than how it gets used on the internet. If you are interested here is an interview with Dawkins where he speaks a little about his meaning and how the word as it is currently used is slightly different. He proposes that Memes are cultures replicators. In short his message is however:
“We, alone on earth, can rebel against the tyranny of the selfish replicators.”
There were a couple things that weren’t great.  He uses the copious end notes to address some of the ensuing commentary that has been caused by the book since 1976.  In most cases it is used very effectively to answer, scientifically, a significant criticism or to point out more recent research but sometimes it did feel like it was used to snipe back at some of the theory’s critics which I didn’t love.

I also found the dual narration unnecessarily complex.   Basically, I’m not sure why there was a split into two narrators.  Both Dawkins and Lalla Ward are great readers but it wasn’t clear to me why one person read at one point and the other read at other points. It just seemed like these weird random shifts that were jarring to me. 

Final Verdict:  A must read, and more than that an enjoyable read, for anyone with an interest in evolutionary biology or the way the world works.  4 out of 5 Stars: ✪✪✪✪

Shortly after finishing the book, this tweet came through on my feed from the satirical magazine The Onion. I thought it hilariously and serendipitously appropriate:

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