The Selfish Gene

The Selfish Gene book coverThe Selfish Gene: The Immortal Replicator
by Richard Dawkins
368 pages, Oxford Paperbacks, 1989

Reading Dawkins has been on my agenda for far too long. I subscribe to his RSS feeds and both respect and agree with his views on a range of issues, so reading his work always appealed to me, yet I’ve never quite got round to it.

Biting the bullet, I headed over to Amazon and ordered both ‘The Selfish Gene’, celebrated for bringing the complex theories of evolution and natural selection to the mass audience, and ‘The God Delusion’, possibly one of the most controversial books of my lifetime. It was hard choosing which of these classics would be my first taste of what Dawkins has to offer, but in the end I decided upon his earlier international bestseller, The Selfish Gene. I feel that in this case reading chronologically, both in terms of writing and publication, will be the most fulfilling way to experience the two books and appreciate his work. I also have a feeling that the more books Dawkins published, the more passionately he began to feel about religion. So to best understand The God Delusion, I should first be well versed in the science and reasoning behind his view point.

Richard DawkinsDawkins is famed as both a scientist and for his fight against religion, so I sensed that both of these aspects would come into focus during The Selfish Gene. I was not disappointed. I should start by saying that I have have an educational background in science, having studied both Biology and Chemistry to A-Level and commencing a Clinical Science degree before finally falling into PR. I would also consider myself an atheist, hence why Dawkins and his opinions resonate with me. However, I will try not to let my own opinions interfere with my review.

Dawkins makes it clear from the offset that unlike many other books that explain and discuss evolution, The Selfish Gene is told almost entirely from a genetic point of view. That is, the gene is described as if having its own agenda, opinions and actions.

He is quick to add that this is just to help understand why genes behave the way they do, and that of course genes are not sentient, tiny individuals. But in writing the book from a ‘gene’s-eye-view’ alongside clear explanations and understandable language, the complex world of genetics and physiology is unravelled to the reader in much the same way an accomplished teacher does in a classroom.

Dawkins even explains in his preface that there were three imaginary readers stood over his shoulder whilst he penned The Selfish Gene; the layman, for whom too much technical jargon was avoided, the expert, ever critical and well versed on the theories discussed, and the student, making the transition between the two and looking for educational value.

DNA sequence at the Science Museum in London

That said, for someone without any background knowledge of evolution or without prior study of biology, reading The Selfish Gene would undoubtedly be a struggle. There were topics brushed over in half a paragraph that took me two weeks worth of Year 13 biology lessons to fully understand. Some mechanisms, such as the ‘crossing-over’ of genes, are very hard to teach without the reader having chance to ask questions when confused.

However, the book doesn’t aim to give you a biology qualification. Not understanding one small section or biological process does not deter the reader from grasping the real message the book is trying to get across, nor will it stop the reader from enhancing their prior knowledge of just what evolution is and how it affects us, both on a personal and genetic level.

The gene is introduced as a would-be villain of the piece, selfish and ruthless, out to satisfy its own agenda and ensure its continuation throughout generations. In fact, as multicellular organisms, we are nothing more than the perfect carriers for the gene, protecting it, replicating it and ensuring we live long enough for it to continue in its quest for immortality.

As carriers for such an entity, we as individuals are therefore also doomed to selfish behaviour and it would seem there is no escaping the cycle. However, as Dawkins explains, even our genes have to compromise and display a little altruism every now and again to ensure their own survival and so we see animals exhibiting the same behaviour. A mother going to extraordinary lengths to protect her young, a lioness in a close-knit pack caring for her nieces and nephews the same way she would her own, as in the long term this best safeguards her genes.

Lion pride

Dawkins goes into great detail, giving a wonderful array of examples of how the behaviour of animals is a direct result of guaranteeing the continuation of the genes they possess (the idea that the queen bee is actually at the mercy of workers in a hive ensuring their own genes’ survival was an illustration I particularly enjoyed). The reader will find themselves looking at their surroundings in a whole new way; when watching something as simple as a bird outside, they now have an understanding of why they act the way they do and the numerous split-second decisions that keep a wild animal alive long enough to reproduce are much more understandable under Dawkins’ guidance.

The Prisoner's DilemmaAnd so Dawkins guides us through natural selection, the survival of the fittest and how this eventually leads onto evolution on a micro, and subsequently macro, scale. The Evolutionally Stable Strategy (ESS) is a theory I had never heard of before, but gives scientists a way to predict which species stand the best chance of survival based on a range of characteristics, including selfish and altruistic behaviour.

The ‘Prisoner’s Dilemma’ is a particularly interesting example of viewing the selfish vs. altruistic behaviour can can be used in gambling where money is involved; cooperating allows a pay off for two individuals, yet when presented with the option to ‘steal’, we are far to tempted to be selfish even if it means leaving with nothing. It is another revelation that will make the reader look twice at the world around them and sit up and take notice of the battles between species that occur before stability is achieved and which species thrive in any given environment.

Overall I would recommend ‘The Selfish Gene’ to anyone with an interest in science or in understanding human and animal behaviour. Dawkins’ could be described as the ‘Brian Cox’ of the evolutionary world (though I know he is just an interesting on the screen) in that his passion for his subject is so infectious it almost jumps right out the page. The book ignited an appetite for science and learning that I wish had been there whilst I was still studying the subject at sixth-form. I would definitely endorse it to any 16-17-year-olds feeling uninterested and disillusioned during their AS and A-levels (as I know I was).

Though some who finish the book are left feeling empty or distressed at the bleak theories behind our behaviour, I found reading the book a rewarding experience, both in understanding living creatures and the complexity and wonder that is evolution. Though sometimes a challenging read, there is a reason why this book is often on the lists of ‘books you should have read’ and well worth reaching Dawkins’ uplifting addendum on the very last page, which I won’t spoil for you…

Clare Callery image

Clare Callery is the editor of the books and film section of Behind the Spin.

You can read her blog, catch up with her on Twitter or contact her at cs.callery at gmail.com if you are interesting in submitting a review.

Image attributions
Richard Dawkins profile – Shane Lin
DNA sequence – John Goode
Lion pride – John Tolva

Comments

  1. An interesting overview of one of Richard Dawkin’s classic works. I read the book four years ago and by far it is still one of his best works. I highly recommend reading his other book “Climbing Mount Improbable” as I suspect it is probably easier to understand (the book is based around a simple metaphor). I’ve also read “The God Delusion” twice, I wouldn’t bother buying it. Extremely interesting to read but many of the philosophical concepts are too simply explained and his step into theology at the end of the book is simply terrible. He is a biologist, not a theologian.

    A delight to find somebody else who appreciates expanding their knowledge beyond their immediate subject area.

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