on June 11, 2011
Maybe it's a quirk in my personality, but I'm always looking for some great truth, some unifying theory. After all, if the beautiful world around us was not created by a deity (which, as an explanation, explains nothing), but by something as 'seemingly random' as evolution, then surely there must be some great code, some great pattern (essentially a natural order, a natural 'Ten Commandments, if you will) running through everything. We've always heard that 'code' is 'fit', but again, 'fit' in terms of genes doesn't explain much either. I needed a little more, so I cracked open this book thinking it would open my eyes to some genetic truth. I soon found lots of amazing things, but was met with the crude ugly truth about genetics: they are anything but a guide for morality. The 'beautiful pattern' I was seeking was nowhere to be found. We are met with a contradiction, as men and women: the very thing that gives us enjoyment, indulgence' satisfaction of a few evolutionary 'carrots'' is the opposite of what we consider 'good' and 'moral'. Originally I believed our Morality actually stems from resisting our impulses, our genetics, to separate us from lower animals. Dawkins believes that what we consider 'sophisticated society' actually comes from whatever can be sustained in equilibrium; in other words, the reason we can eat meat, but are repulsed by Cannibalism, is mostly due to the fact that, if we were Cannibals, the species would shrink and eventually go extinct. The equilibrium is for us to eat other animals.
It's also frowned upon, in modern society, to kill people. From a Genetic perspective, there's no advantage to killing people, even your rivals.. it wastes energy, and may make other rivals even stronger in rank. Reverse rationalization. Pretty much everyone one of today's social taboos comes from Genetic no-nos.
How do Genes affect our bodies, and ultimately societies? These human bodies of ours, to hear Dawkins describe it, are like sports teams that our genes 'join' in order to win a championship. You see, genes don't actually have a goal, but they are known for duplication. That's what they do. And sometimes, they do it better by 'getting along with others'. Likewise, Dawkins goes on to suggest that diseases, that ultimately need their host to survive to spread more, may 'dial back' the sickness for a while, so the 'host' (the sick patient) can live a little longer, so they can infect others. This is why effects of AIDS or Cancer don't show up until later in life. This is not a willful brilliant chess move on the part of your last 'runny nose', its just that that 'runny nose' that took a while to show up propagated more than the one that put its host in the hospital instantly.
The funny thing is, human personality, something we identify, describe and name (eg. Human Psychology and Personality Development) is backwards, its Monday Morning Quarterbacking. To hear Dawkins Describe Human Personalities, is like the IBM's Deep Blue Supercomputer walking you through its chess moves in the dismantling of the Kasparov. There is order there, we just didn't know it. An aggressive man and a passive woman, those are just two different strategies. The inclination to see the good in people is really just another strategy. It turns out that we too, represent multiple genetic options. He with the better strategy wins' he'll get the money, he'll get multiple sexual partners, spread his genes, and be very strong and confident. And the personalities/strategies, like viruses, that are more effective, spread.
Speaking of personality and morality, what about lying? Do animals ever tell lies? It turns out that when baby chicks chirp louder, they get more food. The mum assumes the hungriest chicks will chirp the loudest. That's right, we didn't (sorry Ricky) invent lying. Animals have been doing it for ages. And when an Animal discovers that its colors protect it (because it looks like a vicious competitor), it's lying too. And exploits the lie.
Besides spreading genetic code, we like to spread ideas. Perhaps you've heard this term floating around the Internet: Memes. Memes are good, bad, stupid ideas, that either catch on, or they vanish, evaporate. And Memes have a pretty cool feature, that, like Genes, they can replicate (very quickly, like this 'Boy Slams Bully' Video which caught fire a couple months ago) by replicating in other people's minds. I can even speak an idea, and 50,000 people can hear it, or write something on the web (or in the sand, on a beach) and people can come back later and read it. The Meme, thought, duplicates, and that's why it's powerful.
Interestingly, that makes two things that can replicate, Genes and Memes. Memes are the takeoff of evolution, dovetailing into technology, that got us driving 100 miles an hour, and flying up in the sky, not with strong legs, or broad wings, but, technology. Bad ideas are trashed and good ideas are copied and improved upon (patent system be damned).
When we die, Dawkins says, we leave these two things behind, Genes and Memes. Is this all we can achieve in this mortal coil? To raise a family, pass on our code, and leave some imprint on the world, make some mark, be a world famous athlete, scientist, discoverer, pop star or military hero? Shall we be judged not by memories of our loved ones, but by our 'meme'-richness (or Cosmic Google ranking)? In the search for eternal life, it would seem so. All that matters is great ideas. In terms of unifying theories, it's a little weak but there is some justice to it.
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on January 28, 2010
Richard Dawkins is a scientist of the highest caliber and an excellent writer. While not as interesting as The Ancestor's Tale or Greatest Show on Earth (Selfish Gene is more academic and most of it is over my head), it is a fascinating look into fundamental concepts of Biology. What's more is that this particular edition is worth the additional cost compared to the paperback - the paper is high quality and the binding is anything but cheap (as all books I own which were published by Oxford are). This isn't so much a book as it is an investment for future generations.
Given the amount of dreck published about this book over the past two decades, it seemed a worthwhile exercise to reread and comment on it for a new generation of readers. As with Darwin's Origin of Species, more people have commented on this work than have read or understood it. Dawkins is a superb writer, able to convey his ideas with clarity and wit. As he has stated elsewhere, however, those very ideas still challenge those whose minds are locked by preconceptions. Dawkins must be, and is, a staunch advocate in presenting to us what genes are all about. He does so in order that we better understand ourselves.
He begins by anticipating the outcry of those who must see humans set apart from the rest of life. "Why Are People" examines several behavioral aspects of animals and people. Altruism receives particular attention because the term "selfish" applied to life returns us to the concept of nature "red in tooth and claw" which he wishes to avoid. Genes are not conscious entities who make decisions about their existence or future. Genes are simply replicators, using whatever resources are available to make more of themselves. With luck, the environment in which they do this allows them to survive and continue replicating. If not, the gene, and whatever characteristic it represents, goes extinct. Enough bad matches and a whole species follows the gene into extinction.
In the beginning our very earliest ancestors weren't likely to even have been organisms, but simply chemicals. From this, Dawkins traces the development of the DNA molecule and the organisms that came to carry it in their cells. These organisms, "survival machines" in Dawkins' expression, carry the genes, supplying them with the raw material to continue replicating. It's a discomfiting idea to many to be brought face to face with the idea that they are but "gene machines", but Dawkins shows us in crisp prose that this is simply how life works. Because animals, particularly human animals, seem to exhibit "purpose", there is ongoing objection to the idea that actions can be gene driven. Dawkins explains that genes have had more than three billion years to develop survival techniques that give the
appearance of "purposiveness."
The apparent display of purpose is covered through much of the book in his discussion of "game theory". Game theory applied to life has moved well beyond simple win or lose situations. Game situations now involve highly complex interactions in which the players don't win or lose, but survive where possible. Players don't reach a terminal finish through their activities, but reach a modus vivendi. Parents, particularly mothers, sacrifice to bear and raise offspring. Plants, deprived of an optimum niche, adapt to occupy another, less desirable one.
Finally, in what might prove to be the most telling innovation in this book, Dawkins introduces a new descriptor of social behaviour: the meme. The revolution in thinking about why humanity performs some wholly illogical actions has only begun. Ideas, habits, faiths, characteristics that humans like to think separate us from the other animals, arise and replicate just like their biological counterparts. They form, replicate, find a suitable environment and continue replicating. Susan Blackmore's THE MEME MACHINE, is a must companion to this volume with its full and penetrating examination of this aspect of life.
Dawkins' critics are loud and vociferous. It would be pointless to assess motivation in their continued diatribes against this book. Darwin was forced to weather the same type of criticisms for just the same reason: their ideas jerk the pedestal of divine origins from humanity. Even trained scientists find it difficult to shed the concept that because humans have achieved so much, their origins must transcend pure biology. Dawkins' critics nearly all descend to the pejorative, labelling him and his adherents, "Ultra-Darwinists". Few phrases are as meaningless as this one. How one can be "beyond Darwin" eludes definition.
This book is a fine starting point in understanding how life, particularly our form of life, operates. It should be standard classroom fare, both in biology and philosophy classes. If you didn't encounter it there, buy it here. Read it carefully and closely. You will be rewarded with excellent writing, stimulating ideas and you may gain deep insight into what you are.
on December 3, 2013
One aspect I find particularly interesting about this book is its thesis as foreshadowed in the descriptive title, The Selfish Gene---the idea that the only purpose of any species is to pass its genes on into the future. I had a friend state this very concept when we were having a discussion about life a number of years ago. Although my friend had not read this book, he evidently was influenced by it through the prevalent pathos that exists in modern society today. I do find it amusing that the "purpose" of life is to project our genes into the future. Some people believe this is how we achieve "immortality". It really is rich in wishful thinking however. Think about it. You are now 100% your genes. When your "selfish genes" want to propagate, 50% of "you" is passed along to your offspring. If your offspring propagates, only 25% of "you" is passed on (along with 25% of your mate, the other 50% coming from your offspring's mate). If the next generation should propagate, then "you" have been reduced down to 12.5%, then 6.25%, then 3.125%, etc.. In only 8 generations there's less than 1% of "you" left. Not only has your life been long gone, but for all intents and purposes, so has any "remembrance" of "you" through the passing along of your genes. "You" have been reduced to virtual nothingness. Dawkins' thesis indicates that our "selfish genes" are deceiving themselves into thinking there is a purpose in propagation. If Dawkins' theory about "the selfish gene" is correct, then we are the biggest fools of all if we believe we gain immortality through children and grandchildren, etc. Biology, mathematics, and time, reduces "you" to nothing. :)
on May 10, 2004
The Selfish Gene is the best popular science book I have ever read, PERIOD. In it, Dawkins provides clear explanations of the mechanism of evolution, to the point that the reader can teach someone about evolution right after reading. It does not in any way patronize the reader, but instead delves deep into complex subjects, ranging from game theory to psychology, to explain evolution.
The main idea in the book is to change the perspective of evolution: it is genes that use bodies and organisms to reach their goals of reproduction. In my opinion, however, the most brilliant part of the book is the very beginning, in which Dawkins explains how it could come about that some chemicals (genes) actually would grow a "wish" to reproduce. The answer makes the reader feel really smart, and that is what pop science is all about.
Much of the book is devoted to showing how evolution can in fact explain altruism, agression, aging, cooperation, sexual relations, etc. He spends a lot of time debunking the theory that animals act a certain way "for the good of the species". His argument is that animals have no want, it is the genes that want more of themselves available.
I highly recommend this book to anyone with a wide open mind, a logical train of thought, and deep curiosity about life. Dawkins will change the way you see life, and he will hold your hand through the entire process, quenching your thrist for knowledge. It is written in such a simple way that it is hard to understand why this book is not recommended at high schools. Anyways, I hope you choose this book, it is one of those that make you sad to have finished.
on November 4, 2001
This is a classic text of science writing for the layman. It is about biology and more particulary about the role of the gene in evolution, reproduction, and human and natural affairs generally. Richard Dawkin's main thesis is that the principal, in fact the only reason for the existance of the gene is to insure its own survival. This a little like the role Copenicus played when he debunked Ptolemy's view of the universe. Rather than a man-centered biological universe, the biological universe is gene centered, according to Dawkins.
"The Selfish Gene" is extremely readible and is very helpful in providing the layman with some background material in the genetic revolution. Written in 1976, it is, rather than outdated, as I said before, a classic, and worth reading. My copy was given to me by my brother, a PhD in Microbiology, in 1980, I was a young patent attorney, without even a basic college course in biology to my credit, and writing a scholarly paper on the famous Harvard mouse case. Since then I have become an expert in the ethics of biotechnology, and I recommend this book as background reading, with one caveat to be explained later.
Also, if you have ever wondered about the term "meme" this is where it was coined, Dawkins devoting a whole chapter to introducing this concept of socibiology.
Richard Dawkins is an evolutionary theorist and holds the Charles Simonyi Chair in the Public Understanding of Science at Oxford University. He is also a best seller author of science books, and quite easy to read. His most recent book is The God Delusion, but previously he wrote mainly about evolution. For example, his prior book is The Ancestors' Tale, a brief history of life on earth.
The Selfish Gene is explains the basics of evolution in simple and readable language. There is a good reason why this book has a 30th Anniversary edition: it is truly a classic, and will be read for many, many years to come.
on October 13, 2009
An incredibly well written book, filled with interesting asides and kept firmly in the realm of 'non-expert' language. Perhaps the greatest downfall of the book is how perfectly its ideas have been accepted in the thirty years since the first edition was originally published. That is, what seemed revolutionary to some at the time of its original publication don't seem revolutionary, they seem self-evident to anyone with a strong interest in evolutionary biology. As someone born after the original publication, who became interested in the field more than a decade after it created controversy, reading the thirtieth anniversary edition seemed like a rehashing of what I already knew. It went into greater depths than my broad-but-shallow knowledge, but there wasn't anything in here that seemed revolutionary to me. Which just goes to prove how widely accepted Dawkins' once-controversial ideas are now.
For people who, like myself, have a greater than average understanding of the field, it's worth reading, if only as a look back at a point in time when these ideas weren't seen as "common" knowledge.
For someone first dipping their toes into the fascinating field of evolutionary biology, Dawkins' more recent book "The Greatest Show On Earth" will probably be a much better place to start, with this being a book to come back to.
on November 20, 2003
Dawkins is a genius. Sure, he knows his biological science and is very clear on how living things evolve from simple beginnings to more complex entities. But the reason for which I call him a genius is that he's impeccable in explaining this process to the non-expert reader. In an age in which education and media have let people down, choosing needless compromises and headline-selling pseudoscience over real education, this should be a textbook for every child; it should be in every home. It's the First Textbook of Science, because it explains how we got to be people, and dispels all myths about what "evolutionists" really believe (and WHY they believe it -- the centuries of accumulated proven facts, in other words).
All around the world, millions of people, extending to every individual field of science, agree on certain things. Gravity, for instance. They agree on particular things in spite of having otherwise vastly opposing backgrounds and ideologies.
Why would they agree on these things? Because of decades -- centuries, sometimes, as I've mentioned -- of experiments that prove theories. Dawkins always supports his facts with a reference to research, and he always explains these things clearly and without in-crowd scientific jargon or intimidating convolutedness.
Religion subsists in spite of having none of these qualities -- no proven theories, nothing really to test, no universality, no consistency, no basis in reality or physics. Dawkins is the one to read if your natural sense of wonder would REALLY like to be fulfilled.
All one needs to do to "check the facts" about religion is to wonder about the ulterior motives behind its inception -- and read about its history. Its terrible history of tortured "heretics," burnt witches, resisted discoveries about the Earth being round and other things taken for granted nowadays, and other resistance to reason and discovery in place of anti-intellectual dogma.
So why would this happen? Because the men who presented themselves as the only "channels to the Creator who will send you to Heaven or Hell" -- imagine the power over people, their money and their minds that this gives you! -- were very smart. There's always a scare tactic (Hell/Armageddon/etc.) and a reward tactic (Heaven/Paradise/etc.) attached. These are the two things necessary to get people to keep showing up, giving their money to the church, keeping the church tax-free, etc.
Dawkins explains all of this quickly, and offers, for the bulk of his wonderful books, an alternative to superstition and fear. An alternative with decades of fossil study (the record is very close to complete, contrary to popular myth), radiometric measuring, genetic study, cellular study and a great many other fields of science that all point, conclusively, time and time again without fail, to natural selection and evolution. These two things are explained in detail, and it gives the reader a fantastic sensation to realize what, exactly, has been going on on this little planet throughout geological history.
Only science delivers. Pray for your ailing child and she will be dead soon. Take her to a doctor, however, and she'll be okay. This is one of many reasons why Dawkins champions science, reason and rationality above comfy pots of gold in the sky and nightmares of Hell that give children nightmares and, later in life, hang-ups and neuroses.
It's interesting how people who oppose science (what a thing to oppose -- testable knowledge!) always turn to science when it's convenient. Even to the point of taking medicine, driving to work, turning on lights and using computers to write Amazon reviews.
Remember those decades of experiments and results that Dawkins draws on? If any of them were false in the slightest, they'd be condemned in public by all scientists around the world, for scientists LOVE to blow the whistle on each other -- science thrives on challenging custom and long-held beliefs in the interest of seeking out the real truth. Religion thrives on the exact opposite -- "mysteries" are to be held in awe and not solved. Hmmm.
The meaning of "faith" is: "Believing in something in spite of all the contrary evidence that it isn't true." In this sense, the more strange and unprovable the stuff that someone believes, the stronger his "faith" is said to be. How did we get so backwards? More people should read Dawkins' wonderful books, starting with this essential debut. It will clear up a LOT of things for them, resolve many questions.
on October 6, 2003
A quarter of a century old it may be, but "The Selfish Gene" is still the best book to read if you want to learn about what genetics and evolution are really about. Dawkins' style is accessible for those (such as myself) with practically no experience in biology, and the subject matter is applicable to all.
What is the selfish gene? Traditionally, people tend to look at evolution at the level of the organism. They think of different alleles aiding or harming the "fitness" of an organism. Or, worse, they could take the group-selectionist view and talk about how a gene or an organism helps the "survival of the species." But Dawkins makes a convincing case that it is best to look at natural selection at the level of the gene. Each gene "wants" to secure its survival and maximize its proliferation in the future. (A suggested title for the book was "Immortal Coils," referring to the lifespan of the gene and the double-helical structure of the DNA in which it is embedded. This ended up as the title for chapter 3.) By this, it is meant that genes that are more successful at proliferation and self-replication are more likely to survive. Thus, the genes are not instruments of the organism, but rather the reverse. The organism is a robot "designed" by genes to maximize their survival and proliferation. Dawkins' name for these robots - including us - is "survival machines." This is not a disparaging term, of course, and some of the most enjoyable portions of the book are brought about by Dawkins' instillation of hope in the reader - hope that humans, alone among Earth's survival machines, have the ability to transcend the limitations that genetics and culture would impose on them and strive for something higher.
My purpose here has been to give you a taste of the content of the book. This book will change the way you think of evolution - and the way you think of our species - for the better.