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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.
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HALL OF FAMEon February 8, 2003
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.
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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.
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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. :)
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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.
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TOP 500 REVIEWERon December 16, 2006
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.
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on December 19, 2001
This is my second book by Dawkins, The Blind Watchmaker was my introduction. He seems to have an interesting illustration for everything. This book introduced me to ESS, Evolutionarily Stable Systems, which explains so much about why animals can't just keep cheating the system and how nature finds it's limits. His little asides turn into pages of interesting oddities and great examples for everything he talks about, every idea fits perfectly and one thing flows to the next. At the end you feel a little overwhelmed (in a good way) with ideas --- don't try and share it with people all at once. Also thinking of evolution on the genetic level gives you the ability to spot faulty evolution thinking (which dawkins gives plenty of examples of)... I never really enjoyed biology much(and you won't find anything to technical in it) but his stories about ant queens that enslave other colonies and lazy cuckoo birds that trick other birds into raising their family reads like fiction.
Never boring, completely lucid, and gives you a new way of thinking...
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on August 1, 2001
This was probably my first real taste at reading non fiction for no other reason than leisure. (oh wait.. i read nonfiction before too.. a book worm >_<) But ok, this is the first non fiction book I read that wasn't designed for a classroom or for children. That's probably more accurate. And all I can say is that I loved it :) It's been a while since I've read it so most of what I write is recalled from memory.
This book presents the theory that the existence of all life is for a single purpose- the survival of our genes. The book proceeds to describe how this has led to the development of life as we know it from the single cell.
The book is absolutely chocked full of information. I was disappointed since much of it did focus upon animals but it does touch upon humans as well. Some parts of the book were a bit difficult to digest since they talked in very mathematical terms but overall, the book gave a very clear breakdown of the survival of the fittest, the fittest of genes.
However, my most favourite part and perhaps the section most worth noting of the book would have to be the last chapter. The Memes. But I don't want to give it away. Read the book yourself :)
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on March 13, 2001
"The Selfish Gene" is essential science literacy reading. It is the single clearest introduction to the concept of natural selection at the level of genes, the central concept in modern evolutionary theory. A classic of engaging and illuminating science writing that gets the point across. Maybe too well.
On the down side, the selfishness metaphor does seem to take many readers on a journey that Dawkins doesn't seem to intend, extending "selfishness" beyond the limited way it is used in the book, and even offering them some sort of alternate religion.
That's the power of a really strong metaphor, it tends to take on a life of its own. Dawkins begins to address that I think in his classic introduction in this book of the concept of "memes" as units of cultural replication akin to genes. That's an idea that has yet to be completely shaken out I think, as far as addressing the specific units that memes represent, and how generally and usefully we can model their propagation characteristics without reference to the specifics of the vehicles replicating them.
Thinking of genes as selfish sometimes distracts people from gaining a further understanding of the tremendous complexity of the evolutionary process, and all else that is also going on. That weakness however is more a side-effect of the tremendous strength of Dawkins' argument than any problem that can be faulted to him in this book.
There's also the technical issue of the gene's eye view of the world, which tends to dominate modern evolutionary thinking, because it is believed to dominate evolutionary processes. There are however probably some conditions under which other levels of selection make significant contributions to evolved characteristics. Dawkins doesn't go much beyond things like inclusive fitness and allusions to reciprocal altruism in explaining why some people and other organisms will sacrifice themselves (sometimes for strangers !), and why such a thing as a non-reproductive drone should be constructed by selfish genes. "The Selfish Gene" doesn't really address this in a satisfactory way.
Other authors, such as Elliot Sobel, Robert Wright, John Maynard Smith, and Brian Skyrms have explored these kinds of questions (regarding levels of selection in evolution) better. Also, for those topics, look into the excellent introduction to modern evolutionary thinking in "Sex and Death" by Sterelny and Griffiths, which gives a broader picture, though it lacks the focused clarity and near-relgious force of Dawkins' brilliant exposition of the selfish gene metaphor.
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