Book Review: The Selfish Gene by Richard Dawkins

And finally I have got around to reading Dawkins’ best-known and seminal work of popular science. Even now, nearly forty years after it’s initial publication (I read the 30th anniversary edition) it is still a heated subject of discussion in academic and popular science circles, the ideas it presents are considered ground-breaking, presenting one aspect of Darwinian evolution that is sometimes perhaps a tricky subject.

It turns the attention to the individual gene and examining evolution from the standpoint of its own survival rather than that of a species over its kind group, predators or prey and environment. And why is it a tricky subject? Because it deals with the ideals of altruism and selfishness (sometimes not being as clear cut as we might think) and by definition, ethics and morality.

The first couple of chapters set the definitions of what genes are, what they do and what implication they have for life. He knocks down a few erroneous assumptions about survival of the fittest and explains how gene replication works and its importance in the evolutionary process. If you already understand, then it is interesting to hear it from one of the masters of biology. If you don’t already understand it then allow the Professor to explain one of the most fascinating aspects of biology and the complexity of DNA replication here.

Where the book really gets going is chapter 6 where he tackles “genesmanship”. This is the most thorough explanation of the conundrum of Darwinian evolution of the gene that you are ever likely to read. How does evolution and the survival of the gene play off against genes in its kin group or competing genes of the species or its rivals? It thoroughly explores the problem of kin and family groups and expands further on the issues into chapter seven “family planning” and chapter eight “battle of the generations”. Chapter 9 has the self-explantory “Battle of the Sexes” and discusses the issue in a far more interesting way than any edition of Cosmo or inane daytime chatshow ever could. It is a chapter that will upset feminists and conservative religious types in equal measure.

This is also the book that introduces his well-known meme concept, the idea that ideas get passed along a population and through the generations, rather like a gene. It is an interesting idea and there is no better way to explain how ideas spread and maintain itself through a population. The most interesting thing is that it is spoken of in the same terms as genes.

This is one of the most important popular science books ever to have been written and it is not difficult to see why it is still lauded over thirty years after publication.


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