Saturday, 24 February 2007

Book: The Selfish Gene by Richard Dawkins

Lowdown: A book that gives credible answers to one of the basic questions ever - Why?
Books that are so good they can actually change the way you look at the world don't just knock on your door every second Tuesday, so when I get to read one of those I cherish every moment. With The Selfish Gene I got plenty of such moments, because even of the number of pages doesn't seem that high the small font and the sheer concentration of ideas make this one a long and pleasurable read.
The book was written back in 1976 and made Richard Dawkins, two of his other books I've already reviewed in this blog, a famous household name: both for the sheer innovation of his ideas as well as for the impact and controversy caused by those very same ideas. Essentially, The Selfish Gene is a book about evolution - it gives away Dawkins' own interpretation to the theory first initiated by Darwin in order to provide an exciting theory on how Darwinian evolution really takes place.
The basic idea of the book is that evolution works at the replicator's level. For the living forms we are familiar with those replicators are commonly referred to as "genes", and while they are there doing their best to survive and multiply they use us - as in all living forms we know of, from single cell bacteria through plants and us humans - to achieve that target. Or, to put it another way, the genes are not here to help us get along; we are here to serve the genes.
Now, earlier this week someone hinted at me that I believe the things I want to believe in and disbelieve those I don't want to believe in (in particular, religion). So do I believe Dawkins' theory? Well, for a start, I wouldn't say that "believe" is the right verb to use. Even Dawkins himself presents his idea as a theory, and throughout the book he admits to various mistakes and problems the theory faces (especially with the perspective gained over the 30 years since the book was initially released). Those disclaimers aside, I have to say that Dawkins' theory makes sense, logically, and it does support plenty of observed facts: the indisputable fact that what passes between one generation to another is just one cell containing genes, as well as the fact that the famous "survival of the fittest" mantra works, essentially, at the gene level: good genes well help you survive, inferior ones will mean that your neighbor is more likely to survive on your account. Therefore, until I am to stumble upon a better theory, I will accept Dawkins' explanation as the best one we have so far.
Philosophical discussions aside, to me personally the issue of whether I'm here for my genes or my genes are here for me is a mere technicality; an interesting one, but still a technicality. The book's greatness does not come from its insight on evolution, but rather from the social implications of the idea. For a start, the theory tells us why we are here in a simple and explicit way (if only all those looking for this answer would learn to accept that simple reality instead of looking for the answer they want to hear). But that's not all: the theory, when you further project on it, also explains quite well why we behave in certain ways (as in, for example, why lifeforms can be aggressive and/or dovish; this is just a simple example, though), why most of the species we are familiar with have sexes, what is the reason for having sexes, the reasons and the motivations for the eternal conflict between sexes, conflicts between a parent and its decedents, and reasons why individuals often act as a group. It is incredibly easy to see the importance of receiving answers to those issues; if there is one thing that humanity tends to occupy its mind on through various ingenious ways it is the seeking of answers to those questions. I will not attempt to explain Dawkins' theories here, but I will say that book has been famously thrashed for portraying a very harsh reality - a reality in which selfishness is the light that guides us, as in all living things, along. However, those that think is such a way fail to observe several facts mentioned by Dawkins: For a start, Dawkins shows how, according to the latest research, being nice and forgiving to one another is clearly the best strategy for one to act with, even if it is for mere selfish reasons; the concept is proven using games theory, which is utilized quite a lot in the book. And second, Dawkins claims that our genes have put us, humans, at a unique standpoint where they actually gave us the tools to consciously stand up before them and defy them; we can tell out genes, "listen mates, we're doing things our way". Humanity is the only species we know that can, at least theoretically, decide to let go of selfish gene agendas and act according to the strategies that benefit all of the people all of the time. When I read Dawkins' theory I was not shocked at the bleakness it portrayed; I was rather at awe with the potential that we, people, have for making our world a better place if we actually put our minds to it.
Yet another interesting theory of Dawkins' is that genes are not the only replicating elements that pass from generation to generation. Another replicating element, which again is unique to humanity, is its collection of cultural memories - to which Dawkins refers to as "memes". Memes come in various shapes and sizes - languages, music, and even religion. When a human being passes away, what is left of him or her are two things - the genes they passed on to their descendants and the memes they left behind; say, the songs they wrote that hit the charts. The memes, therefore, have a life of their own: In certain ways, god actually does exist, because the concept has been going through a rather too successful process of Darwinian evolution as a meme (and to hear that from Mr God Delusion himself is quite unexpected).
So: I hope I managed to convey the gravity of the issues discussed in The Selfish Gene and my satisfaction with the answers it provides. Now it is time to discusses the technicalities.
Is The Selfish Gene a fun book to read? I would say that this is definitely the case. It is an exciting book to read, and often it is quite witty. Not as high on humor as The God Delusion, mind you - a book which often feels like a comedy - but then again the subject matter here is much more serious. That said, The Selfish Gene, as good as it is in popularizing a heavy message so that the masses can relate to it, is not that light a read; I can definitely not see my mother, for example, being able to read it. I can, however, see most of my friends - even those that don't really like heavy stuff - reading it and enjoying it, if only for the answers it provides. If getting the answers to the questions mentioned above requires reading a book that is as tough to read as The Selfish Gene, I would say that we should all read the book 10 times. I will make it very clear, though, that given the gravity of the subject matter and its complexity, The Selfish Gene is an easy and entertaining read that doesn't require any special knowledge or understanding. Dawkins does not ask the reader to solve differential equations here.
One thing that did annoy me is the handling of the footnotes. I mention this petty issue mainly to demonstrate how good a read the book is, you see: The footnotes added in later editions offer much in the way of enlightenment, and they are quite frequent, yet they are all grouped at the end of the book. Thus, in order to read the footnotes in association to the text they refer to I had to skip back and forth and use two book-markers to index myself. I am quite sure that if the Oxford Press guys put their mind to it they will find a better way to integrate the notes with the text.
Overall: Here is one book that delivered, withstood the test of time, and became a legend in its own rights. From now on, if I was to be asked to name one book that represents me and what I stand for the best, my answer would have to be The Selfish Gene. From now on, I am convinced and happy to know that this world of ours still continues to harbor people of the stature of the late Carl Sagan: people who stand for the principles of open minded scientific thinking and who are capable enough to bring down the scientific message to the masses.
Books don't come in more important a shape than The Selfish Gene: 5.5 stars.


Tony F said...

Fantastic and balanced summary of The Selfish Gene - coincidentally also my VERY favourite book, one which completely sharpened the way I see and understand the world and a book that I think about EVERY day. A true sceptic at heart, I can't help but marvel and be awe-inspired by adopting "the replicator's viewpoint" - whether genes or memes. Dawkins has given me a better understanding of evolutionary theory and an incredible insight into life in general and ultimately human culture. While memetics has obviously got a long way to go, I feel encouraged that others like Sue Blackmore clearly can't let go of its ideas - and neither can I! I imitate, therefore I am. Seems so obvious to me these days. Best wishes.

Moshe Reuveni said...

Wow! What a difference between Tony F's feedback and the feedback I got for my review of The God Delusion!
Thanks for the compliments, for the insight, and for letting me know of Susan Blackmore.