Catalin Negru's Reviews > The Selfish Gene

The Selfish Gene by Richard Dawkins
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Jan 26, 2017

it was amazing
bookshelves: science

Target audience: Mainly common people (and scientists) interested in finding (more) about genes and the mechanisms that sit behind the phenomenon of life.

About the author: According to Wikipedia, Clinton Richard Dawkins is an English ethologist, evolutionary biologist and author. He is an emeritus fellow of New College, Oxford, and was the University of Oxford's Professor for Public Understanding of Science from 1995 until 2008. Dawkins is an atheist, and is well known for his criticism of creationism and intelligent design. In his 1986 book The Blind Watchmaker, he argues against the watchmaker analogy, an argument for the existence of a supernatural creator based upon the complexity of living organisms. Instead, he describes evolutionary processes as analogous to a blind watchmaker in that reproduction, mutation, and selection are unguided by any designer. He is an opponent of creationism being taught in schools. He has been awarded many prestigious academic and writing awards and he makes regular television, radio and Internet appearances, predominantly discussing his books, his atheism, and his ideas and opinions as a public intellectual.

Structure of the book: The book has 360 pages and it is divided into 13 chapters.

Overview: I read a good portion of Dawkins’ books, and I think this is one of his best, after The God Delusion. The Selfish Gene is really thought-provoking and an interesting assessment of human nature. It changes the way many scientists and common people look at the process of natural selection and it redefines how we see the place of the human beings in nature. There are many wonderful ideas in this book, but I’ll mention only three here:

1) Altruism is a form of selfishness – I think most of us see tend to see altruism and selfishness as two opposed concepts. In reality – and I fully agree with Dawkins – altruism is not the opposite of selfishness, but a variation of it. The most selfish survival tactic of any individual is not to directly attack others in its group even though they compete with him for food and mates. For example, the author talks about the origin of herds and flocks. Each individual gene machine has a lesser chance of being eaten by a stalking predator if it is wrapped in a group. It will naturally crowd closer into the center of a group, which explains how herds or flocks are formed. This is why various behaviors may appear unselfish, when they in fact are selfishly oriented. Dawkins provides another example: the weird world of bees, in which the workers never breed. Because they do not follow normal rules of sexual reproduction, the sterile female workers are more closely related to one another than a parent and child. It behooves their common genes to support the queen mother as she makes up gobs of identical twin sisters for the colony.

2) People are phenomena of genes and products of arms race – Why do we breed? Why do we learn? Why do we fight between each other? Humans are motivated solely by our genetic best interest. Since individual life is short, and life on Earth is a 3.8 billion year journey, what matters must be the information transmitted from generation to generation. So it's the genes that control the future: an animal is just the chromosomes' way of making another chromosome. Individual life becomes a punctuation point in the DNA's blind, automaton desire for eternity. Dawkins describes how the very earliest forms of life may have come to be. He says that when electrical energy combines with the sort of chemicals in early Earth’s seas the result is a sort of soup of the building blocks of life. If any of the molecules in this soup somehow begin to replicate – or make copies of themselves, the process of life would follow. The molecules that make the most accurate copies of themselves and which last the longest outnumber the others. When the raw material of building is used up, the molecules with protection or aggressive behaviors outnumber the others.

3) To every phenomenon there is a counter-phenomenon – I do not know if Dawkins read philosophy, but I think that some of the ideas mentioned in the The Selfish Gene were previously advanced by Georg Friedrich Hegel (I am not 100% sure it was him). Hegel focuses on social phenomena and the evolution of ideologies. The German philosopher says that ideologies have their own existence and we are their cells. And because of us, they manifest exactly like a living being: they are born, they evolve, they fight, they die. In society there is a balance and a constant struggle between ideologies to eliminate each other and become stronger; exact like humans in relation to other humans, and like genes in relation to other genes. Dawkins however speaks about phenomena in nature: living beings always experiment and develop new weapons to catch their prey easier or defenses to be caught harder. Moreover, this is the book in which Dawkins introduces the theory of memes – the seemingly self-replicating pool of art and science, literature and music, knowledge, folklore and platitude that survives with each human life – and indeed coins the word itself, and fires the opening salvoes in what will become his all-out intellectual artillery assault on aspects of religion.

Quote: Genes are the primary policy makers; brains are the executives.

Strong points: There is many compressed information in the book and I really appreciate the author’s effort to translate the biologic language to common people. Dawkins skipped much of the modern technical terminology of genetics and use relatively simple language, which is just as well, because what he has to say is quite hard to understand. His style is casual, fascinating, and even funny. While the book can get a bit science heavy, it is explained well and definitely not targeted for only the science community.

Weak points: There are short parts where Dawkins uses advanced math and computer simulated games that are hard to follow. It lost me at these parts. While this information might be useful to the advanced people, for me, a common man, was hard to read.

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Quotes Catalin Liked

Richard Dawkins
“Unfortunately, however much we may deplore something, it does not stop being true.”
Richard Dawkins, The Selfish Gene

Richard Dawkins
“In the beginning was simplicity.”
Richard Dawkins, The Selfish Gene

Reading Progress

September 9, 2016 – Shelved
September 9, 2016 – Shelved as: to-read
December 30, 2016 – Shelved as: science
January 17, 2017 – Started Reading
January 26, 2017 – Finished Reading

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