Bradley's Reviews > The Selfish Gene

The Selfish Gene by Richard Dawkins
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it was amazing
bookshelves: 2017-shelf, science, non-fiction

Color me very impressed. I can now see why this is considered to be one of those hugely popular science books I keep hearing about and the reason why Dawkins has become so widely known and/or respected with or without his notoriety.

Indeed, the pure science bits were pretty much awesome. We, or at least I, have heard of this theory in other contexts before and none of it really comes as much surprise to see that genes, themselves, have evolved strategies that are exactly the same as Game Theory in order to find the best possible outcome for continued replication. Hence: the selfish gene.

Enormous simple computers running through the prisoner's dilemma with each other, rival genes, and especially within whole organisms which could just be seen as gigantic living spacecraft giving the genes an evolutionary advantage of finding new and more prosperous adaptations.

Yup! That's us!

I honestly don't see the problem. I love the idea that we are just galaxies of little robots running complicated Game Theories that eventually turn into a great cooperative machine where everyone (mostly) benefits, with plenty of complicated moves going way beyond hawks and doves and straight into the horribly complicated multi-defectors, forgivers, and other evolutionary styles that depend on the events that have gone before and the pre-knowledge (or lack of) a set end-date for the entire experiment... in other words, our deaths, whether pre-planned or simply the entire mass of genes just coming to realize that it's no longer in their best interest to keep pushing this jalopy around any longer if they're not getting anything out of it... like further replication. :)

Even when it's not precisely sex, it's still all about sex. :)

Of course, what I've just mentioned isn't the entire book, because, as a matter of fact, the book walks us through so many stages of thought, previous research, developments, mistakes, and upgraded theories and surprising conclusions based on soooooo much observable data that any of us might be rightfully confounded with the weight of it unless we were in the heart of the research, ourselves.

It's science, baby.

Make sure you don't make the data conform to your theory. Build your theory from observable data. Improve upon it as the building blocks are proved or disproved, keep going until it is so damn robust until nothing but a true miracle could topple it, and then keep asking new questions.

The fact is, this theory has nothing (or everything) to do with our lives. We play Game Theory, too, in exactly the same way every gene everywhere does, but we just happen to be able to make models on top of the situations and we're able to choose whether to see through the lies, the hawk strategies, or when to stop cooperating if the advantages work out much better for us if we did. We, like our genes, can choose long-term cooperative strategies or play everything like a Bear market. :)

Even this book says that it's very likely that Nice Guys can win, but just like our lives, the gene lives keep discovering ever more complicated strategies and all eventual strategies become more and more situational.

Isn't that us, to a tea? I wonder if most complaints about this book stem from complaints about Game Theory rather than the perceived conclusion (much better spelled out, not in this book, but in later books)... that atheism rules the day. It really isn't evident here. Instead, we have a macrocosm mimicking the microcosm and no one wants to challenge their comfortable world view.

Things aren't simple. All choices to betray or cooperate are then met with situation and memory and ever complex meta-contexts, the difference between us and genes being that we're self-aware and the genes are not.

Yes, yes, I see where the arguments can start coming out of the closet about self-determination and such, but that's not really the point of this book at all. The point is that it's a successful model that accurately describes reality. It has nothing at all to do with the macro-world except obliquely, and makes no value judgments on our art, our beliefs, or how we think about ourselves except in our uniquely stubborn and self-delusional ways that love to take things out of context and apply misunderstood concepts to our general lives and wonder why everything gets so screwed up. :)

But then, maybe I'm just applying my own incomplete models to yet another and we lousy humans still lack WAY TOO MUCH data to build a really impressively improved model. :)

Come on, Deep Thought. Where are you? :)
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Reading Progress

March 29, 2017 – Shelved
March 29, 2017 – Shelved as: to-read
April 1, 2017 – Started Reading
April 2, 2017 – Shelved as: 2017-shelf
April 2, 2017 – Shelved as: science
April 2, 2017 – Shelved as: non-fiction
April 2, 2017 – Finished Reading

Comments Showing 1-15 of 15 (15 new)

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message 1: by Trish (new)

Trish I'd say you nailed writing an enthusiastic little fanboy review. :)


Bradley I write what I feel. :)


message 3: by Emmanuelle (new) - added it

Emmanuelle I already wanted to read this (my hubby is a fan as well) so you just make me want to read it even more! ;)


Bradley Good books are good books! Some might be considered classics, too. :) Go read! :)


message 5: by Tim (new) - added it

Tim You didn't really read this in two days, did you? ;-) If you did, then... damn, how fast must you have read (and still understanding/knowing what you read), considering the heaviness of the subject?


Bradley Actually, yeah. Started it the night before, and almost finished a different book yesterday.

BUT, to be fair, I've read a lot of non-fiction so things tend to build on each other and I didn't have that much of a learning curve. That's the great thing about reading so much... a lot of it is all repeats. I get to judge things on points for style rather than content. :)


message 7: by Tim (new) - added it

Tim Another mystery solved. :)


message 8: by Sebastien (new)

Sebastien Wonderful review! been meaning to read this for a little while now.

My one question on Dawkins, and this may just be a misinformed perception of mine but he comes across as a dogmatist in his atheism. Proving the existence of God is impossible, it is unknowable, untestable, and yet sometimes I feel these zealot atheists act as if one is anti-science and an idiot for not bowing down to the dogma that there is and can be no God.

As far as I can understand there is no way to test the God hypothesis, it is unprovable, and sometimes this sliver of fundamentalist atheists are just as bad as the flip side of the coin, given the monster they face in the fundamentalist religious zealots who try to subsume and force their views down everyone's throats maybe this sliver of atheists figure more firebrand tactics are warranted given what their opposition is using in terms of tactics? but you end up becoming what you are fighting which is ironic, in fighting zealotry you become a zealot yourself, of a different nature, but zealot nonetheless. There is a Nietszche quote on that phenomenon (not that I endorse him but I find the quote interesting and somewhat true to life).

But both sides, and atheists if not careful, end up operating within closed loop systems and unable to back up any of their absolutist 100% certain claims with evidence. Is this a fair assessment? I don't know if Dawkins falls into that camp of atheists since I don't follow him closely but I've always had a perception from afar that he might, or at least he tags along close to it.

Full disclosure though I am agnostic who trends towards probability of no god(s).


Bradley Oddly enough, I came into reading all these books with this exact view, worried that I wouldn't have enough faith to believe in the existence of no god, but that's the odd bit. There was no discussion of god (or very very little) in this book.

It's main and only argument was a mountain of evidence that the world (and universe) runs just fine on its own, fully self-consistent without any additional and superfluous arguments such as adding and extra layer where there need not be any.

No more arguments than this. No staunch belief system. No weirdness. Just evidence that everything works as it should without magical thinking.

It's like saying after you've taken a course on electronics, learning all about the components of computers and how they all work together, then having to step back and say that there's also gremlins powering it from the inside.

Most people would go... HUH? WTF?

And this is where the book was targetted by all the fundamental Christians. For a decade. With hate mail.

From that point forward, this originally mild scientist who wrote a pure science book in The Selfish Gene, wrote new books that were rather angry at being so put upon by such people. And then, what, 30 years later, he writes The God Delusion? Instead of ignoring the hate mail, he escalates and defends science and points a finger back at all the hate mail.

That's his choice, of course, and we can judge him on his choices, but I really haven't seen much in the way of dogmatism at all.

Maybe in the 4th book I read of his. Maybe the 5th. I don't know. But he's been imminently logical and always devoted to science and he's sometimes even charming.

On the other hand, I've seen a TON of books and inflammatory book titles and magazine articles and weird crap denouncing the living hell out of Dawkins for being EXACTLY what you and I came to this believing ABOUT him. That it's all about science dogmatism, etc etc. Which is BS. Honestly.

I wanted to see for myself what the big hubub was about and get it directly from the man's own mouth.

I think the big stuff he might have gone on about was in some interviews. I certainly haven't seen much except well-reasoned arguments along the line of... "I look at the sun as if it is a gigantic ball of gas undergoing fusion, not a sun-god that demands worship. You can certainly believe both if you really want to, but it demands a large amount of compartmentalization and double-think that isn't strictly necessary in order to have a thorough understanding of the universe."

(This doesn't sound crazy or dogmatic, does it?)

It sounds reasonable.


message 10: by Sebastien (new)

Sebastien Awesome thanks for the response. Yeah I wasn't sure how he presented his views on that issue.

I think in general the scientific method corrects our human tendencies towards dogmatism, in fact if it is correctly practiced it disciplines in exactly the opposite direction. It is self-correcting, always trying to lower the error bar, continually self-refining and self-questioning. There is also a humility within this spirit, for science and knowledge to advance we must first admit our ignorance, or previous flaws in thinking or paradigms.

Of course no one is immune from bias, but in general people in the science realm take pride in flexibility of thought, encourage questioning, have an openness to new evidence, and are willing to admit error. This sort of mindset should be more widely taught and practiced imo. It's a mode of logic and critical thinking we need to teach and teach well.


Bradley I'm constantly amazed at what people call normal, too. :) But yes, I totally agree that openness and self-correcting thought modes should be the standard for everyone. :) It even works fine for ANYTHING you put your mind to.

Even religion, lol. No one necessarily has to subscribe to anything that they don't want to, but certain modes CAN seem rather burdensome where there's no need. :)


message 12: by Emmanuelle (new) - added it

Emmanuelle I am going to be the rock in the water pond. Scientifics can be dogmatic, as much as religious people. Scientific thoughts and theory can be elevated to the level of a religious thought. Ask any of the people who tried to change the 'trend' in science: Wegener with the continental drift is a very good example or (I am ashamed I forgot their name) the father and son who demonstrated the possibility that a giant meteorite could have ended Dinosaur catastrophically. I am a scientist (or so I would like) and this was the most shocking discovery of my scientific life.


Bradley Oh! I remember those stories, too! Each new generation has it's own, but take the long view on this... that's still a LOT quicker than religious thinking, and it's usually not so overpowering and overreaching as to drown out all other thought, EVEN IF it leads to little or no funding. :)


message 14: by Emmanuelle (new) - added it

Emmanuelle mmmm. I don't know. Perhaps because I am IN it, and I was disapointed, I cannot see the bright light. For me, scientific thinking is about questionning. Even your own finding. More and more I meet scientists that want to question only the finding of others. And it's not just about the funding, most of the time, it's because they truly think they can't be wrong...
but yeah, on the 'long view', I suppose you're right. Science finding and theories are changing, are being modified... Thanks for the brighter view! ;)


Bradley If science theories are subject to the same Game Theory dynamics, as are the scientists themselves, we can always expect a lot of changing dynamics as the old guard dies off and a new homoeostasis is reached. :)

Yes, indeed, this is the bright view. :)

Or, stated, differently, "Out with the old garbage, yo!"


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