Priscila Jordão's Reviews > The Selfish Gene

The Selfish Gene by Richard Dawkins
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Although a lot has changed in social biology and ethology since this book was originally published in 1976, “The Selfish Gene” brought me numerous insights which made my respect for Dawkins grow immensely. I’ll explain why.

The book can be considered today almost out of date, I think, and there’s much in it to be criticized. Dawkins language is particularly reductionist as he explains various types of animal behaviors mathematically while attributing them solely to genetic factors.

He says, for instance, that an animal has 1/8 of chance of saving one of his cousins from drowning because there is a chance of 1 in 8 that he and his cousin have genes in common. Or that a mother cares about her babies just because their body is transporting half of her genes.

I’m not questioning it because I found the theory insensitive or cruel (especially when it comes to human beings). We all know very well how important are genes determining behavior. But today we also know how deeply are another factors involved in this process. They are certainly relevant in different measures between animals and humans, but I’m inclined to believe that even in animals they do not exert this kind of dictatorship. And even if they did, it would be almost impossible to use mathematics to calculate things like the probability of an animal saving his cousin's life.

In chapter 11 Dawkins introduces the notion of “memes” and makes an exception to the sovereignty of genes: he mentions briefly that culture may change what was genetically “predetermined” to happen and, surprisingly, that it can be considered another type of evolution. However, most of the book doesn’t take this possibility into account, which is one of the reasons why I find it out of date.

Conversely, Dawkins brings up some really interesting ideas that had never come to my mind in other ways. One of them is mentioned in the second chapter, in which he explains the origins of replicant molecules (DNAs) and is confronted with the inevitable and very contemporary question: when does life begins? He solves the problem masterfully in my opinion: “Should we then call the original replicators ‘living’? Who cares? (…) Human suffering has been caused because too many of us cannot grasp that words are only tools for our use. The mere presence in the dictionary of a word like ‘living’ does not mean it necessarily has to refer to something definite in the real world”.

Another of my favorite parts is the one where the talks about the evolution of the capability of simulation in animals. His theory is that conscience emerged because the simulation that brains do to calculate probabilities and risks associated to everyday tasks became so complex at one point of the evolution that it was inevitable to start including the “self” in it.

I was also positively impressed by how Dawkins describes adaptation as the predominance of evolutionary stable strategies in opposition to unstable ones. It is an interesting approach to Darwin’s theory that he would probably have agreed with. The descriptions of various behaviors to exemplify his theory are also very engaging.

Finally, the already mentioned chapter about memes is a good surprise at the end of the book, and reveals some of Dawkins’ skills as philosopher (as someone mentioned in a review below).

For all these reasons, and although I was bored at many moments because of its reductionism, I found “The Selfish Gene” worth of reading. It certainly deserves its fame as a classic.
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Quotes Priscila Liked

Richard Dawkins
“Human suffering has been caused because too many of us cannot grasp that words are only tools for our use.

The mere presence in the dictionary of a word like 'living' does not mean it necessarily has to refer to something definite in the real world.”
Richard Dawkins, The Selfish Gene


Reading Progress

Started Reading
April 26, 2013 – Shelved
April 26, 2013 – Shelved as: britânica
April 26, 2013 – Finished Reading

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