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The Selfish Gene
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Book Club 2014 > June 2014 - Selfish Gene

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message 1: by Betsy, co-mod (new) - rated it 3 stars

Betsy | 1239 comments Mod
For June 2014 we will be reading The Selfish Gene by Richard Dawkins.

Please use this thread to post questions, comments, and reviews, at any time.


message 2: by Aloha (new) - added it

Aloha | 333 comments Another book I want to read and I'm barely able to keep my reading commitments! :o(


DavidO (DrgnAngl) | 15 comments I read this a few months ago. My favorite part is where Dawkins invents a new word and it eventually enters the dictionary. (meme)


message 4: by Kenny (last edited Apr 28, 2014 07:54AM) (new)

Kenny Chaffin (kennychaffin) I agree David, this was a very, very eye-opening book for me when I first read it back in the 70's??? I think I'm still reeling from it a bit. First the base concept that we/biological organisms are nothing more than the way for genes to propagate themselves....wow! Then he takes it to an even higher level with the concept of evolution of ideas/culture/knowledge/technology is an amazing one.


Rose I started reading this last night, and I look forward to getting into the heart of the book.


Elizabeth Theiss (Dakotaprof) | 50 comments Dawkins published The Selfish Gene some 40 years ago when science's understanding of genes was primitive by today's standards. Yet, so much that he wrote has stood the test of time.

On the one hand, it's a bit unsettling to think of one's self as merely a survival machine, with behavior dictated by the needs of our genes; on the other hand, Dawkins's masterful synthesis provides us with a pretty good description of human behavior and allows us to make predictions with some degree of accuracy (the iron test of the usefulness of any theory).

I would be curious to know what others find useful in The Selfish Gene and what is in need of revision.


Elizabeth Theiss (Dakotaprof) | 50 comments By the way, I first read this years ago in order to explore the origins of the term memes that DavidO brought up. Dawkins' chapter on memes is brilliant and has helped me understand political campaign rhetoric and what makes it effective.


Michele | 7 comments Great comments Elizabeth. I read The Selfish Gene so long ago I don't remember if there was anything about it that I would update. I do remember it was an epiphany in that I had a vague idea of how natural selection worked but Dawkins was a genius at showing in a step by step way how a species would evolve. I remember in particular the bees or ants description making me get so excited. I picture those simple step throughs as being enlightening even today.

And then of course the idea of the meme is awesome. I use that idea all the time in my work.

To name another favorite book, my husband and I really enjoyed The Beak of the Finch when it came out. Again, it was so breathtaking to get a more practical understanding of natural selection.


Elizabeth Theiss (Dakotaprof) | 50 comments Michele, that's exactly what I find so interesting about Dawkins' argument--he provides detailed evidence from many different species showing how his theory works.

In recent years, the "grandmother hypothesis" has been much touted in the media. It basically answers the question of why women live beyond their reproductive years since it would seem to be a waste of resources from an evolutionary perspective. The reason for grandmothers is that by helping raise the youngest generation, they improve the chances of genes surviving. Rereading The Selfish Gene, I realize that Dawkins came up with this idea in 1973.


message 10: by Kenny (new)

Kenny Chaffin (kennychaffin) Smart man that Dawkins. :)


Avid Reader and Geek Girl (AvidReaderandGeekGirl) I just started the book. I think it should have been changed a bit for the 30th anniversary. Just because the beginning is pretty widely known, the primeval soup and DNA and everything.


message 12: by Kenny (new)

Kenny Chaffin (kennychaffin) Colleen wrote: "I just started the book. I think it should have been changed a bit for the 30th anniversary. Just because the beginning is pretty widely known, the primeval soup and DNA and everything."

Not for everyone though. :(


message 13: by Alex (new) - rated it 5 stars

Alex I'm about a quarter through, and hi everyone! I haven't participated in a read with y'all for ages, but I'm hoping to get a little back into science reading! So glad you chose this book.

Elizabeth wrote: " The reason for grandmothers is that by helping raise the youngest generation, they improve the chances of genes surviving."

Where'd you see the grandmother bit? I saw a part where Dawkins mentioned someone else's theory that genes are optimized to keep us alive long enough to reproduce, and after that it's all sortof irrelevant; I haven't seen the grandmother hypothesis yet.

Really enjoying the book so far: Dawkins has an engaging writing style. He's fun to read.

Maybe someone can help me: I didn't retain one part of his sensible-sounding theory of how life began. I understand that some molecules (replicators) attach nicely to other molecules, and therefore create larger groups (like how crystals do), and they're consuming other...food-type-things, and (er...) therefore competition for food, and therefore evolution. But how did they start consuming food? What's his idea about the first time a molecule or group of molecules started "feeding" (on other molecules or sunlight or whatever it might have been)?


Elizabeth Theiss (Dakotaprof) | 50 comments The evolutionary advantage of grandmothers appears later in the book and it's just a few paragraphs but so well-reasoned. I was surprised by it because someone published it as a new idea just a few years ago.

I will admit that I'm also a bit hazy on the evolution of food ingestion. Anyone else more clear? Now I will have to go back and reread that section.

This book is dense with ideas. I've reread sections multiple times and still find new layers of meaning.


Avid Reader and Geek Girl (AvidReaderandGeekGirl) Kenny wrote: "Colleen wrote: "I just started the book. I think it should have been changed a bit for the 30th anniversary. Just because the beginning is pretty widely known, the primeval soup and DNA and everyth..."

Pretty much anyone who would actually read this book!


message 16: by Kenny (new)

Kenny Chaffin (kennychaffin) Colleen wrote: "..Pretty much anyone who would actually read this book! ..."

Nah. Certainly wasn't true of me when I first read it. Just the title alone draws in those who would like to know more about genetics and with all the geology craze and Genome mapping I'd think many who are not familiar with the science of life and it's origins would be interested. As well as those -- and there's a hell of a bunch of them -- that believe in a divine creation of life/humanity. Not to mention those Dawkins haters that think they can read it and point out how ignorant he is....


message 17: by Kenny (new)

Kenny Chaffin (kennychaffin) Elizabeth wrote: "This book is dense with ideas. I've reread sections multiple times and still find new layers of meaning...."

Yep and very readable, that's the two best parts as far as I'm concerned.

The idea of organisms just being containers for genes to get what they want is mindblowing in itself and then in the last chapter he extends it to society/information/communication with the Meme concept.....Amazing insight...particularly for the time.


Steve Van Slyke (Steve_Van_Slyke) | 347 comments Alex wrote: "Maybe someone can help me: I didn't retain one part of his sensible-sounding theory of how life began...."

Alex, there is a wonderful book on life's origin by Robert Hazen called Genesis: The Scientific Quest for Life's Origins. I think it would make a good group read. What Dawkins touched on many years ago in The Selfish Gene, is the tiny tip of the iceberg compared with current research and competing theories.


message 19: by Kenny (last edited Jun 07, 2014 09:29AM) (new)

Kenny Chaffin (kennychaffin) Thanks for that Steve. I read his more recent "The Story of Earth" earlier this year and loved it. I suspect there is some overlap in the books. A very readable author!
The Story of Earth: The First 4.5 Billion Years, from Stardust to Living Planet

He is also the author/teacher of the Great Courses: The Joy of Science.


Steve Van Slyke (Steve_Van_Slyke) | 347 comments Kenny wrote: "Thanks for that Steve. I read his more recent "The Story of Earth" earlier this year and loved it. I suspect there is some overlap in the books. A very readable author!
[book:The Story of Earth: Th..."


Yeah, I read that one, too, Kenny. So you know what a good writer he is. I'm sure you'll like Gen-e-sis. It blew me away and it's on my Read Again list.


message 21: by Alex (last edited Jun 07, 2014 09:51AM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Alex Steve wrote: "Alex, there is a wonderful book on life's origin by Robert Hazen called Genesis: The Scientific Quest for Life's Origins"

Ooh! That! Yes! I've been eyeing that book for ages! That's a great idea! Thanks for reminding me of it, and I'm really psyched to hear two recommendations for the author.


Elizabeth Theiss (Dakotaprof) | 50 comments Thanks for the book suggestions. One good science book always leads to another.


Pierre Doucet I am almost to the end of the book. It's a fascination view of evolution. I was particularly interested in the question of what is the unit of selection. Is it the gene, individual, group, or species? I suspect that this question is not completely resolved among scientists, however, Dawkins' description from the gene centered view is riveting. Logically, it all hangs together.


message 24: by Re (new)

Re Heubel | 22 comments Has any scientist attempted to explain homosexuality in "higher animals" and humans? Homosexuality completely defeats the notion of the drive to reproduce and pass on genes, it would seem. There maybe social/group benefits for the persistence of homosexuality???


message 25: by Alex (last edited Jun 09, 2014 09:40AM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Alex Re, here's what I can remember - and if anyone knows better, please correct me, because I'm dredging this out of my memory. I think there's an idea that gay people might help support the children of their siblings; so in a situation where there are scarce resources, having an extra adult around might outweigh the benefit of another child-producing person. And if I remember right, there's some circumstantial evidence: the odds of a person being gay rise, the more siblings he or she already has.

It seems possible that selfish gene math might support the idea: if there are 5 siblings, the benefit from helping, say, 10 nieces and nephews (1/4 same genes) might win out over producing 2 children (1/2 genes). But I don't know...it all seems pretty hazy, and I'm not sure genes can select based on previous genes that were already selected anyway.

I don't think science is wholly united in thinking that people are actually born gay at all, either; there may be some combination of nature and nurture at work, or it might be inconsistent.


message 26: by Alex (new) - rated it 5 stars

Alex Here's an article about it; my post was just close enough to be not very close.


Elizabeth Theiss (Dakotaprof) | 50 comments Great article Alex. Thanks for posting. I always wonder whether epigenetics and culture also play a role in self-identification as gay. In other words, the process is more complex and layered than a simple genetic difference.


message 28: by Alex (new) - rated it 5 stars

Alex I'm around 80% in the book, deep in a discussion of the Prisoner's Dilemma, which is teaching me a lot about why my brother-in-law always loses at Settlers of Catan. (He plays a strict Grudger strategy.)

As I get further in the book, I feel like it's getting more theoretical and also more easy to read; Dawkins has finished getting through all the technical stuff we need to understand what he's talking about, and now we're just playing around with the theory. So that's nice. This is a five-star book for me so far.

Dawkins' future as a Professional Atheist Curmudgeon is certainly visible from here; I wonder whether he was already needling religion on purpose with his "of course THIS idea is stupid"-type remarks, or whether it didn't occur to him that that might tick some people off.


Michele | 7 comments Without doing my homework on this...just remembering everything I've learned over the last 30 years from college and my own studies, being gay makes genetic sense if you don't look for 1-1 mappings between feature-purpose. So, for instance, humans seem to have a lot of variety psychologically and sexually. This may be a prime mover for many things like depression and personality and sexual preference AND create huge opportunities for some individuals to help the entire species. One good possibility is that this variety is linked to creativity. Some of the "side effects" may not be desirable, like depression, but are certainly worth the cost for the overall genetic payoff. AND some side effects, like homosexuality, are at least neutral. In my opinion, if you look at the contribution of the GLBT community to science, art, culture, etc., that side effect (given my line of thinking) has paid off a great deal. The GBLT feature has certainly not hurt the species' capability to propagate so that argument doesn't hold up.

I'm pretty sure Stephen Jay Gould wrote great essays on this topic in his books.


message 30: by Re (new)

Re Heubel | 22 comments Alex wrote: "Re, here's what I can remember - and if anyone knows better, please correct me, because I'm dredging this out of my memory. I think there's an idea that gay people might help support the children o..."

It is kind of frustrating that biologists - evolutionary, Darwin etc - don't have a good explaination for homosexuality in humans and animals. Darwin doesn't mention it, I don't believe. I have read that many homosexuals know very young that they are attracted to the same sex - and that homosexuality is not "learned" behavior, of course, and cannot be "unlearned".

Another possible explanation I had considered was a natural brake on population increase..


message 31: by Kenny (last edited Jun 10, 2014 09:52AM) (new)

Kenny Chaffin (kennychaffin) I certainly don't know the answer, but I do know that sexual impetus and sexual attraction are influenced by a plethoria of factors from biochemistry of body and brain to social interaction and experience.

I'd think it no more useful to ask the question than to ask why some people don't want children or why they choose the field of work they do.


message 32: by Alex (new) - rated it 5 stars

Alex Re wrote: "It is kind of frustrating that biologists - evolutionary, Darwin etc - don't have a good explaination for homosexuality in humans and animals."

Well, they don't have an explanation for a lot of other things, too.

Anyone got any thoughts on the book?


message 33: by Kenny (new)

Kenny Chaffin (kennychaffin) I loved it!


Susanna - Censored by GoodReads (SusannaG) | 335 comments I read it several years ago and it was an excellent read. What I found really interesting was that this was the version of genetics I got in secondary school - only a few years after this book came out.


message 35: by Alex (new) - rated it 5 stars

Alex Really? Lucky! All I got was a bunch of super boring junk about Mendel. I came out of high school with the impression that biology was even more boring than chemistry. Which seems perverse, now. How can biology be boring? Someone found a way.


message 36: by David (last edited Jun 10, 2014 05:36PM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

David | 737 comments Mod
I am about half-way through the book, and enjoying it. About a year ago I took an online course on the subject of game theory. Dawkins is evidently well-versed on game theory, and what he calls the "ESS" (Evolutionarily Stable Strategy) is, in general, called a Stable Equilibrium. (Same idea, just a different name.) In the course, I learned how to compute the various probabilities and fractions that Dawkins describes.

I enjoyed how Dawkins uses the idea of the ESS to explain many results of evolution. Why do animals/people exhibit such and such a behavior, when it seems sort of counter-productive? I think it's great!


Elizabeth Theiss (Dakotaprof) | 50 comments The ESS is a seemingly simple concept with enormous implications for evolution. When the environment changes, the ESS is disrupted. It appears that evolution does not proceed in an orderly, even fashion, but accelerates during periods of rapid environmental change. Perhaps the greatest strength of this book is that it has laid out in an organized way hundreds of testable hypotheses that have inspired a generation of scientists.


message 38: by Alex (last edited Jun 12, 2014 06:20AM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Alex I thought that part was really cool! I didn't know anything about game theory or ESS.

Elizabeth, I also liked how periodically Dawkins would be like "That hasn't been tested; someone should get on that."

I finished the book last night, and are others reading the second edition? It has two "new" chapters, "Nice guys finish first" and "The long reach of the gene." The first was pretty cool, but I didn't like the last at all. It seemed rushed; it tried to pack in a bunch of ideas without the evidence that makes them interesting; it seemed like an awkward advertisement for another book, The Extended Phenotype. (Crap name, btw, Dawkins.)


message 39: by Alex (new) - rated it 5 stars

Alex BTW - This has reminded me that I'd like to read an interesting book about viruses. Anyone know of one? The level of technical detail in Selfish Gene (ie not much) is about right for me.


message 40: by Kenny (new)

Kenny Chaffin (kennychaffin) Yes, Planet of Viruses by Carl Zimmer....great stuff!

A Planet of Viruses


Avid Reader and Geek Girl (AvidReaderandGeekGirl) I find this book frustrating, some of it is written for a novice, but some requires more knowledge of biology.


message 42: by Alex (new) - rated it 5 stars

Alex Thanks Kenny!


Elizabeth Theiss (Dakotaprof) | 50 comments I enjoyed Planet of Viruses. Loved Spilloverr by David Quammen who writes about how viruses cross over from other species to humans. It's a beast of a book but so well written that it's a pleasure.


message 44: by Kenny (new)

Kenny Chaffin (kennychaffin) I'll check that one out, thanks Elizabeth!


message 45: by Alex (new) - rated it 5 stars

Alex I love Quammen! His The Song of the Dodo: Island Biogeography in an Age of Extinctions is one of my favorite biology books. I'll check out Spillover: Animal Infections and the Next Human Pandemic - but I might start with the much shorter one :)


Michele | 7 comments I just finished Spillover. It was great. I'll never touch a dead animal again after that book.

After reading The Coming Plague I always get every possible innoculation I can.

Those are the lessons for me from those two books. Kinda funny.


message 47: by Stan (new)

Stan Morris (morriss003) Re wrote: "Alex wrote: "Re, here's what I can remember - and if anyone knows better, please correct me, because I'm dredging this out of my memory. I think there's an idea that gay people might help support t..."

Substitute the word desire for homosexuality, and you get a different perspective. Is desire learned? If a young male teenager can open a magazine, that has a picture of a nude male and a nude female, and his eyes are immediately drawn to the nude male, then this person is fundamentally different than me. In a genetic sense I believe. Personally, I suspect that the homosexual gene is carried in females similar to the way hemophilia is carried. In any case, that desire is not learned behavior.


message 48: by Cal (new)

Cal Thompson | 3 comments Does this apply when siblings are raised apart?


Elizabeth Theiss (Dakotaprof) | 50 comments One point that Dawkins makes over and over is that gene expression is not a one to one gene to phenotype or behavior. It seems most unlikely that a single gene would determine gender identity or sexual preference. The theme of The Selfish Gene is that over time genes will evolve in such a way as to maximize the gene's chance of survival. It's interesting to think about whether homosexuality advantages gene survival. Could it be that an additional carer and provider in a family could increase gene survival? Could you create a game simulation that mapped this?


message 50: by Stan (new)

Stan Morris (morriss003) Homosexuality could be a vestigial trait that has occurred as a result of a combination of genes. The trait would not necessarily be lost or be favorable.


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