Skip to main content

The Selfish Gene – Richard Dawkins *****

Richard Dawkins is the doyen of the new evolutionary biologists, and puts his message across with masterly ease. The topic of evolution is not just one that causes controversies on the news, it is fundamentally important to us all, and when Dawkins wrote this book back in 1976, he was to have a huge impact on the general public. Dawkins writes very smoothly – this is not only a classic of popular science, it is one of the most beautiful examples.
Evolution, and its impact on genetics is indeed crucial to us all, but it has also been fundamentally important to biologists and zoologists. Before evolution they were very much second class scientists, more concerned with collating information and categorizing species than applying any scientific theory to explain what was observed. Because of this, biologists were said to suffer from “physics envy”, because they felt inferior to the hard sciences. Evolution was to change all that – which is great, but the only irritating side effect that comes through a little in this book (and more so in the works of some other writers like Daniel Dennett) is the idea that evolution is not only a very important theory, but actually is MORE important than everything else. Dawkins opens the book by saying “If superior creatures from space ever visit earth [sic], the first question they will ask, in order to assess the level of our civilization, is ‘Have they discovered evolution yet?'” This is just plain silly. But don’t let it put you off the rest of the book, because it is superb.
The only part of the book that is open to significant question is the chapter or memes – Dawkins’ idea of a conceptual equivalent of genes that allow anything from ideas to advertising jingles spread through society. It was a nice thought, but has been too often taken as scientific fact in popular science writing, where it is anything but a proven concept. But that’s a minor part of the book.
Anyone who has any doubts that “evolution is just a theory” needs to read this. And I stress to read it. All too often, people have just come across the title, or heard it being talked about and assumed that Dawkins is literally suggesting that genes have conscious will, and act in order to make things better for themselves. In fact, Dawkins is master of metaphor, and that’s all it was ever intended to be. As he points out, there is no suggestion that we are puppets to our genes, and have to act in a manner that furthers the benefit of our genes. Many of us choose to act differently. But there is equally no doubt of the power of genetic evolutionary pressure. Also, a lot of the problem is that most people have a very poor grasp of probability and statistics, and find it difficult to see evolution, and its impact on genetic action in these terms. Some will always struggle against the concepts here, but everyone should have this book on their reading list.
The Selfish Gene is now in a third edition, also known as the 30th anniversary edition, which has extra prefaces in the front, but unless you are particularly interested in the development of the attitude to evolution and genetics, our advice is to skip these and get onto the main text.
Paperback:  
Kindle:  
Review by Jo Reed

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Four Way Interview - Tom Cabot

Tom Cabot is a London-based book editor and designer with a background in experimental psychology, natural science and graphic design. He founded the London-based packaging company, Ketchup, and has produced and illustrated many books for the British Film Institute, Penguin and the Royal Institute of British Architects. Tom has held a lifelong passion to explain science graphically and inclusively ... ever since being blown away by Ray and Charles Eames’ Powers of Ten at an early age. His first book is Eureka, an infographic guide to science.

Why infographics?
For me infographics provided a way to present heavy-lifting science in an alluring and playful, but ultimately illuminating, way. And I love visualising data and making it as attractive as the ideas are.  The novelty of the presentation hopefully gets the reader to look afresh. I love the idea of luring in readers who might normally be put off by drier, more monotone science – people who left science behind at 16. I wanted the boo…

A Tale of Seven Scientists - Eric Scerri ***

Scientists sometimes tell us we're in a post-philosophy world. For example, Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow in The Grand Design bluntly say that that philosophy is 'dead' - no longer required, as science can do its job far better. However, other scientists recognise the benefits of philosophy, particularly when it is applied to their own discipline. One such is Eric Scerri, probably the world's greatest expert on the periodic table, who in this challenging book sets out to modify the philosophical models of scientific progress.

I ought to say straight away that A Tale of Seven Scientists sits somewhere on the cusp between popular science and a heavy duty academic title. For reasons that will become clear, I could only give it three stars if rating it as popular science, but it deserves more if we don't worry too much about it being widely accessible.

One minor problem with accessibility is that I've never read a book that took so long to get started. First t…

Einstein's Greatest Mistake - David Bodanis ****

Books on Einstein and his work are not exactly thin on the ground. There's even been more than one book before with a title centring on Einstein's mistake or mistakes. So to make a new title worthwhile it has do something different - and David Bodanis certainly achieves this with Einstein's Greatest Mistake. If I'm honest, the book isn't the greatest on the science or the history - but what it does superbly is tell a story. The question we have to answer is why that justifies considering this to be a good book.
I would compare Einstein's Greatest Mistake with the movie Lincoln -  it is, in effect, a biopic in book form with all the glory and flaws that can bring. Compared with a good biography, a biopic will distort the truth and emphasise parts of the story that aren't significant because they make for a good screen scene. But I would much rather someone watched the movie than never found out anything about Lincoln - and similarly I'd much rather someon…