A few popular science books rise above the genre and become pop-stars of the book world – bestsellers. Even fewer among them change public discourse and, finally, culture. The Selfish Gene (TSG) by Richard Dawkins is one of these rare books. Published in 1976, TSG is not only still in print, but according to the a long, chronologically uninterrupted trail of stamps on the card inside of the 30th anniversary edition from my local public library, is still being read.
But despite all the fame (or notoriety?) of TGS, I have yet to meet a biologist under 40 who actually read the book. Before deciding to review it for BitesizeBio, I was hesitant about investing time in The Selfish Gene, suspecting that it would be a dated evolutionary biology book dumbed down for non-biologists. After reading it, though, I think there is a lot to appreciate about this book.
The title: runaway metaphor
Dawkins defines the selfish gene as follows:
“…In sexually reproducing species, the individual is too large and too temporary a genetic unit to qualify as a significant unit of natural selection…
…[A gene] leaps from body to body down the generations, manipulating body after body in its own way and for its own ends, abandoning a succession of mortal bodies before they sink into senility and death… The genes are the immortals, or rather, they are defined as genetic entities that come close to deserving the title. We, the individual survival machines in the world, can expect to live a few more decades.”
In the preface, Prof. Dawkins writes that “The immortal gene” would have been a better title for the book, however (and this is true for the whole work) the caveats and explanations don’t stick in your memory: the metaphors do. It is ironic that the neodarwinist term “selfish gene”, introduced and explained in TSG, has achieved a similar level of popularity as another vivid but inaccurate arwinian metaphor, “survival of the fittest”.
Less than sum of its parts?
In Dawkin’s book, a species (including humans) is reduced to a population, population to an extended family group, –a family group to an individual, and an individual to a gene, which absolutely defines the organism. There is no emergence between different levels: a “gene” equals behavior. This simplified picture is put across forcefully, with an erudition and conviction that are typical for Dawkins, who, since TGD and a chain of relatively less well known popular books (The Extended Phenotype, anyone?) has gradually become an embodiment of non-compromising atheism. Having read “The Selfish Gene,” I can understand why my local librarian told me that TSD forced him to doubt the existence of the free will, despite Dawkins’ declaration that:
“We, alone on earth, can rebel against the tyranny of the selfish replicators”
Another, perhaps even more significant contribution of “The Selfish Gene” to the cultural discourse and, as a result, vocabulary, is expanding of the idea of an immortal replicator from biology to culture and coining of the term “meme”:
“…a new kind of replicator has recently emerged…unit of cultural transmission… meme. Examples of memes are tunes, ideas, catch-phrases, clothes, fashion…”
Is TSG dumbed down?
According to the preface, the book was intended for three types of readers – lay persons, experts (who were predicted by Dawkins to use phrases ‘with the exception of’ and ‘ugh’) and the inbetweeners – students. I am probably an expert – I did think ‘with the exception of’ a lot. Depending on your field of study, you may want to skip the pages on the origin of life or genetic code or population genetics – but if you know and can write about all this (and virtual machines, theory of consciousness, game theory, social insects, caddis flies, naked mole rats) accessibly for the general public, you are probably Dawkins himself.
Is it dated?
Sometimes, especially reading at the end of day while commuting, I found the explanations convoluted. A few of the concepts, such as the idea that most of the genome doesn’t have any function and represents “selfish” or “junk” DNA, are dated too. It is a pity that the author was not allowed to update the book – the clarification comments added to the anniversary edition are often more interesting than the original text – so 35 years after its first publication “The Selfish Gene” is more of a historical document than a state-of-the problem treatise it had been once.
Is TSG worth reading?
Definitely, if you are a student – it will expand your erudition and will give you a fine example of how to write engagingly and avoiding a single math formula about complicated science. If you are an “expert”, read it if you are interested in philosophy of science and historical books or want to be ready to discuss the selfish gene or a meme at a dinner party.
Keeping up with the latest developments in your field of research is important whether you are taking a sabbatical to travel the world or your funding has finally dried up. Whatever your situation, it is good to maintain a broad working knowledge of your field of interest and not leave yourself a mountain of reading […]
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