The Irvine Welsh of the scientific literary world
Originally written in 1976, and this the second edition in 1989, Richard Dawkins’ The Selfish Gene demands a significant mental shift to get into. It’s like reading Irvine Welsh’s Trainspotting for the first time. You have to adjust the way you think to the dialect of the text, but when you do, a whole new world opens out in front of you.
I spent the first four or five chapters seething at Dawkins for his, admittedly explained, use of words that personify genetics and evolutionary processes; making genes sound like thoughtful, Machiavellian strategists that deploy ever more cunning plans in a bid to duplicate and propagate their direct descendants, while in an earlier or later sentence qualifying this with nods to this not “actually” being the case. Once you get over this stumbling block you start to relax into the wonder that he has unfolded.
Drawing on the works of a few choice scientist that came before him, including George C. Williams and Darwin (duh!), and dissing others that hold less of his favour, Dawkins has created a new understanding for evolution, one in which the gene, or more importantly the replicator, is the centre of attention. Obviously he doesn’t think that genes have motives when he calls them selfish, but that their replicatory pre-programming has necessitated what we would describe as self serving evolutionary development.
Though it’s not necessarily an immediately easy book to read, it’s definitely worth sticking with, because the understanding that you will have after finishing it (unless you’re a geneticist) will be earth shattering. You’ll find yourself trying to explain the evolution of phenotypic effects that crop up in your day to day life. You’ll start to consider any new thought you have, thing you write down or music you play as a meme, the thought replicators that Dawkins posits in Chapter 11, and wonder how far they might reach if you gave them a nudge.
However, by far the most interesting proposal in the book is that humans, what with our sentient self awareness, are uniquely placed to control and manipulate our genetic development for the good of society; women could cut sh*ty men out of the gene pool by simply choosing not to bump uglies with them, fear could be managed by understanding it as a phenotypic effect of the flight or fight genes that we have inherited, and racism, xenophobia, sectarianism and radical nationalism could be washed away as phenotypic effects of our “selfish” genes.
In addition to the theory of the “selfish” gene, the book is also littered with amazing golden nuggets of scientific info; like the distance a whale’s song can travel underwater, how fig trees are fertilised and a brief introduction to the ominous other replicators, viroids and plasmids, which I would like to suggest as being both dangerously concerning and wonderfully full of possibility (although I’m undoubtedly not the first).
In short, The Selfish Gene is a distinctly must-read book. It’ll shake the foundations of your understanding of the world around you and fill in huge chunks of knowledge about how we have gotten to where we are. However, there are a couple of dated paragraphs here and there and I can’t help but feel that Richard Dawkins could give a whole new lease of life to it with a brief re-write, including bringing the slightly annoying Endnotes into the main body of the text. Although, the 30th anniversary edition that he released in 2006 may have already addressed these points.
Endnotes – For everything that works well in the book there are a couple of passages that undo large swathes of Dawkins’ work. My favourite of these is in the final chapter (one of the two added specially for the second edition) in which he randomly uses looking at naked ladies as an example in nature where our sensory perception can be fooled. While I thought this was hilarious… Really Richard? Is that the best example you could come up with?