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105 of 116 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A truth stranger than fiction
I read The Selfish Gene (2nd edition, 1989) because it is one of the twenty books Charlie Munger recommends in the second edition of Poor Charlie's Almanack (which I have recently read and recommend very strongly indeed).

I'm going to quote Dawkins from the preface to the original edition as he provides an excellent summary of the central message of the book...
Published on April 3, 2007 by Andrew Barrett

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398 of 452 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Specifically a review of the Kindle Edition
Without going into the content of the book, which I find very good, the Kindle edition was poorly produced. It is littered with typos of the sort that look like it was simply run through OCR software and then the publisher called it a day. These are things like "1" being replaced with "i", ugly pixelated graphics for mathematical notation (even very simple stuff like...
Published on February 6, 2011 by Tyler Karaszewski


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398 of 452 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Specifically a review of the Kindle Edition, February 6, 2011
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Without going into the content of the book, which I find very good, the Kindle edition was poorly produced. It is littered with typos of the sort that look like it was simply run through OCR software and then the publisher called it a day. These are things like "1" being replaced with "i", ugly pixelated graphics for mathematical notation (even very simple stuff like "¼"), or commas being placed after rather than before the spaces separating clauses. Additionally, the endnotes aren't proper hyperlinks, and so navigating to them requires repeatedly setting and clearing bookmarks alternatively at your current point in the text and the section where the endnotes are.

It's a shame that a book of such excellent writing quality received such poor production treatment for this new format.
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105 of 116 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A truth stranger than fiction, April 3, 2007
This review is from: The Selfish Gene: 30th Anniversary Edition--with a new Introduction by the Author (Paperback)
I read The Selfish Gene (2nd edition, 1989) because it is one of the twenty books Charlie Munger recommends in the second edition of Poor Charlie's Almanack (which I have recently read and recommend very strongly indeed).

I'm going to quote Dawkins from the preface to the original edition as he provides an excellent summary of the central message of the book and its effect upon him (and me):

"We are survival machines - robot vehicles blindly programmed to preserve the selfish molecules known as genes. This is a truth which still fills me with astonishment. Though I have known it for years, I never seem to get fully used to it."

Using one of the many excellent analogies utilised throughout his book, Dawkins explains that we are like a chess computer program that has been programmed by its creator to play in its absence. The programmer (genes) takes no part in the game (life) but instead provides the tools for its vehicle (animal, plant etc.) to play the game on its behalf.

I am glad that Dawkins says that he never gets fully used to this idea. I find it very difficult to replace the idea of my primacy in my body with the idea above. It requires a sort of `flip' in one's perception - but it is so different to what our senses tell us that it flips back without a conscious effort (or so I find, anyway). But how many of us have not regularly had to do battle with themselves to do what they know they should do rather than what they feel an urge to do? Dawkins' ideas provide an excellent framework in which to help understand these problems, which I suspect is a major part of the reason why Munger recommended this book.

For example, Munger believes that what he calls `reward and punishment superresponse tendency' is the most powerful of the psychological biases that affect humans (and other animals). Dawkins provides a very convincing explanation of why this should be the case: because it is a method that the programmer (genes) can use to provide rules that its vehicle (us) can use to learn to cope with its environment better in the absence of the programmer. It is thus much more efficient than providing an endless number of detailed rules and copes with the problem of an environment that may be different to that `expected' by the genes. Even so, these rules do not always help us today - for example it helps to explain why rich societies have a problem with obesity: our genes did not expect us to have access to such plenty that the rule to reward us for putting sweet things into our mouths would cause problems.

Our selfish, almost immortal genes do not care about us - their short-term, throwaway vehicles. We should also expect to find that we have been programmed with selfish behaviour in our creators' image. However, he makes two very important caveats, which mean that overall I think the book has a rather hopeful message:

1. We are likely to have a statistical propensity towards selfishness, but that does not mean that individually we are doomed to that behaviour. We have a choice.

2. In my favourite chapter, `Nice guys finish first' (one of the two chapters added for the 2nd edition) Dawkins uses the Prisoner's Dilemma gambling game to show that if certain conditions are met (which often are in nature), paradoxically, the best outcome is for selfish individuals to cooperate. And that the `good' character traits of niceness, forgivingness and non-enviousness can therefore be the most successful.

I believe that unless we wish to rely on luck throughout our lives we need to embrace reality as closely as possible, which is what a first-rate book like Dawkins' helps us to do.
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38 of 46 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars More Interesting..., July 2, 2006
This review is from: The Selfish Gene: 30th Anniversary Edition--with a new Introduction by the Author (Paperback)
Than anything religion has to offer. Forget the fact that Mr Dawkins is an atheist. What this book has to offer goes far beyond the typical banter of creationist vs scientist. This book explains clearly and precisely some of the basic tenets of Darwinian natural selection and how that builds our world.

The greatest thing about this book, for me, is that it peaked my interest in science. Throughout highschool and college I never paid much mind to science in general, making statements like, "it's too complicated". Science can be complex and complicated, but it can also be simply and clearly explained by authors such as Mr. Dawkins.

I have to admit that prior to reading this book, I had no knowledge of Darwinian theory. Mr. Dawkins makes great use of simile to explain genes and how they effect animal behavior and structure.

**By the way, for those who still think humans are not animals, wake up!!**

This book opened up my mind to a whole new world of information. I truly believe that science will one day unravel all of the mysteries of humanity and the universe. At least scientists are willing to question themselves, to admit they don't have all the answers, yet. At least scientists are willing to admit when they are wrong and build on their mistakes. At least science relies on a universal methodology, clearly explained, which anyone can apply. At least scientific evidence has to pass rigorous testing and peer review. The same cannot be said of religion(s) which only re-interpret the same bundle of tired re-worded mythical stories. Religion uses fables to try and refute facts and evidence, of which it provides neither.

Science does no harm by explaining things. Who wouldn't want more knowledge about life, the universe, and the hidden causes behind the world. Science reveals to us just how amazing life is, right down to the cellular level. I find it incredibly inspirational. To say science is bad is simply ignorant.

I am most thankful for having taken the time to read this book and grasping a basic understanding of genetics and how they effect every being in the world. Thank you Mr. Dawkins for sparking my interest in science!!

I recommend this book to anyone who isn't afraid to challenge themselves.
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30 of 36 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A classic, but nothing new here if you read the 2nd ed., October 1, 2006
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This review is from: The Selfish Gene: 30th Anniversary Edition--with a new Introduction by the Author (Paperback)
My only complaint is that, unlike the 2nd edition, which greatly expanded on the 1st edition, including some very useful and clarifying notes by Dawkin's addressing much of the controvery his first edition created, this aniversary edition does not include any new material, other than a new forward. If you are interested in reading this book, a used second edition copy is as good as this one (skip the first edition -- lacks the last two chapters and Dawkins' comentaries).

The information in this book is worthy of five stars. It is the finest treatise on natural selection as the prime shaper of an evolutionary process to date. It clearly shows how a complex biological system (like humans) can arise from simple replicating molecules. It does not refute religious ideas of supernatural creation, but simply provides an alternative explanation via a natural biological mechanism. It isn't, as some think, ground breaking research -- as Dawkin's says himself, if is more a treatise of existing research. It's importance is in Dawkin's magnificent writing ability that bridged the technical fields of evolutionary biology and sociobiology to the layman.
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8 of 9 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Of genes and metaphors, September 20, 2009
This review is from: The Selfish Gene: 30th Anniversary Edition--with a new Introduction by the Author (Paperback)
"The Selfish Gene" is Richard Dawkins most notorious book. Many have heard about it and read disjointed quotes from it. Few have read the whole book. Parts of it do live up to the bad expectations, as when the author says: "Let us try to teach some altruism, because we are born selfish".

Indeed, this anniversary edition has a foreword of the mea culpa type, in which Dawkins points out that he voted Labour at the time of writing the book (i.e. he voted Wilson and Callaghan) and later opposed Margaret Thatcher's Tory government. He also admits that the metaphor "selfish gene" can and have been grossly misunderstood, and that the book should perhaps have been titled "The Eternal Gene" or "The Altruist Vehicle". The problem with the book, really, is that Dawkins - despite the best of intentions - isn't always clear on whether "selfish gene" *is* a metaphor, or whether it's in some sense to be taken in the vernacular sense (as in the quote above). Besides, in a competitive-capitalist society, it's inevitable that the expression will be taken in its vernacular, literal, everyday sense, rather than in the more philosophical sense sometimes intended by the author. Selfish genes do conjure up pictures of a Hobbesian war of all against all, or at the very least of Adam Smith (the Adam Smith of "Wealth of Nations" for those versed in the Adam Smith Probleme).

So what does Dawkins mean, then, when he talks about "selfish genes" or "the tyranny of selfish replicators"? The idea of selfish genes does mean that there is no pure altruism among living organisms, at least not among non-human animals. All cooperation is ultimately based on the self-interest of individual organisms or their genes. Essentially, there are two kinds of "altruism" in nature. Genetic altruism is directed at close kin, as when birds act as helpers at the nest, aiding their parents and siblings (and hence their own genes). Another classical example of genetic altruism is the curious phenomenon of sterility among the worker castes in social insects. Reciprocal altruism is directed towards non-kin, such as flock members. Gregarious birds warning one another of an approaching predator (or bird-watcher) are a good example. Here, the altruism is based on "I scratch your back, you scratch mine". Thus, all cooperation and seeming altruism in nature is really nepotism or the give-and-take of favours among competitors.

In contrast to more doctrinaire sociobiologists, Dawkins admits that pure altruism is both possible and desirable among humans. Humans are products of natural selection, but they are unusual in the sense that their intelligence makes it possible for them to counteract the very same natural selection when they see fit. Dawkins have been criticized for being philosophically inconsistent on this point, but this *is* his point. His political opinions are (by US standards) "liberal" or even "radical-liberal", so he clearly believes that it's desirable for humans to cooperate in truly altruistic ways.

Personally, I'm not so sure whether pure altruism is absent from non-human animals. Just one example: what about brown bears adopting orphaned bear cubs? Isn't that pure altruism? Dawkins and other Neo-Darwinists believe that natural selection only works on individuals or individual genes, but things could get more interesting if we also acknowledge group selection and selections on even higher levels. If nature is viewed as a holistic system, the question of altruism would have to be posed anew. Besides, the fact that genetic, reciprocal and "real" altruism are balanced in nature, is a positive discovery, not something to deny, frown upon or commit intellectual suicide over. Had I been religious, I would have dubbed it Providence!

Unfortunately, all too many Neo-Darwinists have taken a somewhat different tack on the matter. Often, they deny that individual acts of "pure" altruism can exist at all, even among humans. They paint genetic or reciprocal altruism in a bad light (since when is reciprocity bad?) and contrast it to the pristinely pure Sermon on the Mount. Since natural selection doesn't favour the latter, we supposedly live in a dark, Hobbesian world without end. Am I the only one who detects a certain perverse glee in the writings of such people?

I don't believe Richard Dawkins belongs to that crowd. However, his private philosophy doesn't square very well with his scientific convictions. And as long as they don't, I'm afraid Dawkins will continue making up self-contradictory metaphors...
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7 of 8 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The Selfish Gene, January 8, 2009
This review is from: The Selfish Gene: 30th Anniversary Edition--with a new Introduction by the Author (Paperback)
Richard Dawkins' The Selfish Gene is a great book for people with all levels of knowledge about evolution and genetics. It seems that Dawkin's use of metaphors in the bulk of the book, could make it harder to understand the science behind his logic. However, this is not the case because Dawkins is very careful about which metaphors he uses. These metaphors prevent people with a vast knowledge of genetics from getting board while reading the book, but at the same time teach people about genetics without them realizing it. The science behind this book is very solid. Throughout most of the books he cites papers and other scientists. Dawkins is also an accomplished zoologist and a professor at Oxford. Dawkins is obviously an atheist and he is not afraid to express his opinions at the expense of others beliefs. In the endnotes there is a section spent entirely on proving religions wrong.
In the book Richard Dawkins makes the argument that genes, not humans, are selfish. He says that this is the only way possible because genes are constantly competing for a `spot' in organisms. If genes were altruistic then they would not be as likely to get passed onto future generations as those that are selfish because the selfish ones would reap the benefits while the altruistic genes would suffer. This means that at some point altruistic genes became essentially nonexistent in the gene pool.
His selfish gene logic means that genes that cause selfish phenotypes are the only genes in organisms. This means that all organisms, without conscious thought, will only do things that they gain from (by gaining he means having a higher chance of passing on their genes). He gives examples of seemingly altruistic relationships, like the aphid to ant relationship. Then he shows that they are actually for selfish gain and it just so happens that along with the gain for the individual comes gain for the other.
At the end of the book Dawkins shows that having selfish genes could actually result in a `nice' organism in the chapter "Nice guys finish first." He uses Prisoner's Dilemma, a game, to describe how this could happen. In the end he shows that strategies that play kindly end up getting a higher number of points then those that play meanly. (Strategies are like genes they set up a rule for playing, but do not consciously control the organism/game). This means that to gain selfishly you would actually want to be nice. So niceness could occur in a selfish gene pool.
Dawkins also says that humans have a conscious and are one of the first organisms that can act independently from their selfish genes in thought and action.
In summary, I thoroughly enjoyed this book because of its scientific teachings and sound logic. Therefore, I would recommend it to everyone.
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6 of 7 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars An Interesting Introduction to Our Selfish "genes", September 3, 2011
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This review is from: The Selfish Gene: 30th Anniversary Edition--with a new Introduction by the Author (Paperback)
This is the third book I have read by Richard Dawkins. This 30th anniversary edition of the Selfish Gene is the oldest of the books he has written that I have read - the other two have been more recent works. I did not find this book as easy to read and as interesting as the more recent books, but it was still, nevertheless, a good, informative read.

In this work, Dawkins discusses in detail the machinations of the gene and how both individual selfishness and individual altruism are explained by the fundamental law that he calls gene selfishness. Dawkins defines the "gene" as a successful unit of replication. It must have longevity, fecundity, and copying fidelity as its properties. It is the largest entity which, at least potentially, has these properties.

I think one important concept to understand in the reading of this material is that of an evolutionary stable strategy (ESS). Two characteristics of such a strategy would be:

1. When used by an entire population, it is resistant to invasion by new (mutant) strategies. In other words, is stable with respect to evolutionary changes.
2. It carries on doing well when it is already numerous in the population of strategies.

A classic example given is that the reason lions do not hunt lions is because it would not be an ESS for them to do so.

Two other important concepts are replicators and vehicles. The replicators are the fundamental units of natural selection that form lineages of identical copies with occasional random mutation. DNA molecules are an example of replicators. In the case of vehicles, Dawkins stated "The vehicles don't replicate themselves; they work to propagate their replicators. Replicators don't behave, don't perceive the world, and don't catch prey; they make vehicles that do all those things." These concepts aid in understanding how genes affect the outcome of host behavior.

The book is replete with detailed examples of how these principles work in nature, and contains an extensive notes section to further clarify the information of the original work. If you are a fan of Dawkins works, you will want to add this one to your repertory.
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6 of 7 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars A Science Classic, with Strengths and Limitations, April 12, 2011
This review is from: The Selfish Gene: 30th Anniversary Edition--with a new Introduction by the Author (Paperback)
Richard Dawkins has influenced public understanding of science and discussion of religion. Whatever he says or writes deserves careful consideration, because he's a brilliant, considerate intellect. You probably know that this book was first published in 1976 and it fueled a fountain of inquiry into the life sciences. Both Dawkins's and The Selfish Gene's places in history are strong.

Well I finally got around to reading it. Ultra-short summary: As we consider the progress of life through natural selection, it is useful to drop our focus on the organism, and replace it with a focus on the gene. Genes do not possess volition, but we can understand some important aspects of evolution better if we pretend that genes are struggling to survive and multiply, using organisms as their "vehicles." Dawkins also proposes this approach to our study of ideas, for which he coins the term "meme."

Basically, that's it. These concepts are reiterated many, many, many times in the text. Richard did wear me out. I mean, we got it the third time you said this; a twenty-third time isn't adding to our understanding. I hasten to add that this repetition was probably more valuable in 1976 when the concepts were new. Dawkins has written many books after this one, and I think his thought and writing greatly improved. Therefore, I'd recommend a book like "Climbing Mount Improbable" over "The Selfish Gene."

Today many of Dawkins's ideas have been expanded and clarified by other science authors. One book I'd recommend on this subject is "The Limits of Family Influence: Genes, Experience, and Behavior" by David C. Rowe. As the title indicates, Rowe's book focuses on humans, and it held my interest better, when relating technical information. Talk about ants and I'll listen for a minute; talk about me and I'm yours all day.
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12 of 15 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Still Brilliant After All These Years, July 17, 2006
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This review is from: The Selfish Gene: 30th Anniversary Edition--with a new Introduction by the Author (Paperback)
Thirty years later and this classic remains a compelling read. This book has fueled a thousand others, setting the perspective for all those interested in the building blocks of life. It's a genes-eye-view of where we came from and how we are motivated, a science and reason-based treatise that is compulsory reading for those of us intent on learning from and about our remarkable natural history. Other books by Dr. Dawkins maybe an easier read but this is where it all started.
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21 of 28 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A Selfish God, December 29, 2006
This review is from: The Selfish Gene: 30th Anniversary Edition--with a new Introduction by the Author (Paperback)
At about the same time Dawkins first put his pen to `The Selfish Gene' my granduncle, Albino Luciani, cast his vote for genetic science. Just a month before his election to the papacy, when all other cardinals condemned Louise Brown - the world's first artificially inseminated child - as "a child of the devil," the 33 day pope John Paul I, at the time Archbishop of Venice, wrote her parents, "I congratulate you on the birth of your little girl. I (the Church) have no right to condemn you for what you asked the doctors to carry out. Be assured, there is reserved for both you and your child a high place in heaven."

A week later the cardinal was questioned by a reporter as to why he had defied the papal decree that condemned such experimentation. He told the reporter, "My good friend Einstein could not accept the existence of God because of the way God plays dice with His children. Many are born with mental and physical defects only to live unspeakable lives and die unspeakable deaths. How many children are born is not what is important, what is important is that every child that is born has an equal chance at a good and healthy life. Only genetic science can take us there. God played hooky the day that class was taught." This quote is from Lucien Gregoire's `Murder in the Vatican' the only existing biography of my granduncle.

I was surprised that as a layperson I was able to grasp Dawkins's work - particularly as it analyses the world of genes. This is one of his great attributes. He is able to explain extremely complex subjects so that the dimmest of us can understand them. If one aspires to be of the school of Dawkins, as I am, `The Selfish Gene' is a good place to start.
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