384 of 410 people found the following review helpful
on January 28, 2003
More than a quarter-century after its first publication, Richard Dawkins's "The Selfish Gene" remains a classic of popular science writing. This edition includes two new chapters as well as extensive endnotes that do much to perfect the original text and correct the few mistakes that were found in it. "The Selfish Gene" is explicitly directed at the layman, and absolutely no knowledge of biology is assumed. While this presents a danger of boring readers (such as myself) who are already familiar with DNA and meiosis, the colorful metaphors Dawkins uses throughout the book do much to keep the reading engrossing and entertaining.
After a lengthy exploration of basic biology, covering topics such as DNA and the origin of life, Dawkins introduces the gene-centered view of evolution that has long been textbook orthodoxy. Dawkins uses the remainder of the book to look at various types of animal behavior in an effort to convey some general conclusions and tools to help the reader understand evolution and natural selection. Much of his effort is devoted to explaining behavior in terms of the 'selfish gene' - especially social behavior that has long been held to have evolved 'for the good of the species.' Dawkins shows that how fundamental axiom of natural selection (that the genes best at surviving and reproducing will eventually spread through the gene pool) leads directly to the selfish gene and the behavior exhibited by nearly all animals (humans being the prime exception).
Many of Dawkins's metaphors have caused raised eyebrows - one outstanding example is his characterization of living things as "lumbering robots" built to protect the genes that hide in them - but the metaphors are always (eventually) brought under control. The title is one such metaphor that has often been misunderstood by superficial analysis. The 'selfish gene' is simply a gene that does not aid others at its own expense. Such genes would be better able to reproduce and spread through the gene pool than those that did sacrifice themselves for others, and therefore completely dominate the gene pools of all species as a result of billions of years of evolutionary pressure.
I cannot hope to adequately summarize Dawkins's arguments in a mere review, so I sincerely urge you to read "The Selfish Gene" for yourself. I should warn that conservatives would probably not enjoy the book nearly as much as I did. Dawkins is an open secular humanist with socialist leanings, and is not worried about offending the delicate sensibilities of creationists and fundamentalists. This book should only be read by those willing to 'accept' the validity of natural selection and evolution; others would only waste their time. I would direct readers seeking a more scientific discussion of these issues to G. C. Williams's "Adaptation and Natural Selection." All others will most likely enjoy "The Selfish Gene" a great deal and finish the book with a new appreciation for and understanding of evolution and biology.
130 of 141 people found the following review helpful
on April 3, 2007
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.
436 of 494 people found the following review helpful
on February 6, 2011
Format: Kindle EditionVerified Purchase
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.
1,291 of 1,514 people found the following review helpful
on August 7, 1999
I wish I could rate this book at 5 stars and 0 stars at the same time. It is a fascinating book, very well-written, and it conveys a real sense of how life works on the biological level, how all sorts of diverse factors interact with each other to create an incredibly complex system (the evolution of life, in this case); it also just as vividly conveys a sense of how scientists come to understand these processes.
I started it many years ago at the suggestion of a friend, thinking I wouldn't find it very interesting, and not much liking the kind of philosophy of life that (on the basis of my friend's description) seemed to lie behind it. But only a chapter or two in, I was completely hooked, and wanted to read more Dawkins.
On one level, I can share in the sense of wonder Dawkins so evidently sees in the workings-out of such complex processes, often made up of quite simple elemental mechanisms, but interacting so complexly to produce the incredibly complex world we live in.
But at the same time, I largely blame "The Selfish Gene" for a series of bouts of depression I suffered from for more than a decade, and part of me wants to rate the book at zero stars for its effect on my life. Never sure of my spiritual outlook on life, but trying to find something deeper - trying to believe, but not quite being able to - I found that this book just about blew away any vague ideas I had along these lines, and prevented them from coalescing any further. This created quite a strong personal crisis for me some years ago.
The book renders a God or supreme power of any sort quite superfluous for the purpose of accounting for the way the world is, and the way life is. It accounts for the nature of life, and for human nature, only too well, whereas most religions or spiritual outlooks raise problems that have to be got around. It presents an appallingly pessimistic view of human nature, and makes life seem utterly pointless; yet I cannot present any arguments to refute its point of view. I still try to have some kind of spiritual outlook, but it is definitely battered, and I have not yet overcome the effects of this book on me.
Richard Dawkins seems to have the idea that religion and spirituality are not only false, but ultimately unable to give a real sense of meaning and purpose in life. Their satisfaction is hollow, empty, and unreal, in his apparent view, and only a scientific understanding of life can give a real, lasting sense of wonder and purpose.
I would question this. While I am not sure what (if anything) there is spiritually, I know that a scientific view of life cannot offer the slightest hope of life after death, and since we're all going to die and most of us don't want to, this is a crippling drawback to the kind of scientific vision Dawkins wants us all to have. If there is nothing beyond death, no spiritual dimension to anything, and everything is just a blind dance of atoms, I fail to see how this by itself can give one a real sense of purpose, however fascinating the dance that Dawkins describes - and it *is* fascinating; let there be no mistake about that.
Because of this, I have the curious feeling of dichotomy about Dawkins' book that it is certainly fascinating on one level, but that I cannot give even qualified emotional commitment to the outlook on life that seems to lie behind it. I would in the end rather have the hope of something wonderful and purposeful that only some spiritual outlook can offer, even though it may be a deluded fantasy, than the certainty of a scientific vision that eliminates any possibility of long-term hope, that condemns us to an empty, eternal death of nothingness in the end. This scientific view may be completely rational; but rationality is not the only important consideration to shape our outlook on life.
Anyone who has a narrow religious view of life, who is absolutely sure their religion is completely right, would be best off avoiding this book like the plague - it probably won't change their views, but they will quite likely get very upset and outraged. And anyone with an open-minded spiritual view had better at least be prepared to do a lot of thinking, and perhaps be willing to change some of their views, because this book *will* challenge almost any spiritual or religious viewpoint I can think of - whether it is of the open-minded or dogmatic sort.
Some critics of this book have found its reasoning unconvincing, its materialist reductionism too superficial and shallow. But, from my perspective, the problem does not lie here; the problem with the book is that it is *too* convincing, that it is *entirely* convincing. The book makes it very difficult to continue to believe in anything that contradicts its basic premise, but which might be more comforting, and might give a greater sense of hope and inspiration, and provide a real sense of purpose in life.
Such have its effects on my life been that, in my more depressed moments, I have desperately wished I could unread the book, and continue life from where I left off.
It has been said that each of us has a God-shaped hole inside, and that we spend most of our lives trying to fill it with the wrong things. I firmly believe that God-shaped hole is there, that we have inner longings of a wonderful sort almost impossible to describe in words. Whether a God exists to fill it, I do not yet know. But what I am sure of is that, as wonderful as Dawkins' view of nature and of life may be on its own level, it will not fill that God-shaped hole.
108 of 126 people found the following review helpful
on November 4, 1999
I must say this book is excellent. The concepts are explained in a way that makes them very easy to grasp. The metaphors are truly illuminating. Dawkins may be the best science writer I have ever read.
The people who gave him one star must have serious problems in comprehending simple logic. I read one review where the guy was criticizing Dawkin's for titling the book "The Selfish Gene". His argument was that genes being molecules could not be selfish. WELL NO DUH!!! The genes are not selfish in an anthropomorphic sense they just behave as though they were only interested in their own replication. And this behaviour arises because they descended from succesful ancestors that had the same behaviour. Even the word "behaviour" is not absolutely the best fit here. We could say the genes operate to maximize their replication.
But all that rewording is only necessary for people who cannot bring themselves to accept the stark true logic of Dawkin's book. To the rest of us once Dawkins has illuminated the concept its logical appeal is self evident. Nitpicking the semantics is pretty lame.
56 of 65 people found the following review helpful
on December 17, 1998
Reading Yehouda Harpaz' review, I realized that some people have trouble understanding Dawkins' ideas, apparently because they would rather confine evolution to a limited area -- the biology of animals -- and keep it from applying to humans, most especially to our minds. I'd like to express some of the ideas in Dawkins' book to entice you and clarify these misconceptions.
1) The central thesis is that genes act as if their intention was to selfishly help themselves spread throughout the gene pool. This is not because they have the ability to make decisions or are capable of being selfish the way a person could. It's simply that those that happen to act as if they had wanted to spread do spread, and they do so at the expense of the rest. This notion of apparent design from natural selection is the keystone of neo-Darwinism.
2) The idea of analyzing evolution by looking at how each individual gene spreads itself in the environment of other genes is not only clear but illuminating, solving problems that the organism-centered approach cannot. Remember, an environment consists of whatever circumstances, objects, or conditions one is surrounded by. That means that, just as it makes perfect sense to say that other people form part of each person's environment, it is logical that other genes form part of a gene's environment. A gene competes with other alleles -- alternative genes at its locus -- and often does so by cooperating with genes at other loci, as per Dawkins' rowing team analogy.
3) It's not that Dawkins ignores neurobiology, but that he supports the new understanding that there is neither biological nor cultural determinism for behavior, but rather development based on epigenetic rules. In other words, Dawkins denies the Standard Social Science Model of tabula rasa human nature, replacing it with a less extremist stance that is demonstrably true. As Steven Pinker makes very clear in _How The Mind Works_, humans are intelligent not because we are free from the instincts that drive other animals but because of our ability to use the mental organs that implement our instincts to solve general-purpose problems.
4) Dawkins does not in any way restrict cultural transmission to imitation. However, as his interest is in its neo-Darwinistic evolution, not mere transmission or random change, he focuses on the units of replication -- the memes -- that are naturally selected among. This is particularly interesting since it opens up the way to understanding the coevolution of genes and memes, as E. O. Wilson explains in _Consilience_.
In summary, if you want to understand these issues, don't take Yehouda's word on this or even mine. Get the book and read it for yourself. Life is so much more interesting than anti-evolutionists would have you imagine, and Dawkins is so painfully clear that even the layman has to work hard to misunderstand him. He is, quite literally, a joy to read.
42 of 48 people found the following review helpful
on November 26, 1999
This book was first published in 1976, and instantly became one of the classics of popular science. It stands as the best available introduction to modern evolution theory for the lay reader.
Curiously, while the actual content of the book has been becoming more and more mainstream over the past twenty-odd years, the book itself has been acquiring a reputation for controversiality. My own feeling is that most of the critics cannot have ever read past the title. Dawkins makes it abundantly clear that the selfishness of genes is metaphorical. How anyone could have read the book and come away with the impression that Dawkins ascribes motives and attitudes to genes defies my understanding. The theories that Dawkins puts forward are utterly mechanistic, and entirely in accord with conventional genetics and molecular biology (which are indeed outlined quite clearly in the introductory chapters).
Another misunderstanding (now fortunately less common) is that Dawkins predicts the selfish behaviour of all animals. Nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, 'The Selfish Gene' attempts to show how the forces of evolution give rise to [a limited degree of] altruism when they would seem, at first glance, to promote utter selfishness.
41 of 47 people found the following review helpful
on August 19, 2000
Richard Dawkins certainly has a genius for witty explanations of complex phenomena. "The Selfish Gene" is among the best and most fascinating books on evolution ever written (and remains so today!). Dawkins may not be the first or the only proponent of the selfish gene theory, but he's certainly the most eloquent and captivating.
If the intellectual aha! experience of seeing that selection works at the genetic level isn't enough, read the last few chapters, where Dawkins hides a brilliant idea everyone else would die for. It is here that Dawkins proposes the revolutionary idea of the meme, or the "unit of imitation" (p192 in my copy) - in other words, the replicator responsible for cultural evolution. Since he first proposed the idea, the meme meme has really spread far and wide, which is a testament to its excellence...this is a great example of reformulating an old idea in a new way and ending up with something radically different.
This is the book that first introduced me to evolutionary theory as a study in its own right, and I hope it will stimulate your mind as much as it did mine. I've been a big supporter of Dawkins ever since!
78 of 93 people found the following review helpful
Richard Dawkins's book is, for the most part, what people say it is: lively written, intriguing, and an exposition of evolution from the "gene's eye-view perspective." I found it rather interesting to read this book and Dawkins's notion of viewing evolution from the gene perspective (by the way not, as many claim, a notion that was entirely his) can certainly open up much debate in biology and beyond.
I do have some concerns with _The Selfish Gene_, however, namely that the prose is a bit too "lively." Repeatedly, Dawkins reiterates that he does not want to anthropomorphize genes, granting them consciousness and a will. Instead, his metaphor of genes "building survival machines" and willfully acting to increase their own propagation is simply what Dawkins calls "the language of convenience." Moreover, with words such as "selfish" and "gene," Dawkins carefully defines these words to try and avoid trouble. He uses this language of convenience in order to keep the tone of the book light and to keep lay people interested.
While these definitions and metaphors may be "convenient" for Dawkins, they are also downright misleading. Despite the fact that he takes measures to warn us of his "convenient" language, I am not sure that the average reader is careful to make these distinctions and to translate his convenient language back into the language of disinterested evolution. When you engage someone in conversation about this book, what they remember is the image of these little genes, running around making "selfish" decisions in order to increase their own survival rate. By "selfish," of course, I mean a psychologically selfish decision, and not the unconscious "selfish" behavior that Dawkins redefines. If you don't believe me, just ask someone who has read it. Thus, we are right back at a Lamarckian view of evolution, with young children believing that if the giraffe just strains its neck a bit more, they will grow longer necks. If one does read this book, which I do recommend, he or she would be wise to keep a tight focus on Dawkins's use of metaphor in order to not be misled by it.
What interests me more, especially as a student of philosophy, is the degree to which people have viewed this text as a definitive doomsday device for religion, ethics, and morality. One can see the problems Dawkins has caused by reading the upset reviews on this website. I believe that this despair is wholeheartedly mistaken and arises from common misunderstandings about these issues. First, evolution does not necessarily kick God out of the picture (though, many may have to modify their definition of "God" in order to recognize it). Secondly, the truth of ethics and morality does not rely upon the existence of a "God." There are many ethical theories that do not make reference to the supernatural and philosophy has been hard at work crafting these theories for some time now. Thus, even if Dawkins's arguments are completely true, it still could be the case that there is a "God" and, even if there is no "God," there still are very good reasons for believing in ethics and morality. One need not, therefore, despair.
It boils down to this point: even if Dawkins's theory of genetic evolution is correct and the human body is merely a "survival machine" built solely for the continued existence of our genes, the fact that humans have developed into rational, conscious beings sets us apart in some ways from many other "survival machines." Thus, not only do we have the ability to rise above our genetic programming (as Dawkins suggests we might), but it could also be the case that our particular constitution morally requires it. I would recommend reading this book as a landmark work of popular science in the field of evolutionary biology. Just keep your hand on your wallet and make sure you don't get tricked into believing something Dawkins is not arguing for.
37 of 43 people found the following review helpful
on October 1, 2006
Format: PaperbackVerified Purchase
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.