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Customer Review

1,340 of 1,571 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Fascinating, but at times I wish I could unread it., August 7, 1999
This review is from: The Selfish Gene (Popular Science) (Paperback)
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.
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Tracked by 7 customers

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Showing 1-10 of 71 posts in this discussion
Initial post: Sep 24, 2006 9:01:28 PM PDT
Neo says:
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Posted on Oct 5, 2006 1:54:38 PM PDT
Last edited by the author on Oct 5, 2006 1:55:09 PM PDT
For a long time I felt as you do. But then I realized something that seems so obvious now: you don't need an "outside" or "bigger" or "infinity" or God or thing or law or rule or whatever to provide meaning to life. We ARE alive. Period. And you get to decide what that means. Picking an ethos and looking for beauty and everything else that makes life worth living can come from right inside you! You can live the way you want because it IS right - to you. I don't stop at a red light because there is some universal truth guiding my actions; I stop at a red light because I bought into a collective decision about how to handle traffic because it was logical and served my interest and seemed reasonable. And that's good enough for all my decisions. I don't need a God to tell me murder is wrong. It's not right or wrong. BUT, and this is a big one, I don't want to live anywhere but a society that thinks murder is wrong. And I don't need god or religion or whatever to make that true. That's just how I want to live.

A rainbow is just plain pretty. Understanding optics is cool too - and beautiful in its own way. I never understood people who said that understanding something, or removing the mystery, made something less valuable. Does knowing how a diamond forms make it less glorious? Does knowing how the brain works make watching a child learn any less wonderful and fasicnating? Heck no! Knowing that evolution is a mindless, undirected force of nature doesn't make being human any less incredible! I love being human! And in fact, now, I am much happier knowing that humans are completely and utterly responsible for figuring out how to live well. Believing in something greater than ourselves now seems like a cop-out to me.

I hope you find something to fill that hole. It can be done, and you don't need something bigger than you. You just need you. :-)

Posted on Oct 9, 2006 1:42:22 AM PDT
~*~ says:
Keep searching! Even if God doesn't exist, there is *goodness* in the world. Focusing on small positive events/people/etc. can make a huge difference, so many people learn to focus on the negative.

I don't know if you've considered other religions, but perhaps by studying and experiencing different religions, you might find something that works for you. (Actually your review is dated 1999, so maybe you already have.)

That's not meant to advocate "shopping religions", but merely studying different spiritualities and traditions. Even if you don't find what you're looking for, you'll have a better education!

(P.S.-When I'm feeling down, I find the best help to be helping someone else, whether volunteering at a shelter or just going out of my way to be kind to a friend.)

Posted on Oct 24, 2006 12:05:12 PM PDT
The problem we are faced with in this time of religions and other myths, is that those who learn science throw out spirituality wholesale. Scientists give names and show causal connections to things that used to be in the ethereal domain of religion, myth and "magic". It removes the lies humanity tells itself to explain what could not be explained before.

Evolution should make every spiritual person breath a sigh of relief. It is actual scientific proof that the sky is the limit. In an evolving universe, any species can continualy strive and improve and become so much more than any of it's humble beginnings.

Science explains the observable world of matter and energy. Even so it can tell us nothing of what lies beyond the scope of matter and energy. All bets are still off as to an afterlife. That door has not been closed. Even if you disprove any or all religions and religious theories about the world, you can't make any definite guarantee of the shape of any afterlife. It is a false choice: materialism or afterlife. Removing all religions under the light of science would still leave the nagging question of the existance of some kind of afterlife.

You may still be troubled by the fact that you will ultimately never be able to know if an afterlife exists or what shape it may take. Some mysteries aren't supposed to be answered in this world at this time. I can live with that. If there is oblivion after death I will just return to the state I was in before I was born - perfect, dreamless, unconsciousness. If there is an afterlife, I will deal with it when it comes.

There is one thing that I am certain of: if there is anything of ourselves that we carry into a potential afterlife, it will be the memory of what we have experienced of this life. Would you want to risk wasting all this time only to be left with a limited point of view to carry into your next state of being...if there is one?

Existential fear and depression are an illusion brought about by having just enough understanding to depose imaginary gods and not enough understanding to see that the question of an afterlife is still open, mysterious and interesting.

It is easy to see what the goal of this universe is by the way. This universe has been screaming it's intent from the beginning. Look at what the universe rewards and enforces. Look at the lifeforms that succeed, including humans. We all have something in common: we bear atomic, genetic, phenotipic, and for some, symbolic memory. It is the experience of the world as all our matter, anscestors, bodies and our minds have lived it.

Experience in all it's forms is what the universe demands. It is the memory of conflict written on every atom from the beginning of time to the eventual end.

Experience by way of conflict. I can see no more elemental concept of the universe than that.

Posted on Nov 20, 2006 8:57:18 PM PST
observer says:
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Posted on Dec 8, 2006 12:24:57 PM PST
Epicure says:
This response to Dawkins' book is more than a little silly. I had a similar response to the Bible at about age 13, when I stopped believing in God. I suppose I had a God-shaped hole myself until I began to emotionally mature at 17. I read The Selfish Gene when I was 19 and it gave me a much more optimistic outlook on life. Books on physics and superstrings gave me the same feeling. The "God-shaped hole" is just a lack of meaning in life. That hole can be filled by loved ones, your own drive to succeed in life, or a simple appreciation of the mysterious sequence of events which caused you to come into being. Why not give thanks to your selfish genes for making you who you are? Maybe they don't care if you're thankful, but still, you do owe your life to them. Why not be content with your five senses and your ability to communicate with the people you love? Why wait for an afterlife to truly live?

Dawkins makes several comments in this book that should restore your hope. I guess you skipped over those. Of course, we only read/hear/see what we want to. Such is the nature of interpretation. Dawkins and many evolutionary psychologists talk about our human predisposition to love and care for our children. Our selfish genes have arranged that for their own self-propagation. I do not yet have children, but I already know my purpose in life. I know I am on this earth to give birth and nourish my future children so that they become healthy, happy, efficient people. My fiance knows that his purpose on this earth is to love and support our future children. We've chosen one another to love because of the happiness and stability we give each other and because we know we'll make good parents together. We work with this goal in mind. We know that we are only acting for the good of our selfish genes, but this does not diminish the importance of our goals. And if we fail, we will be devastated, but we will have tried nonetheless. This may not be everyone's idea of a future, but humans are successful enough as a species that not everyone need have children. My point is that our selfish genes inherently give our lives meaning. If that meaning's not good enough, create your own meaning. Your brain is adaptable.

Posted on Dec 12, 2006 2:54:22 PM PST
Last edited by the author on Dec 12, 2006 2:55:20 PM PST
I thought this was a wonderful review. It describes what I have gone through as well. Dawkins' ideas not only make sense, they make so much sense that any idea that denies their validity is immediately suspect.

In truth, I think that reality leads one to nihilism. Our perception of beauty and grandeur is *also* an illusion set up by our genes. Just as one elephant finds another elephant to be the sexiest imaginable beast, so our concept of "beauty" is equally arbitrary and ungrounded in ultimate reality. All of our imaginable perceptions as human beings are just smoke and mirrors.

I've always thought that secular humanists were nihilists in denial. I'm willing to pretend personally. What else is their to do?

Posted on Dec 12, 2006 4:57:51 PM PST
It's easy to see how a book like this might shatter ones expectations about the nature of life. This could lead to the kind of depression described in the review. Part of the problem may come from having "a little learning" about science and "materialism". The idea that we are "nothing but atoms" may seem disheartening if one has a niave view of what atoms are. The truth is that no one even understands what electrons, photons, etc. really are. Try reading QED by Richard Feynmann for a very good introduction to the wonder that is "materialism".

Posted on Dec 20, 2006 3:38:28 PM PST
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In reply to an earlier post on Dec 30, 2006 5:59:20 PM PST
[Deleted by the author on Dec 30, 2006 6:09:21 PM PST]
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