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Customer Review

138 of 149 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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Showing 1-8 of 8 posts in this discussion
Initial post: Sep 7, 2011 7:21:48 PM PDT
B. Speer says:
[Customers don't think this post adds to the discussion. Show post anyway. Show all unhelpful posts.]

In reply to an earlier post on Jan 3, 2012 2:20:10 AM PST
[Customers don't think this post adds to the discussion. Show post anyway. Show all unhelpful posts.]

In reply to an earlier post on Dec 27, 2012 3:54:11 AM PST
I don't know about that. Is it a net drain or gain on the genome? Pinker and others I have read talk about expression of the genes having secondary effects. Like music. No evolutionary reason for it but is universal. There was a child care helper role suggested but I think it was discounted. Very interesting stuff.

In reply to an earlier post on Jan 28, 2013 11:45:53 AM PST
John Grove says:
[[If homosexuality was genetic it wouldn't exist anymore]]

Clearly you didn't read this book which discusses many things in the gene pool that are not advantageous.

Posted on Aug 11, 2013 10:59:12 PM PDT
Mark T says:
So: why don't we implement a Hitlerian regime with forced eugenics, infanticide of the infirm, etc.? I suspect that left strictly to the devices of the "Dawkinsians", we would. In fact, though it has been kept out of the textbooks, we did: the Woodrow Wilson administration promoted Nazi-style forced sterilization, through the influence of the Rockefeller money and abortion advocate Margaret Sanger (a racist as was Wilson himself).
It's because of those crazy religionists, isn't it? The people treated with distilled contempt by the Big Science people. I hope you all like living in the nightmare world these megalomaniacs are cooking up for you: Frankenfoods and their inevitable mistaken consequences (already emerging, though predictably suppressed by the corporate-controlled media, in the form of the "superweeds" spawned by the evil monstrosity of "Round-Up Ready" crops) and all manner of almost-unimaginable horrors served up the "scientists" who thought it was o.k. to experiment on people without their knowledge or consent and let the government commit the unacknowledged mass murder of the nuclear downwinders. What does Dawkins have to say about GMOs? So far as I can determine, nothing! Aside from a typically sneering dismissal in an article written for Michael Shermer's "skeptic" journal in which he derided people with concerns about the very-new GMOs as irrationals, this comment made in passing as he blamed 9/11 on "religion" (love that precision of language!)
Skip this book, it's relevant to the extent that so many gush over it and it's apparent (to them at least) implications, "Red Queen" is more entertaining and relevant to humans, which most people find more engaging. The Language of Life by Francis Collins in commendable for it's lack of the superior tone common to so many of these books; also The Language of the Genes and Virolution are often recommended as alternative to the often-intimindating textbook approaches.

In reply to an earlier post on Jan 13, 2014 3:21:23 PM PST
prophet joe says:
"...but now there is a DNA urge you are born with that either follows the path of "survival of the fittest" (Republicans) or "all for one and one for all" (Democrats)." --B. Speer

Although I've come to expect blatant contradictions among advocates of Evolution and other key tenets of orthodox Progressive Theology, I just had to laugh at this grasp-at-a-straw explanation, B.S.

So you're saying that Republicans, whom we all know are racist, homophobic, greedy, vicious haters who pretty much want to devour all life and natural resources, have evolved to be driven by DNA to believe in the very essence of evolution: "survival of the fittest".
And Democrats, who we know believe in the "Big Tent" where everyone is welcome,(provided of course they believe all the essentials of the faith AND are part of a Special Needs group constituting a voting bloc willing to trade their votes for special consideration for their special needs), in their superhuman compassion, are "all for one and one for all."
So Republicans are driven by a firm belief letting nature take its course, and Democrats, who insist that the only permissible explanation for our being here is a long series of random acts of nature believe in interfering with that process as much as possible as proof of their "humanity"??

I guess your desire to better "understand how people seem to be able to hold conflicting views in harmony on either side" comes from being a walking contradiction yourself??

Being a Progressive Dupe can be confounding, eh, B.S.?

In reply to an earlier post on Feb 1, 2014 3:25:52 PM PST
Whimsey says:
The same might be said for stupidity.

In reply to an earlier post on Oct 3, 2014 3:33:16 PM PDT
[Deleted by the author on Oct 3, 2014 3:36:09 PM PDT]
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