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Customer Review

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.
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