Friday, 25 February 2011

THE SELFISH GENE by Richard Dawkins (30th Anniversary Edition)

This book made a big splash when it was first published in the 1970s, and it is now in its 3rd edition.

Essentially, the book argues that evolution does not work on a family, group, or species level, but on the level of the gene.

Humanitarian feeling, by this measure, is not occasioned by a desire on the part of humans for humanity to survive, and it is certainly not (perish the thought) occasioned by some higher, non-biological feeling we might have (what! something non-biological, never!).

Dawkins takes us back to the primordial soup in which loose bits and pieces slowly formed molecules. The molecules which survived, were the molecules which were successful. They formed sacs to keep themselves safe, or learnt how to push chemicals away, or whatever. And slowly they developed into full organisms. However, the driver is still those early small organisms, which are now recognisable as DNA. So, for example, the DNA for two legs survived because giving a creatre two legs made that creature more likely to survive and thus produce DNA. We are, in Dawkins view, just robots created by our DNA to carry our DNA around and keep it safe.

I actually find this quite a believable theory. Though, why should we care what I think? I don't know squat about biology.

He includes a very interesting section on how the basic rule of most religions - do as you would be done by - might have been shaped by evolution. More here if you're interested.

Dawkins can't bear religious fundamentalism, which is I find hilarious, because he is such a biological fundamentalist. He is so insistent on the whole nothing-beyond-biology argument, it gets a bit embarrassing. I think insisting loudly that there is not a god is just as silly as insisting loudly that there is one. You can really only weigh in on that one when you're dead.

It does explain family feeling in an interesting way: in essence, his argument is that we protect members of our family because they share so much of our DNA. But where I struggled a bit was: we share like 99%of our genes with chimps. Surely therefore we should be conditioned to work for their survival too? But this is clearly not the case.


  1. "I think insisting loudly that there is not a god is just as silly as insisting loudly that there is one. "

    He does nothing of the sort. He just lays out the evidence and reason for us not requiring the notion of a God to explain our lives. This is different to religious reasoning, which demands that we abandon evidence and reason and believe things because...we should.

  2. Okay, I admit he doesn't do that in this book. I was rather naughtily kind of getting a dig in about THE GREATEST SHOW ON EARTH, another book of his more recently where he blithers on and on about religious fundamentlism till you want to smack him in the face.

    I'm undecided about God myself. However, I don't agree that religious reasoning necessarily demands we abandon evidence etc - maybe in Alabama or whatever, but there are lots of religious people who believe in evolution, etc etc: they just believe it was put in motion by a God. And correct me if I'm wrong, but science hasn't solved the "First Mover" problem yet, have they? I'm not exactly in hourly expectation x

    Thanks for the interesting comment. I love random blog debating! Maybe I need to get out more.

  3. I've had this one sitting on the shelf since forever - giving it the cursory glance every year and so and being turned off by the very small print (might just be the edition I have) I think the chimp thing comes down to the 99% not actually being that much I recall hearing that we share a great deal of our DNA with fruit flies! Or some other creature (don't quote me!) with DNA percentages it's the 0.0% that are important.

    The whole "selfish gene" argument is interesting but ultimately we are at a place now where we have evolved a consciousness and morals and can now choose to not be selfish in the same why that we can choose to be vegetarian despite our canines! I'm sure Dawkins isn't suggesting that we should be or even are purely "selfish" I just think it is fascinating that such a self interested process can lead to a species capable of selfless acts - if such a thing exists! I'm sure i've heard Dawkins talk something about the importance of reciprocation?

  4. God yes it is small print, and I had to get through it at warp speed!You are very right about him not suggesting we be selfish - as in, we 'should' be selfish. His point is that our genes want what they want, and that is to survive to the next generation, and if that means 'selfless' acts (such as the runt dying so his stronger siblings may live) then so be it x

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