Book review: The Selfish Gene by Richard Dawkins

Having been familiar with Dawkins from some of his articles, videos and tv appearances, it seemed appropriate to go back to the book that made him famous. Also, I’m aware that of late, I’ve rather neglected my science reading (this is only the 4th science book I’ve read this year, compared to 6 fiction and 8 christianity books), so I needed to catch up a bit.

It’s important to note that this is a book written back in the 1970s. The author who wrote it should not be mistaken for the divisive figure that he has become within the last 10 years. So if you were expecting this to be an ad hominem attack, I’m afraid that you will likely be disappointed. I come to this with the same critical eye that I read any other book with, but this is in no way prejudices my review.

The edition I picked up was the 30th anniversary edition, which comes with 3 prefaces and a foreword. They’re well worth reading, with the latest preface being notable for a slightly barbed comment aimed at, though not naming, Mary Midgley, who has been a proverbial thorn in Dawkins’ side for many years.

Reading the first few chapters, the most striking thing is Dawkins’ engaging narrative style. It can be little surprise that subsequent to writing this he was made a professor for the public understanding of science, as his written communication is crystal clear. In addition to the main text, there are some lengthy endnotes which appear to be mostly the product of later editions where there is an extremely defensive tone, in some exasperation of opposition born out of misunderstanding of the ideas and terminology used in the first edition.

At times, these footnotes do irritate as they break up the text a lot. So in this respect, it might have been better to amend the original text. However, this may have been due to an editorial decision, so it would be unfair to criticize Dawkins unduly for this stylistic nuisance.

Although the title of the book implies a book on genetics, this is largely confined to the early couple of chapters with the majority of the book looking at animal behaviour (his specialist subject) from a gene’s point of view. It is easy to see why some might take him for an atomist from these discussions, as he gives little countenance to causes other than genetic inheritance. This may simply be a consequence of his emphasis rather than reflecting his actual views, though such atomism is common, in my experience, amongst those who cite Dawkins as a major source of their scientific knowledge and understanding.

However, one has to recall warnings given early in the book about Dawkins’ use of terminology. Much of the book is written in simile and metaphor, with many adjectives loaded with the capacity to be misread if one reads the text as a literalist.

One of the key themes is altruism. That is, how do organisms end up helping one another out if their genes inheritance follows a rough pattern that might be described as “selfish.” Aren’t selfishness and altruism polar opposites? Dawkins argues that this is not so. In so doing, the prime target in Dawkins’ crosshairs are proponents of “group selection” which (very broadly speaking) favour the idea that animals and plants behave in such a way as to ensure the survival of their particular group. Dawkins argues convincingly that this is an illusion and gives examples where such a theory is left somewhat lacking where the selfish gene theory can provide a reasonable hypothesis.

With all this said, though, it has to be noted that Dawkins includes very little hard evidence in his book. To keep things interesting and engaging for the lay reader, we are presented with multiple anecdotes rather than scientific studies. So, reading with due scepticism, one should be wary of accepting all of Dawkins’ ideas unquestionably. Indeed, shortly after finishing the book, I was given a link to a paper (though unfortunately, it is hidden behind a paywall) which calls into question Dawkins’ “kin selection.”

This brings us to the weak points of the book. It begins in chapter 10, ‘You scratch my back, I’ll ride on yours’ where Dawkins make a quite startling comment for a scientist:

“One cannot really speak of ‘evidence’ for this idea, but….”

(it’s on page 182 of the 30th anniversary edition, if you want the full quote, it’s rather too long to copy) – yet in the next chapter, where Dawkins introduces the idea of a meme, he makes his statement that faith is

“blind trust, in the absence of evidence, even in the teeth of evidence.”

Of course, his definition has now become almost as famous as it is erroneous. Yet that fame could mistakenly lead one to think that this was an early example of Dawkins’ departure from science into the world of atheistic diatribe; it absolutely is not. It is merely an example that he used to illustrate his innovative idea on the transmission of information. Of course, subsequent decades of works on memetics have proved fruitless, and it is now abandoned as a serious line of enquiry by all but a vocal minority (here, I think of Susan Blackmore). If this surprises you, I would point you to the last ever edition of the journal of memetics where the situation was summed up quite nicely.

Following on from this, Dawkins looks at game theory which may seem out of place in a biology book, but which serves as a useful introduction to anyone who has not encountered it before. The book concludes with an additional chapter not included in the original edition. It is a concise summary of the follow-up book, The Extended Phenotype. It’s not an extract for a sequel, which I have seen in some publications, but it serves the same purpose, as an advert for the reader to make a further purchase. In this respect, it is quite successful, as it is as immensely fascinating as the rest of The Selfish Gene.

Though some of its ideas have now had severe doubt cast upon them, The Selfish Gene still stands as a wonderful pop science book on biology, and I would recommend it to anyone interested in science.