Book Review: The Extended Phenotype by Richard Dawkins

Following on from last year’s reading of The Selfish Gene, I decided to carry on reading some of Dawkins’ early works. In fairness, as I admitted when I read The Selfish Gene, there was an extract of The Extended Phenotype which lured me in.

As it turns out the extract was taken from near the back of the book, which is where Dawkins lays out the main thesis. In fact, it seems as though the last quarter constitutes the “real” book, with the rest being preamble as an attempt to lay the foundations and clear up any misunderstandings.

From the introduction, we are given something of a warning. The intended audience for The Extended Phenotype is not the same as that for The Selfish Gene. This volume is not as geared for the lay reader, directed more at the working biologist or the educated student. With regards to biology, I must regard myself as being in the first of those three, though Dawkins does help us out a little by including a glossary at the back which I used with fair frequency.

The opening to the book is a work of genius. He guides the reader to the Necker cube and how, though unchanging, the cube may appear different depending on how you choose to perceive it. Once you see it in a new way, you cannot help but continue to see it that new way, even with the some effort. That is the way that Dawkins wishes us to look at biology. There has been a prevailing viewpoint of viewing the organism as the basic unit at which evolution happens. In his earlier work, he sought to view things from the gene’s “viewpoint” and here he is looking at the extent to which genes have an effect.

So if you don’t recall the different between genotype and phenotype from your GCSE science, you will struggle with the book. I must admit I struggled at a few points, as I never went into study molecular biology in any formal sense. That doesn’t mean it’s impenetrable, but just that that some nuances may not be fully grasped.

As such, I must admit I am tempted to curtail this review, on the admission that though I thought I could grasp the big picture, the details at times eluded me. The only thing more silly than appraising or critiquing an idea you haven’t understood is to do so to an idea you think you’ve understood, but haven’t.

So rather than deal with the subject matter, I will instead make a comment on the writing. Dawkins, as ever, is erudite, lively and at times provocative. Even for a book aimed at the professional scientist, I doubt anyone who was intrigued by it and wanted to read it would find it dull. In dealing with those with whom he disagrees, there are some early signs of irascibility are in evidence here, though they are mostly reserved for his fellow scientists and are nothing compared to the scale of his irrational anti-religious vitriol for which he has been most well known over the last 10 years or so.

The only thing that spoilt the book slightly was the afterword which was written by Daniel Dennett. It is nothing more than a sycophantic review, loaded with gushing praise which, though well-meant, doesn’t add anything the reader’s understanding. One might guess as to whether its inclusion was at the behest of Dawkins or his publishers. The one thing we can pin on Dawkins is that in the foreword, he wrote (in 1989) that if you only read one of his books, this would be the one to read. It would be interesting to find out if he stands by that or if anything he has written subsequently supersedes it.

Please don’t take my demurral from going into the details as a criticism of the book. It is fascinating and I learnt a lot from it. Just consider yourself duly warned that it’s not a light read.

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