Wednesday, May 30, 2012

The Selfish Gene by Richard Dawkins - Book Review

"The Selfish Gene" is a popular science book by Richard Dawkins, written more than 35 years back. The 30th anniversary edition has more updates and there is a last chapter motivating the reader towards another book called "The Extended Phenotype" by the same author. This book is very famous over past four decades for its support of evolution theory and how the fundamental replicator called gene supports it. Reading this book is a great experience only to those readers who are supportive of Darwin's evolution theory. Others might disagree and pose more questions on the validity of few tall claims made in the book. As a person who generally supports evolution, I was able to relate most of the contents in this book.

There is always a conflict among people regarding the natural tendency of living organisms - selfishness Vs altruism. Though most people believe that altruism is the inherent nature of living beings, the evolution theory by Darwin suggests otherwise. The altruism nature of living beings is supported and propagated by scientists having faith on group selection. Starting from the origin of life, Dawkins argues that every activity of living beings is towards selfishness. The selfish nature of living beings is essential for their survival and replication of their genes according to Dawkins. He illustrates them using examples such as how cuckoo kids destroy other unhatched eggs to get more share of food from their mothers.

Dawkins exposes the readers to a primeval soup consisting of replicators to start with. These replicators are selfish by nature as they would want to make identical copies of themselves. Dawkins extends the theory of  replicators to more general concept of gene/DNA present in the every living cell of a plant or an animal. Through various illustrations, Dawkins proves that the selfish nature of the gene is inherited even by the body (vehicle) of the living being which is built using them. Most of the examples given in the book are at the behavioral level of organisms and the group selection strategies are vehemently opposed by sufficient counter examples.

Dawkins considers why the propagation of their own genes is the primary motivation behind the reproduction. The living beings who fail to do this will go extinct over time as natural selection only favors selfish genes. Basically, Dawkins strives to answer the following questions. How does selfish gene theory account for individual behaviors like aggression, sex, and spreading? How does even symbiotic relationship between two species is still in agreement with selfish gene theory? Why is the balance of sex ratio (male-female) almost the same even though the females put more effort in spreading of selfish genes? What are the ways in which a female selects her male partners for efficient propagation of genes? How come tit-for-tat the best strategy among a group of competing species?

To explain the difference between human beings and other living entities, Dawkins introduces a new term called meme as the basic replicator of culture. Memes are responsible for carrying the cultural aspects from one human to his/her followers and successors. Memes are the very means used by spiritual gurus to train their disciples into believing in certain ideologies about God. Memes can also exploited as a means to inculcate altruism among a group of humans and thereby reduce the effects of selfish genes. However, people generally use memes to impose their own beliefs on others without ever caring about the altruistic benefits that can be achieved by the spread of benign memes. In short, Dawkins claims meme may bring altruism into the genes depending on how that meme evolved from a culture.

The summary of the book is that as the genes are selfish, the nature all living entities of the world is inherently selfish. One has to teach altruism in humans by other means called memes for efficient functioning of the world. I found this book very knowledgeable and well illustrated. However, I felt Dawkins spends most of the time poking fun at other theories such as group selection which seems a bit digressing and annoying. Dawkins seems to be not that open minded as a popular science writer which may be due to his own selfish gene not having evolved that altruistic because of his memes.

The first person ('I') narration in this book does not help in his cause either in inspiring the reader. Dawkins may be a great researcher and supporter of evolution theory. But as a writer of popular science, his arrogant tone makes him fall way behind other eminent writers such as Carl Sagan, Richard Feynman, George Gamow, and Simon Singh. Very daring statements made by writers such as Dawkins, though their spread of rational scientific cause is unquestionable, stand the risk of turning off layman's interest towards science. In spite of all these ethical issues regarding the tone of the book, I recommend this book with some reservation as it contains a treasure of novel perspectives on evolution theory. The reader is fed with a lot of interesting insights about his own existence in this world.

P.S.: I am not planning to read any of the other books of Richard Dawkins. There are better popular science and math writers such as Carl Sagan, Bill Bryson, Simon Singh, George Gamow, Richard Feynman, John Derbyshire, James Gleick, ET Bell, etc. These writers indeed inspire you on every page of their books instead of being too rude and preachy.

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