Book Review: The Selfish Gene

I can’t remember where I saw it, but somewhere I saw a reference to The Selfish Gene¬†and decided I shouldn’t wait any longer to read the book that brought Richard Dawkins to fame (no idea if this is true, I’m not even sure if the 1970s even happened, but I’m pretty sure it is one of his early published works).

I’m an extremely impulsive book buyer — I never stop myself from buying a book that I want to read (it’s like the opposite of my impulsive food shopping…) — unless I already have three unread books on my nightstand (I did have this tome¬†there for about half the time, looking forward to Niall).

The Selfish Gene was an extremely pleasurable read, Dawkins is a wonderful mixture of uncompromising scientist, disseminator of knowledge, and delightful wordsmith. I find his metaphors extremely helpful (if laden with caveats so that he doesn’t run afoul of his scientific instinct for diligence).

The book was essentially Dawkins’ thesis that ‘the gene’ (which is much harder to define than my 9th grade biology class taught me) is the most basic unit of selection in nature, at least as far as genetics go.

The Selfish Gene floated effortlessly from topic to topic, seeming to anticipate my next question at each turn of the page. For someone who enjoys high performance for its own sake, this was argument at its finest. Dawkins gave (what feels like) fair treatment to opposing theories, though in his now classic style, was scathing in review of works that lacked sound logic, theory, or proof.

I had heard before that Dawkins coined the term ‘meme’, but didn’t know that it was from this book. The introduction of the idea of memes illustrates nicely the blend of biology, philosophy, and je ne sais quoi that runs through the entire book.

The book was great — my favorite part may have been the endnotes (I was reading the 30th anniversary edition, though I am not sure when the endnotes were last revised). 55 pages of enthralling follow-up, they ran the gamut from error-correction to updates on the state of biology to new research that has given weight to the untested ideas and theories proposed from extrapolations of ideas in the book.

Certainly a classic, so full of ideas that it is hard to begin a list, so applicable to other areas of life that it is hard not to. As an example, the parts about genes being “good” or “bad” depending entirely on the gene pool in which they swim (e.g., incisor teeth are much better for a meat-eater than a plant-eater) has continued to jump to my mind almost every day since I read it.

Cheers to you, Richard, a great read almost 40 years later.


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