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Book Review: The Selfish Gene by Richard Dawkins

Okay, so, before I start this review of The Selfish Gene, I think it’s worth noting that I know that Richard Dawkins has been a controversial figure; I know that his views on religion and how he expresses them are contentious. Consequently, semi-frequent references to religion throughout the book are out of place but perhaps not out of character. Just because I read the book and (spoiler) enjoyed the book, does not mean that I have any comments on whatever controversy surrounds his views. I am also very aware of the fact that I am not a biologist; I don’t know enough to dispute the theories in the book or vouch for their credibility. Therefore, this review will be mostly an informal discussion of my (perhaps under-educated) opinion, having read the book as a general reader.

I have to admit, I found the idea of reading and then writing a review for The Selfish Gene slightly frightening at first. It’s such an iconic book; I had university professors back during my time studying biology give lectures on the “bestseller that revolutionised population genetics.” What right do I have to even have an opinion on it? But I feel like I can write this review because, having now read it, I’ve found that The Selfish Gene is not a book just for academics with years of training. In the preface itself, Dawkins establishes that his “imagined readers” include the general layman and the book is written with such a reader in mind. And it shows; every chapter is full of simple, logical and controlled metaphors, each helping to demonstrate the role of the gene in a variety of behaviours.

The theory behind the Selfish Gene is, in short, that the gene is the only truly immortal biological unit; individuals, populations, species are all outlived by any one single gene unit. Dawkins frequently talks about “the gene” as though it is a sentient being (though he is careful to remind the reader that the gene does not, in fact, think for itself). The gene is constantly and only “thinking” of its own perpetuation in the gene pool; the body acts simply as a vessel for the gene; designed by the gene, for the gene, as a way to carry and spread the genes through reproduction. Behaviours can be explained by looking at how a gene might increase its own chances of survival. The more related two individuals are, the more likely they are to share any particular gene, and therefore, the more benefit ensues for the gene from altruistic behaviour between them. The Selfish Gene attempts to dismantle behaviour previously explained as “for the good of the species” in favour of “ for the good of the gene.”

The best thing about The Selfish Gene, for me, is how many questions it asks (then answers) that I had never even thought about before; why are male and female gametes different sizes? Why don’t mammals just have large numbers of offspring in single litters? Why do organisms experience menopause and age? Do parents favour certain offspring? Chapters are dedicated to explaining aggression, litter sizes, maternal and paternal care, social insects, and a range of other behaviours previously attributed to “for the good of the species.” I particularly loved the discussion of social insects; I didn’t know much about social insects beforehand, and I was surprised by the complexity of their relationships (once I managed to get my head around the genetics which, for me, were some of the most difficult in the book).

One of my favourite parts about reading popular science books is not the science itself, but reading about all the people and work that has to come together to make that science. And Dawkins does not disappoint. While The Selfish Gene is not the most personal book (which is not necessarily a criticism in this case; anecdotes about commutes to work would have been out of place among genetics metaphors and relatedness coefficients), Dawkins gives credit where credit is due, leaving you with an impression of the scale of the work and effort that had gone into making the theory what it is. He talks about theories since disproven and those still in use, and how those conclusions were made and research brought together and made to fit with one another.

Overall, I should never have been intimidated by the idea of reading this book; the controversy surrounding Dawkins’ figure and the infamy of the book itself made it seem almost unapproachable. In reality, it is called popular science for a reason. Dawkins makes evolutionary and population genetics accessible for any reader, provided they have the interest to stick with it.

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