Saturday, December 25, 2010

Richard Dawkins The Selfish Gene: A Book Review

Book Review: The Selfish Gene by Richard Dawkins

Richard Dawkins’ ‘The Selfish Gene’ is a well written and enjoyable book. As the title suggests, it is an exploration of the role of genes in evolutionary theory. Dawkin’s asks us to accept the genes are programmed to survive and that we or any other organism are merely ‘survival machines’, within which evolution plays out the outcomes of gene mutations.

This asks us to reframe our assumptions about the world and accept it as a huge battleground for genes fighting for survival. This can be a liberating thought for a scientist because it then allows him to apply scientific method and rationalize behavior using this initial assumption. Indeed, Dawkins goes on to explain a collection of interpersonal, societal and biological relationships by applying game theory to the behavior of the ‘survival machines’ within these relationships.

The Selfish Gene

Pivotal to this idea is the notion of ‘selfishness’ in the title. In fact, to Dawkins, the genes are just trying to ensure their survival (and promulgation), in other words, they are not so much immoral as amoral. However, the term ‘selfish’ is probably used to highlight this amorality, and he spends ample time explaining how apparently altruistic behavior is, in fact, selfish behavior.

He adds succor to this conclusion by pointing out that he is not advocating the case for selfishness as an evolutionary moral code. This would make his argument weaker. On the contrary, he is arguing that this is how it actually is.

On the whole it is an interesting read and I would advise it as a thought provoking tome. However, it would have been preferable if Dawkins extended the scientific rationale to his exploration of religion. He touches-unsatisfactorily-upon religion in the book, but never manages to reach what I think is the inexorable conclusion of his this theory.

Dawkins, Genes and God

It is entirely feasible that a gene that causes the brain to accept submission to a higher authority (an idea which characterizes all religious thought) as the ultimate creator exists. If such a gene is successful then the ‘survival machines’ (us) that it occupies might see continued promulgation. Those that do not possess it might seek immortality by treating to recreate this creation process and dying out with their failure. In this sense, religion can be seen as an entirely necessary part of evolutionary development. I happen to believe that history shows us that all men ultimately submit. Even as established religions seem to be on the decline in, say Europe, they are being replaced with no end of new age nonsense. Dawkins’ irrational belief is his faith in ‘science’ and science killed many more men than religion did in the last century.

Whilst the idea of this gene seems obscure enough, it is entirely consistent with Dawkins’ approach. Animals do not seem to trouble themselves with notions of Gods or question their ultimate reality or creation. We do. Why Dawkins seeks to isolate this one area of evolution and then subject it to the onslaught of ‘reason’ in his later works is a real mystery.


Dawkins, Richard 'The Selfish Gene' Oxford University Press, 1989

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