Book review: Richard Dawkins, The Selfish Gene, New Edition, Oxford University Press, 1989


Journal: Science & Christian Belief 3, 135-7.
Author: Darryl R. J. Macer
Since the first edition was published in 1976, this book has been one of the most well known and popular modern biology books written. The new edition is presented with the original text, followed by two new chapters, and 67 pages of endnotes to the original edition, to bring the reader up to date with the arguments, and to reply to criticism of the original. Modern evolutionary thought is brought within the grasp of the lay person in an entertaining way. It will be criticised, especially by new readers, for not including the endnotes in the text, but the extra it is still worth the price if you found the original stimulating.

The examples of the way living organisms behave and have evolved to interact with each other will always provide great discussion material. The reader can intepret the data and arguments as they like, but the arguments for the powerful natural selection pressures on complex genetic trtaits are compelling. He could have refered to more molecular evolution studies to provide support for his ideas, which to me is the most compelling evidence, but he will convince most readers without it.

The term "selfish gene" refers to the unit of natural selection, the replicator. A replicator must contain information, and be replicated. A gene is a convenient unit to think of, and represents one unit. Many replicators, genes, come together in one organism, or vehicle, but the unit of evolution is the gene. For those with some knowledge of evolution, they will debate the importance of the individual organism and the gene, but as Dawkins says, these are two separate entitites, not competitors. To view evolution in terms of genes, rather than individuals, may be a better working paradigm. The first ten chapters of this book, are as in the original, presenting many examples to support this paradigm shift, and make good reading in themselves.

Dawkins original eleventh chapter was on memes. Memes are ideas that can be replicated, such as the transmission of culture. He thinks that human beings are unique in that they may consider memes as more important replicators than genes. This is an advance from evolutionary thought which tries to think of every behaviour in terms of a genetic advantage, but rather human beings may regard ideas as being more important. Some of his extrapolations to claim that faith is a selfish meme may be partially true, but it is a shame that he does not look beyond biological advantages into the spiritual world. This is an extrapolation Christians can make for themselves.

The bibliography has been updated, which provides the general reader with useful original sources. Dawkins has written two other popular books since the original, The Blind Watchmaker, and The Extended Phenotype. The thirteenth chapter is a typically good title, "the long reach of the gene", and is a summary of the book "The Extended Phenotype", which Dawkins considers his best book. Whether a gene will be successful depends upon all its effects in the world where it lives. The twelfth chapter is entitled "Nice guys finish first", and summarises the results of computer simulations of different life stategies. Different plans might be nasty or nice, in the way that organisms behave to each other. What may be suprising, is that the nice life strategies are better than nasty, those who cooperate finish first, and those who cheat, lose. This is a good description of the biological reasons for altruism, that is also discussed earlier in this book. Maybe it is a shame that human beings have gone beyond many of the altruistic motivations, and try to cheat. The evolutionary stable strategy for organisms is to try to cooperate, and we could draw our own conclusions about what would be stable for the human race.

It is always annoying to the scientist who is a Christian to read books, especially such good books as this, and find scattered comments against God and religion. Unfortunately, some people still think there should be a war between science and religion. Considering that about 90% of the world's population are religious, it is about time scientists stopped taking shots at religion. Scientific theories and results can be intepreted in nonreligious or religious paradigms. We may read the wonders of nature and the evolutionary process from a Christian paradigm, and be impressed by the details that are revealed by biologists. To those Christians who have similar reaction against evolutionary thought as some scientists do against faith, I urge them to read this book, considering the way organisms behave and to rethink their opinion. This book will provide much fascination and challenges to the reader, and generally represents orthodox modern neo-Darwinism, presented in a very readable way. Biologists can not explain all about the evolution or origin of life, but what they can explain is well worth knowing and reading, and nature is more fascinating than any novel that man has written.


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