Sunday, January 20, 2008

The Selfish Gene, a Classic, With Novel Insights

I have recently just finished devouring "The Selfish Gene" by Richard Dawkins. The insights put forth by Dawkins in this book are breathtaking. The central theme introduced is that the basic unit upon which natural selection acts is not on the organism, but primarily on the individual gene acting in a selfish behavior.
The book is now in its 30th anniversary edition, or 3rd edition filled with 13 chapters and 234 pages packed with insight into natural selection and the manner in which it operates. It is written at a level almost anyone can read, and I would highly recommend that it be read. Chapter by chapter Richard Dawkins thoroughly examines and re-examines the idea's he puts forth, and elegantly explains using real world examples how selfish behavior in genes can give rise to seemingly "altruistic behavior" in organisms. The main line of reasoning behind the idea of the gene being the basic unit of selection rather than the organism is because the gene is the basic unit of replication. In the beginning it was just self-replicating molecules, whom eventually became what we know as genes. Hence forth genes have been differentiating and competing for resources, and the bodies that these genes occupy are nothing more than gigantic robots that have been the consequence of individual genes acting in ways that promoted their own replication.
It is in the eleventh chapter of this book that the concept of "memes" is developed. For those who have never heard of a meme or memes, it is the insight that ideas and concepts themselves have the ability to replicate, and as such are subject to natural selection. The biggest difference between genes and memes is merely the fact that memes have the ability to replicate much faster, and therefore evolve much faster. The idea of memes has been gaining in popularity at a rather steady pace since the original publishing in 1976, although it seems that there has been a spurt of attention paid to it in the past several years.
The last chapter of this book titled "The Long Reach of the Gene" was actually one of my favorites. He introduces the final insight of the book which he dubbed "the extended phenotype" (also the title of his 1982 book on the same concept.) In which Dawkins explains clearly how the effect a gene has on its own survival is not always clearly direct, and that the phenotype of any given gene includes all of the consequences on its environment, and not just the immediate ones of protein expression. Explaining the strange relationships between parasites and hosts. Why some parasites participate in mutualistic behavior whereas others are purely selfish. Presented in a clearly understandable train of logic it is demonstrated that this difference arises whether the two share the same vehicle for reproduction or not.
This book although over thirty years old is still extremely relevant to the biological sciences, and offers a philosophical framework in which students and others interested can use to help understand exactly how it is natural selection works. It helps students gain their own insight and develop more specific questions into how exactly various genes rise to dominance. This book will entertain you with its real life examples, and it will make you re-think the entire concept of "organism." I would rate this book a 9 out of 10, as the only criticism I have of it, is that there was a point that it seemed just a tad bit repetitive, but I suppose it was necessary in order to really drive the points home. The book presented many clear rational insights into the nature of natural selection and I encourage it to be read by anyone interested in evolution or the biological sciences.

1 comment:

Julie said...

It seems like Dawkins has written a book that will never fade in its importance within the society. It seems as if it is a book that anyone could read, even if they do not have a scientific background. I look forward to reading the book :)