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Richard Dawkins

Extended Book Review

We were ready to find fault and take issue with the author as soon as we picked up this book. We were put off by its very title. Using the word selfish personifies a random process, and is totally unnecessary if not an outright distraction. Single cells, even large clumps of cells have no neural system. Indeed the bulk of all life on earth cannot harbor an emotion such as selfishness. So we were unprepared for what we began reading. On the first page of text, (the introduction) Dawkins tackles our concerns head on, concluding that such personification enables understanding of evolution on a personal, emotional level. The huge advantage of this approach is that lay readers (most of us by far) will not only better understand, but remember its many lessons. With that accomplished, it is a much easier to find motivation to realize evolution is a random process. Far from the usual aspersions, evolution is the most exciting example of the power of natural random processes to evolve living things among which humans are the latest rung in the ladder. Although Dawkins occasionally strays into political science that serves little purpose beyond the illustrative anecdote, "The Selfish Gene" immediately became a book we could not put down.

After setting the props for the stage of life as humans know it, Dawkins immediately starts out from the beginning, the replicators, bits of RNA most fundamentally perhaps. [From the human point of view, this is the all-time singular “miracle” of the last 4.5 billion years or so since the solar system came into existence as part of a second- or third- generation of stars since the Big Bang some fourteen billion years ago. It is not known when the replicator evolved—perhaps a billion years after earth condensed and began cooling and collecting its atmosphere from comet in-fall from the cold outer-reaches of the solar system. That in-fall, if present interstellar clouds are similar to those of five billion years ago, contained amino acids, the precursors of RNA and DNA.]

Replicators had to have three basic attributes merely to survive: 1) Longevity high enough to permit replacement, 2) fecundity high enough to permit increasing numbers, and 3) high accuracy (and precision) during replication. These conditions led to the first ”species.” Survival then led to evolution naturally enough. [In a world bombarded by meteoric infall, gamma rays from the sun, and radioactivity from multiple sources, including the young earth itself, replication could never be perfect. In addition, thermal energy and geometric happenstance present during replication can scramble the process. Yet that scrambling was not sufficient to prevent the eventual birth of the first replicators. Thermodynamic equilibria demands no less.] The above three conditions were met often enough for an original species to evolve which then differentiated into more or less close relatives. Differentiation rates were then amplified by natural variations in different geographic regions.

Dawkins then gets down to the gene’s eye-view of things. Differing geographic settings provided different environments by which genes could expand into. At first, the most primitive replicators provided the bodies via which genes could alter their natures a tiny bit at a time--in response to environmental pressure--until entirely new life forms came into existence. Archaea and bacteria came first among cellular species, perhaps when the earth was only a billion or so years old. Eucharia (plants and animals) came next. Genes came and went, as did their temporary bodies. Surviving genes became immortal agents by passing their own special proteins along in the bodies of the various species. “The Immortal Gene” might have been a more appropriate title for this book, for in that sense, the various genes solve one feature humanity seems to fear most, death. Our genes do not die, only the vehicles that contain them do.

Chapter 3 is devoted to “Immortal Coils,” the means by which RNA and DNA replicate. Chapters 4-6 move on to the gene machines and how genes affect behavior among organisms. Surprises galore await the naïve reader. In our day, humans commit genocide and employ slaves. So guess what, so do certain species of ants! Humans can be altruistic, so can many animals. Parenting is a common theme played by, female and male, alone or in combination across the animal kingdom. The consilience of nature is as beautiful as it is breathtaking. Dawkins credits William D Hamilton with providing critical guidance in a mathematical form that is surprisingly predictive of altruistic and other behaviors as related to the degrees by which individuals are related genetically as well as by experience. In one brilliant stroke, Hamilton vitalized the science of genetics. Of course, Watson and Crick provided the framework. Chapters 7-9 discuss the natural history of family planning, the battles among generations and between sexes. Chapter 10 consists of lively discussions of how the multitudes of species cooperate in this thing called life. Again the commonalities among animal species is startling.

Chapter 11 discusses memes as the new replicators. They work in groups. Since the typical genome of an animal consists of some 20,000 + genes, their actions may overlap, reinforce or negate one another. The more fit or adaptable a meme, the more likely it is to survive, its whole intact. This may be the current ultimate in nature’s march toward complexity. To quote Dawkins: “We are built as gene machines, cultured as meme machines, but we have the power to turn against our creators. We alone can rebel against the tyranny of selfish replicators.”

Chapter 12-13 were additions to the second edition. And badly needed too. Chapter 12, Nice Guys Finish First, discusses game theory as it existed two decades ago. Using game theory provides insight into what kinds of society different traits can evolve into and whether or not they are stable against other traits. In these games, the prisoner’s dilemma is extended into the complexities of human personality and behavior. In essence, Dawkins quotes the evidence extant that shows cooperative societies tend to survive better than deceitful ones do. Cooperative societies are stable against deceitful societies, as well as against themselves. This is the most hopeful scientific aspect for humanity's future.

This is evolution. For humanity, this chapter also supports the features, noted elsewhere on this site, that each of us has our altruistic and deceitful sides. See: Hope I, Hope II, and Hope III. Aggression attends our deceitful side and naturally leads the the behaviors noted in Stanford Prison Experiment and openly acted out in Abu Grhaib. Cooperation, of course, feeds conventionalism and hierarchy. And this fits the observations of Adorno and Milgram. Finally, this game theory of individual and society behavior consistent with the residual background of sociopathology/psychopathology so well reported by Martha Stout, Justin Frank, and Babiak and Hare.

“The Long Reach of the Gene,” Chapter13, provides a worldview of the meme-like clustering of genetic memes that give rise to the various taxonomic descriptions of life on earth. Along with his noted contemporaries, G C Wilson, O E Wilson, W Hamilton, Maynard Smith, R Trivers, and R Alexander, Richard Dawkins is paving the road of natural life. Dawkins is a rare bird, at once a scientist and raconteur.

We recommend The Selfish Gene to all who would understand this thing called life. Pay close attention to Chapter 12. It explains nicely why Hope on the secular front is still to be found in our age of violence and nuclear instabilities. Pay attention also to the End Notes as they update and illuminate the original text, which Dawkins wisely left virtually unchanged.


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