Monday, June 19, 2006

Thirty Years of The Selfish Gene

I remember when I first discovered The Selfish Gene. I was browsing in a Barnes and Noble and it struck my eye. I sat down with it and started reading. A cute girl sat across from me and tried to strike up a conversation, but I was too engrossed to pay her much attention. A few hours later, and probably two-thirds of the way through the book, I finally took a break. It grabbed me like no other science had before or since.

Thirty years after its original publication, an expanded version has come out. Additionally, there's a new book of essays about Richard Dawkins and his impact on science and society by various writers called Richard Dawkins: How a Scientist Changed the Way We Think which looks very interesting. Here is a review which curiously starts with a fabricated story of the reviewer's introduction to The Selfish Gene, but picks up from there:

But one part of my pretentious fantasy is not exaggerated: the impact of the first sentences of The Selfish Gene. For those sentences embody Dawkins’s entire appeal: the deep thought, the stylish expression, and the sheer self-assurance that lets you know from the outset that you are in the hands of a master.

For this is no ordinary science book. Yes, it is about evolutionary biology, but its message, that “we are survival machines – robot vehicles blindly programmed to preserve the selfish molecules known as genes”, still resonates deeply after thirty years. It is a brilliant exposition of how natural selection works, laying out in clear and compelling detail, for both scientists and lay readers, the process that produced all of life’s diversity. Using the metaphor of genes as selfish entities, whose “motivation” is simply to copy themselves at the expense of other genes, Dawkins describes a tale of competition – of nature red in tooth and claw – but in which genes are the combatants, fighting their battles by co-opting the bodies of their carriers. It is nothing less than the story of what made us who we are.


About Richard Dawkins: How a Scientist Changed the Way We Think, he writes:

The collection includes twenty-four contributions from a variety of writers and scholars, including the novelist Philip Pullman, Richard Harries (Bishop of Oxford), the philosopher Daniel Dennett, the linguist Steven Pinker and the biologist John Krebs. Their essays cover not just exegesis of The Selfish Gene, but also Dawkins’s general contributions to biology and its philosophy. The section on Dawkins and religion, though tangential to The Selfish Gene, is well worth reading given his vehement hostility to theistic belief.

While such festschrifts are usually deadly dull, designed to flatter rather than enlighten, this is a delightful exception, containing a number of thought-provoking essays that go far beyond mere appreciation of Dawkins’s book. They are in fact essential in understanding the book’s influence. The simultaneous publication of both volumes allows us to re-examine the impact of The Selfish Gene. How well has it aged? Is it still important? And did Dawkins really change the way we think?

...

Straddling the boundary between popular science bestseller and scientific treatise, The Selfish Gene has infused all modern discourse on evolution and natural selection, by layman and scientist alike. This fact, combined with its incomparable prose style, makes the book a masterpiece. It is one of the two books on evolution I would recommend to anyone aspiring to be broadly educated (the other, of course, is Darwin’s Origin of Species).


The reviewer goes on to discuss Dawkin's idea of memetics, which despite it's popularity hasn't turned out to be exactly... true, and also to discuss some of the troubling implications of Dawkin's ideas about evolution and genetics:

And whatever the darker implications of his work, they are more than offset by the luminosity of his prose, and by his infectious awe before a natural process that created the stunning diversity of life. Philip Pullman sums it up in his wonderful essay on Dawkins’s writing:

He is a coiner of memorable phrases; he is a ferocious and implacable opponent of those who water the dark roots of superstition. But mainly he celebrates. He is a storyteller whose tale is true, and it’s a tale of the inexhaustible wonder of the physical world, and of ourselves and of our origins.

17 comments:

CyberKitten said...

The Selfish Gene had a HUGE impact on me too. If I wasn't before I was a dedicated Darwinian after I read it in my late teens. I think that I can honestly say that it changed my life.

Ezzie said...

My FIL was reading a book by a Brit academic who takes The Selfish Gene apart a few months ago. I wish I could remember who... Alistair something? Argh.

Stephen (aka Q) said...

It amuses me that all these years later, you still remember the cute girl who tried to strike up a conversation with you while you were engrossed in the book!

Whatever the darker implications of his work, they are more than offset by the luminosity of his prose.

That's a strange comment. Does it mean, "Dawkins tells you unflattering things about yourself that might lead one to existential despair, but he coats the bitter pill in such rollicking good prose that ultimately you don't mind so much"?

CyberKitten said...

Intriguing... I wonder what 'dark implications' he meant.

I did read the book many years ago - but I certainly don't remember anything dark... I thought the whole thing was actually rather illuminating myself......

Half Sigma said...

Too bad political liberals of the leftist kind have the religious-like belief that all evolution with respect to brain differences (personality, intelligence, etc.) has completely stopped.

Jewish Atheist said...

CK: Me too.


Ezzie:

If you remember it, let me know and I'll look into it.


Q:

That's a strange comment. Does it mean, "Dawkins tells you unflattering things about yourself that might lead one to existential despair, but he coats the bitter pill in such rollicking good prose that ultimately you don't mind so much"?

Pretty much. :-) Sort of like, well, when you die you die, and life has no objective meaning, etc., etc., but isn't this stuff cool?!?!


CK:

Intriguing... I wonder what 'dark implications' he meant.

The review goes into it. Mostly, he meant genetic determinism.


Too bad political liberals of the leftist kind have the religious-like belief that all evolution with respect to brain differences (personality, intelligence, etc.) has completely stopped.

I've never heard a single person, liberal or not, who believes in evolution, make that claim. Nice straw man, though.

Jewish Atheist said...

Oh, and...

Q:

It amuses me that all these years later, you still remember the cute girl who tried to strike up a conversation with you while you were engrossed in the book!

Hey, it didn't happen that often. ;-)

CyberKitten said...

JA said: Sort of like, well, when you die you die, and life has no objective meaning, etc., etc., but isn't this stuff cool?!?!

[chuckle].

JA said: The review goes into it. Mostly, he meant genetic determinism.

Don't see a problem with it myself.....

Finally JA said: I've never heard a single person, liberal or not, who believes in evolution, make that claim. Nice straw man, though.

Nor me. What a strange idea. Why should evolution suddenly 'stop'...? Certainly has the sound of a strawman...

Olga said...

I thought you would enjoy watching this 2-part (1hr 45 min total)documentary by Richard Dawkins:

1. http://video.google.com/videoplay?docid=6193866746249268230&q=richard+dawkins+The+Root+of+All+Evil

2. http://video.google.com/videoplay?docid=-8239331458224461127&q=richard+dawkins+The+Root+of+All+Evil

Thank you!

Orthoprax said...

Cyber,

"Why should evolution suddenly 'stop'...?"

Because natural selection is basically frozen in advanced human societies since the modern age. Everyone survives nowadays, no matter how unfit you would be in the wild. (Slight exaggeration.)


JA,

I have my own issues with the basic thesis of the Selfish Gene. Now, it definitely makes sense as it explains those perplexing biological oddities like eusociality, but it doesn't factor in population controls that operate in tandem and at cross purposes with selfish genes.

The genes might want to make more of themselves, but the population simultaneously wants to maintain a certain level of homogeneity so that the individuals can still interbreed. It is for this reason that I tend to favor more complex mechanisms for speciation, like those underlying the operation of punctuated equilibrium, than the relatively simplistic Neo-Darwinian models that Dawkins promotes. Dawkins can sometimes be misleading in his reductionist approach.

He's also a bit of a fanatic, but that's a different issue.

CyberKitten said...

I asked: Why should evolution suddenly 'stop'...?

Orthoprax said: Because natural selection is basically frozen in advanced human societies since the modern age. Everyone survives nowadays, no matter how unfit you would be in the wild. (Slight exaggeration.)

A 'slight exaggeration and also a common misconception. We've had pretty advanced medicine in the West for about... maybe 50 years. If you want to be generous say 100 years - though I wouldn't like to visit a hospital in 1906 personally... So that between 2 and 4 generations. In other words a blink of an eye (actually less) in evolutionary terms. Its completely insignificant. Also evolution tends to act on the species level (or at least isolated sections of a species) - not the lucky 25% who happen to be lucky enough to live in the 'developed' world (with more genome mixing than every before).

So its (far) too short a period of time to talk about evolution 'stopping' and it's not a large part of the (melting pot like)human genome anyway. Let these conditions run another 10,000 years & we might have enough data to begin to draw some meaningful conclusions.

Orthoprax said...

Cyber,

In terms of genetic mixing, you're right. But at the same time there is little natural promotion for novel traits since the fitness bar is so low in modern human societies. This is true even in the developing world which show the greatest rates of population increase.

As life becomes easier and humans shape nature to fit us then natural selection will lose all of its power. I don't need 10,000 years of data to support this contention, it's founded directly though application of basic evolutionary theory.

Orthoprax said...

Let me also clarify, I don't say that evolution will stop, it never really stops when we're speaking in terms of shuffling allele frequencies, but it will slow significantly when natural selection just isn't working the way it used to.

Jewish Atheist said...

CK:

I find lack of free will troubling, personally. Still, I'm not going to lie to myself just to make myself feel better.


Olga:

Thanks.


Orthoprax:

The bigger problem with evolution is that it tends to work most on isolated populations... and there are very few remaining human populations that are reproductively isolated. Sadly, although people don't die as often from disease, etc., in terms of who has the most kids, one could say the human race is breeding for poverty, low IQ, and high religiosity.


Dawkins can sometimes be misleading in his reductionist approach.

I'm sure that's true. The Selfish Gene is merely a metaphor in a book for laypeople, not a serious scientific argument.

He's also a bit of a fanatic, but that's a different issue.

True. But he's our (mine and my fellow atheists') fanatic. ;-)

CyberKitten said...

JA said: I find lack of free will troubling, personally. Still, I'm not going to lie to myself just to make myself feel better.

We still have Free Will - just not 100% Free.... It's no big deal. We are, after all, just another animal who happens to be self-aware. We're a LOT freer than most animals!

Orthoprax said...

On free will, you might want to see a recent post of mine.

http://orthoprax.blogspot.com/2006/06/deterministic-damnation.html

Larry Lennhoff said...

Evolution can't stop, and thus hasn't stopped. Evolution is the combination of random variance in the genome (which is still continuing) and the simple fact that some of those genomes make more copies of themselves than others do.

What has happened is that the criteria for making more copies have shifted. In the early days of man's evolution the emphasis was on surviving long enough to breed and raise children who would breed in their turn. That is less difficult in the contemporary environment. Instead what is being selected for is the desire for large numbers of kids and long periods of fertility, among other things.

Evolution is *slow* - don't expect to see noticible changes in the course of your lifetime. And if for whatever reason the environment changes rapidly - say a collapse of civilization, or the introduction of posthumans, then expect a corresponding change in what genomes produce more copies and consequently what traits are being affirmatively selected for.