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The Selfish GeneReview - The Selfish Gene
40th Anniversary Edition
by Richard Dawkins
Oxford University Press, 2016
Review by Maura Pilotti
Aug 22nd 2017 (Volume 21, Issue 34)

As far as I can tell, most scholarly books devoted to a general readership are not read more than once or even talked about for a lengthy period of time, let alone decades. If rereading occurs, it is usually in response to a reader's desire to recapture a fleeting memory of a fact, a theory, an observation, or a reference to a noteworthy prose. Rereading, however, tends to be selective and is often driven by earlier annotation scribbled down when the book was first absorbed. In my opinion, The selfish gene written by Richard Dawkins is unusual in this regard because it entices the reader to deviate from the widespread habit of either devoting attention to the new or selectively revisiting bits of the old. Admittedly, I studied the book when it was first published in 1976, while I was in high school. To assess the lasting impact of its content, a few months ago, I read the last edition thoroughly. I obtained a clear copy and stayed away from the old, personally annotated one for fear that reiteration, driven by familiar notes, would prevent a fresh analysis. After having re-read the book and before writing this review, I browsed many of the reviews that have been published since the first edition reached the public, as well as viewed videos of shows where the author is featured as the main speaker.

By and large, the verdict of my informal study of the audience's reception of The selfish gene over its 40 years of existence is that it is a book that has made an invaluable contribution to the scientific literature by expounding a paradigmatic shift in the way evolution is understood by not only scientists, but also the public at large. Briefly stated, Dawkins's theoretical proposal consists of conceptualizing the evolution of species on earth as a process driven by selfish replicators. Cleverly, he bestowed the role of replicators, whose primary self-interest is survival, upon genes. Individual organisms, including human beings, are recognized as being merely the vehicles, the survival machines, for the self-interested replicators. Dawkins's gene-centered proposal, which conflicts with others that are organism-centered, is not to be interpreted to mean that organisms' actions are always selfish. The behavior of the organisms that carry genes may be either altruistic or selfish, depending on whether the behavior of interest serves the genes' goal of self-preservation across time. Important to note though is that in The selfish gene, Dawkins went beyond biology to discuss the transmission of discrete cultural units which he called memes. He coined this term to refer to an idea or behavior which can be described as a sort of cultural rather than biological gene. As such, it can spread from person to person (e.g., a catchy tune) and its goal is to survive by means of propagation (i.e., imitation).

In my modest opinion, it is Dawkins's transparent, ordered, and engaging narrative that has made the theory of evolution and its focus on selfish replicators accessible and appealing to all who have expressed curiosity about the history of life on the planet earth. Several decades after its first publication, it is still surprising and, at the same time, puzzling to note that, for a sizable segment of the public, various contents of The selfish gene remain controversial. Of course, a careful reading of the book is likely to clear notorious misunderstandings of the theoretical architecture that Dawkins espouses and of the facts upon which he relies to illustrate its feasibility. Among the latter, one may recall Dawkins's metaphorical use of the adjective selfish and its application to genes conceptualized as replicators driven by self-interest. Merely a metaphor to convey a key property of genetic material, it was interpreted as a much broader statement about the inherently selfish nature of organisms that carry such a material, including human beings. The fact that the author even considered the pros and cons of using the adjective immortal instead of selfish in the title of his book and in the narrative that represents its content highlights his sincere intention to produce an account of evolution that is intuitively clear.

Yet, even the best efforts towards clarity may be defeated by a broad readership with diverse knowledge, viewpoints, and expectations. To this end, one may recall another popular misconception that has surrounded Dawkins's view of natural selection. Dawkins conceptualized natural selection as an undirected, cumulative process that favors genes better capable of surviving than others. His prose on this matter, which is flawlessly sharp, was mistaken for advocating that the process of natural selection is actually random. Most troubling, questions were raised because a random process or even an undirected process was believed to be unable to produce by itself the regularities that are observed in human nature. Of courses, deeply held convictions are known to remain largely unscathed by facts and reason, as Festinger, Riecken and Schachter discovered through systematic observation. In their seminal work on cognitive dissonance, entitled When prophecy fails (1956), they remind us that "a man with a conviction is a hard man to change. Tell him you disagree and he turns away. Show him facts or figures and he questions your sources. Appeal to logic and he fails to see your point" (p. 3). Yet, important to note is that it may not be the particular ground-breaking paradigm through which Dawkins accounts for the process of evolution that remains controversial for some individuals in the 21st century, but, more broadly, the theory of evolution itself upon which Dawkins's theoretical proposal relies. Thus, even though The selfish gene is likely to continue to stir debate and ignite controversies, the outcome of either will be to keep the theory of evolution on the passenger's seat, a desirable outcome for science and its proponents. Of course, the same argument may not apply to the concept of meme, which remains a justifiably controversial one due to its being conceptualized as a unit of human cultural evolution subscribing to the same principles and modus operandi as the evolution of biological forms. To this end, one may consider the mutation rates of memes which are considerably higher than those of genes. The concept may not be that controversial though if it is intended and used as a didactical tool to clarify a key property of genes, that is, their ability to make copies of themselves.

 

  

© 2017 Maura Pilotti

 

Maura Pilotti, PhD


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