The selfish gene

by Richard Dawkins

Paperback, 1989

Status

Available

Publication

Oxford ; New York : Oxford University Press, 1989.

Description

"The Selfish Gene is remarkable in several ways. First published in 1976, aimed at a general audience and written by a then little-known young lecturer in zoology at Oxford University, The Selfish Gene rapidly became highly influential. The important biological work of such figures as W. D. Hamilton and Robert Trivers was introduced to a wider public for the first time. But that was not all. Drawing together the threads of contemporary research in Neo-Darwinism into a powerful vision of the living world viewed through the eyes of genes as the units of selection, it was a significant contribution to biological thought. The full explanatory power of the gene's eye view was presented, in fine non-technical prose, for the first time in one short volume, bringing novel insights to those working in the field and inspiring whole new areas of research. Yet even that is not all. It has been widely acclaimed too for its literary qualities. Here is a book that set a new standard in science writing for the wider public, a modern masterpiece that fresh generations of aspiring young scientists would seek to emulate."--BOOK JACKET.… (more)

User reviews

LibraryThing member princemuchao
This classic science text personifies the gene in order to look at evolution/natural selection in a new way. Game theory and its effects on natural selection play a key role, and Dawkins' biological examples throughout are interesting and informative - did you know that male bees do not have fathers?

This is also the book that introduced Dawkins' concept of memes - all the more important a concept to those internet-savvy individuals who may be using this "web 2.0" site.

Written in 1976, the text is a bit dated, but the 30th anniversary edition has 50 pages of endnotes that elucidate the text and deal with some of the controversy and counter-responses generated after its publication.
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LibraryThing member iayork
Careful when you choose the "red pill": "Why are people?" This is the title of the first chapter of Selfish Gene. In the first paragraph of the book the author states that Charles Darwin made ii possible for us to answer this question sensibly. The book promises to help the reader answer this question and such others as "Is there meaning to life?" It delivers on the promise.

Dawkins has a unique gift for communication. As you read a paragraph densely packed with concepts and assimilate them, inevitably your mind goes "hmm... that's sounds good, but.." Invariably Dawkins has anticipated these objections and he deals with them one by one. There are many other good books out there which explain the theory of Charles Darwin but I would be surprised if any of them is as good as the Selfish Gene.

A word of caution. Starting to look at the world through Darwinian glasses is very similar to Neo's taking the "red pill" in matrix. These glasses make you question a lot of "facts" assumptions and even your sense of right and wrong, which can be disturbing.
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LibraryThing member shanaqui
In my quest to read a bit more non-fiction, I think reading up on Dawkins is a wise choice. He claims to be aiming his books -- or at least this one -- at three audiences: the layman, the expert and the student. Well, I'm somewhere between layman and student, since I have a pretty good level of knowledge about the stuff, but I'm not formally learning it. The Selfish Gene was easy and even enjoyable to read, with things explained in as simple a way as possible, and sometimes formulated in a handful of ways or with several examples, to help expand on his point.

The Selfish Gene has a lot of material in it that was already discussed in similar or identical terms in The Ancestor's Tale, but goes rather more into depth about it. The title is misleading, since Dawkins doesn't actually believe that genes are self-aware. His language isn't all that confusing, once you read past the title, though. He makes it fairly clear when his words should be taken as more metaphorical than accurate.

I found his section on memes pretty interesting -- hadn't known that he'd coined the word. People misinterpret that section, too, suggesting that memes are self-aware and actually want to survive. He suggests something more along the lines of natural selection, making memes actually very similar to genes.

I suppose I'd have to read around more in the field to know how much I agree with Dawkins. For someone with my level of knowledge, he gives a pretty clear and accurate argument -- but then, of course, I don't have the knowledge to dispute him.
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LibraryThing member imnotsatan
Dawkins is a pompous, overblown windbag, and his writing is exactly what you'd expect from a person like him. There's nothing wrong with the ideas; the ideas are fine. However, Dawkins's "listen at me because I am so very, very smart and therefore better than you" attitude ruined any enjoyment I could have drawn from them.
LibraryThing member bragan
Richard Dawkins is probably best known these days for his writings about atheism and religion. No matter what you think of his take on that particular topic -- and I have rather complicated mixed feelings about it, myself -- it's a bit of a shame that this has come to overshadow his career as a writer of books on evolution so much. Because the man really does have a marvelous talent for explaining even the most complicated aspects of evolutionary biology in clear and comprehensible terms through the use of apt analogies and the careful construction of simple examples. This gene's-eye view of evolution, which pays particular attention to issues of self-interest and altruism, is certainly no exception. It's by no means the last word on the subject -- Dawkins doesn't for a second pretend that it is -- and since it was written in 1976, some of the details are doubtless a little dated now. (Dawkins' attempt to use a computer-based metaphor at one point is amusingly quaint now, if nothing else.) But there are good reasons why this has remained in print for three decades plus.

The version I have, by the way, is a 2004 reprint of the 1989 edition, which included two new chapters and a large number of excellent new endnotes correcting, clarifying, and expanding on the original text. Apparently there was also a new 30th anniversary edition in 2006, but other than a new introduction, I'm not sure what, if anything, was done to update it then.
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LibraryThing member johnxlibris
The basic premise of this foundational work states that genes will act "selfishly" in order to ensure further self-replication. This does not imply that they do this consciously, but as Dawkins carefully lays out, the selfishness is behavioral, not subjective. To put it differently, genes that behave selfishly (they benefit at the expense of others) tend the survive and replicate themselves into the next generation. That behavior is then repeated. Even apparently altruistic behavior in the organisms, the genes' vehicle, can be shown to ultimately benefit the genes of the altruistic host.

My explanation is far too simplified to give justice to Dawkin's work. In his mouth, the workings of creation take on a glorious simplicity even if the explanation for them is laboriously worked out. He discusses how genetic "selfishness" plays out between species, families, sexes, within individuals and even extends beyond the individual into the material world.

Dawkin's book is the answer to the ultimate "how" and a partial response to the "why." It reminds me of the narrator's quote from the latest film adaptation of War of the Worlds (2005): "By the toll of a billion deaths, man had earned his immunity, his right to survive among this planet's infinite organisms. And that right is ours against all challenges." We exist because we can. Sure it's a tautology, but a wonderfully assuring one.
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LibraryThing member Gazgnu
This is the book that kickstarted it all for me. I had the wrong attitude to truth before I read this. Dawkins acheived so much in this work. A new (and logical and true) perspective on our evolutionary origins was presented (mainly using the work of William Hamilton, I think, to put group selection theories in their place). It was presented in a readable way, thus a coming-of-age for the Pop Science genre. It established him as the prime-mover in modern British culture for rational discourse (he's amazingly rigorous in his thoughts, his famous letter to his ten-year-old daughter on the subject of Truth & good criteria for believing in things should be read in school assemblies every thursday, fo' sho'). And he set out a rough theory of memes (cultural darwinism), which also paved the way for much edifying discourse on Universal Darwinism. He's the man.… (more)
LibraryThing member ashishg
Evolution theory with gene as center of survival competitions, and how animal social behaviours can be interpreted as result of this process. Introduces to "Evolutionary Stable Strategy" concept. Some novel ideas but poorly written or explained, and leaves many questions unanswered.
LibraryThing member _Greg
This classic book expands understanding of the evolution and nature of life by looking at it all from the "viewpoint" of genes. This is also the book where Dawkins proposes the idea of memes, the gene-like elements of culture. A must read.
LibraryThing member daschaich
A Classic of Popular Science: More than a quarter-century after its first publication, Richard Dawkins's "The Selfish Gene" remains a classic of popular science writing. This edition includes two new chapters as well as extensive endnotes that do much to perfect the original text and correct the few mistakes that were found in it. "The Selfish Gene" is explicitly directed at the layman, and absolutely no knowledge of biology is assumed. While this presents a danger of boring readers (such as myself) who are already familiar with DNA and meiosis, the colorful metaphors Dawkins uses throughout the book do much to keep the reading engrossing and entertaining.

After a lengthy exploration of basic biology, covering topics such as DNA and the origin of life, Dawkins introduces the gene-centered view of evolution that has long been textbook orthodoxy. Dawkins uses the remainder of the book to look at various types of animal behavior in an effort to convey some general conclusions and tools to help the reader understand evolution and natural selection. Much of his effort is devoted to explaining behavior in terms of the 'selfish gene' - especially social behavior that has long been held to have evolved 'for the good of the species.' Dawkins shows that how fundamental axiom of natural selection (that the genes best at surviving and reproducing will eventually spread through the gene pool) leads directly to the selfish gene and the behavior exhibited by nearly all animals (humans being the prime exception).

Many of Dawkins's metaphors have caused raised eyebrows - one outstanding example is his characterization of living things as "lumbering robots" built to protect the genes that hide in them - but the metaphors are always (eventually) brought under control. The title is one such metaphor that has often been misunderstood by superficial analysis. The 'selfish gene' is simply a gene that does not aid others at its own expense. Such genes would be better able to reproduce and spread through the gene pool than those that did sacrifice themselves for others, and therefore completely dominate the gene pools of all species as a result of billions of years of evolutionary pressure.

I cannot hope to adequately summarize Dawkins's arguments in a mere review, so I sincerely urge you to read "The Selfish Gene" for yourself. I should warn that conservatives would probably not enjoy the book nearly as much as I did. Dawkins is an open secular humanist with socialist leanings, and is not worried about offending the delicate sensibilities of creationists and fundamentalists. This book should only be read by those willing to 'accept' the validity of natural selection and evolution; others would only waste their time. I would direct readers seeking a more scientific discussion of these issues to G. C. Williams's "Adaptation and Natural Selection." All others will most likely enjoy "The Selfish Gene" a great deal and finish the book with a new appreciation for and understanding of evolution and biology.
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LibraryThing member jrcchicago
This is an intriguing book, filled with ideas to challenge the lay reader. Towards the end of the book, for example, Dawkins describes the concept of "memes," ideas that act as viruses, transmitting themselves more or less successfully from person to person, mutating over time and competing with other ideas. It's the first time I had ever encountered that concept -- he may be the person who originated it -- but I have read about it in different contexts several times since, and I don't think anyone else has explained it as simply and cogently as Dawkins does here.… (more)
LibraryThing member lorin
This is one of those landmark science books written for the general public. Dawkins makes a convincing case for a gene's-eye view of evolution. He introduces concepts like evolutionary stable sets (ESS), survival machines, and memes. Since this isn't my area of research, I do not know whether or not Dawkins represents mainstream views in the biology community.… (more)
LibraryThing member woollymammoth
You have read this book haven't you? You must, you simply must. It's essential for explaining the world, even if you are a creationist you should read it and see what you think. No, you can't have my copy.
LibraryThing member P_S_Patrick
I finally got round to reading this book, around a year after having gone through quite a number of his other scientific books which were on the university library (This one was always out, and several copies had been lost). I found this book a good read, but on the whole learned nothing particularly new. This is mostly due to the fact that a lot of the ideas in the book are to be found in The Blind Watchmaker, and that I am a cell biology undergraduate.
If you haven't read any similar books, then you should get more out of this book than I did. It is well written. The arguments are well thought out and put in a way that a non biologist could easily follow. The style of the writing is good, with interesting examples. For a biologist, there will be a few explanations that you could skip over, or just skim, though they are generally short and don't detract, and are really quite necessary for the wider audience, and this is a popular science book afterall.
I would recommend this book to those who take an interest in the natural world, as there is a lot more to evolution than many people realise. This book reveals a different perspective on it, which explains a lot, using genes as the fundamental unit of selection, as opposed to the individual organism. This doesn't go against traditional evolutionary theory, but is just an evolution of the theory really, which explains a lot of quirks found in various species, which would not be explained by more old fashioned versions of the theory.
For more knowledgable readers, I would reccommend the Extended Phenotype, which is more technical in content, and lends yet another way of thinking about the influence of genes.
If you want a general overview of evolution, The Blind Watchmaker may be a better bet, as it covers evolution more comprehensively, including arguments to convince those who are inclined to question the validity of the theory. For those who have a good grasp of basic evolution theory, then this book would make an interesting next read, as it isn't hard going or too long, and should be enjoyable.
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LibraryThing member lewallen
The book that popularized the 'selfish gene' movement in biology, which is the idea that all behavior can be explained in terms of genes replicating themselves in the most effective possible manner. The argument is convincingly demonstrated with many examples and excellent reasoning, and for the one apparent exception, humans, Dawkins postulates the existance of a second replator, coining the word "meme" to name it.… (more)
LibraryThing member jwhenderson
I have finally (after several recommendations of friends over the years) read The Selfish Gene by Richard Dawkins. Some of my immediate thoughts: I enjoyed his discussion of the importance of the gene through a dissection and diminution of the human being.
I will, no doubt have to read it again to understand all the nuances of the work. Some of Dawkins' metaphors, while mellifluous, are potentially problematical, e.g. "We are machines created by our genes." They roll off the tongue well, and I will no doubt use them in conversation but I am still trying to understand the subtleties of his scientific utterances. I have not yet wrapped my mind around a “purpose-intent” set of genes. The answer is probably hiding there the cloud of new ideas and I missed it, but they have lasted for more than a quarter century and Dawkins has established the concept of "meme" which has become ubiquitous. The book was fun, educational, and thought-provoking to read. I hope my genes will allow me to learn more about this area of science.
Also, I wonder why the idea of selfishness, whether it exists as a gene, or as a learned philosophy is not given a fair shake as a possible remedy for some agreed upon social ills. Is it not possible that Ayn Rand had it right in her concept of selfishness as a virtue?
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LibraryThing member yakov.perelman
This book should be mandatory for any serious science education program for young people. I wish I had read it when it was published and not just the 30th anniversary edition, I never seemed to find the time. Simply delicious
LibraryThing member gopfolk
Interesting to say the least. I added this book to my reading list because of the impact the author has had on society…including the word ‘meme’!! The concepts that Dawkin’s lays out are so simple that anyone can follow but that is why he is blasted by many on the political right. He takes out all of the conscious decisions out of what ‘the body’ does and breaks it down to the base action/reaction.
It takes all of what we, animal and plant, are and determines that we are nothing but ‘vehicles’ for genes. Let’s be honest if we take out all consciousness out of the situation…he is right!
Amazing insight and creative way of making his points by looking to nature, game strategy, and the pure logic to demonstrate how and why altruistic and selfishness can, at times, be one in the same.
I’ll be reading more of Dawkin’s soon.
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LibraryThing member vegetarian
This is the book that so many want us to read, and actually, it's quite a fascinating read. I encourage indulging that advice.
LibraryThing member Lapsus16
Bestseller by a fairly egomaniac scientist. This is his best work, then he decided he was God and lost touch with reality. His anti-higher power belief is OK and expected in a modern scientist, but he is too much absorbed by his own success that started to become more a liability than an asset for the atheist-rational world.
LibraryThing member Qshio
You don't really understand evolution until you read this book. Probably the best thing I can say about it is that it makes the thing we call "life" -- usually described as this ethereal force or spark -- far more concrete than one thought possible. Read this, then read The Beak of the Finch by Jonathan Weiner, and then this whole thing we call evolution will make sense on the micro and macro level.… (more)
LibraryThing member j_d_p
Enjoyed Dawkins style of presenting complex ideas. Makes you think and not just learn but think philosophically (odd for a scientist?)
LibraryThing member Dianejones59
A classic book on gene theory written in Dawkins beautiful prose.
LibraryThing member cdagulleiro
A great and timeless work. Dawkins gives light to the average jow to many questions about evolution and behaviour. Nonetheless, Dawkins is not the most entertaining writer. He wanders in circles too much, analogy after analogy for the same idea or topic creating endless chapters. But all in all, I can not think of a better single work about evolution.… (more)
LibraryThing member szarka
A vigorous and thought-provoking statement of one view of evolutionary theory that sparked much debate and coined, for better of worse, the word "meme".

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