Dawkin's theory that genes may reach outside the bodies in which they sit and manipulate other individuals is recapitulated in this book, the new edition of which has two new chapters - a summary of the arguments and a new argument on the co-operation between the selfish genes.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.