River Out Of Eden: A Darwinian View Of Life

by Richard Dawkins

Hardcover, 1995




New York, NY : Basic Books, c1995.


How did the replication bomb we call "life" begin and where in the world, or rather, in the universe, is it heading? Writing with characteristic wit and an ability to clarify complex phenomena (the New York Times described his style as "the sort of science writing that makes the reader feel like a genius"), Richard Dawkins confronts this ancient mystery. Dawkins has been named by the London Daily Telegraph "the most brilliant contemporary preacher of Charles Darwin's theory of evolution." More than any other contemporary scientist, he has lent credence to the idea that human beings - indeed, all living things - are mere vehicles of information, gene carriers whose primary purpose is propagation of their own DNA. In this new book, Dawkins explains evolution as a flowing river of genes, genes meeting, competing, uniting, and sometimes separating to form new species. Filled with absorbing, at times alarming, stories about the world of bees and orchids, "designed" eyes and human ancestors, River Out of Eden answers tantalizing questions: Why are forest trees tall - wouldn't each survive more economically if all were short? Why is the sex ratio fifty-fifty when relatively few males are needed to impregnate many females? Why do we inherit genes for fatal illnesses? Who was our last universal ancestor? Dawkins suggests that it was more likely to have been an Adam than an African Eve. By "reverse engineering," he deduces the purpose of life ("God's Utility Function"). Hammering home the crucial role of gradualism in evolution, he confounds those who argue that every element of, say, an eye has to function perfectly or the whole system will collapse. But the engaging, personal, frequently provocative narrative that carries us along River Out of Eden has a larger purpose: the book illustrates the nature of scientific reasoning, exposing the difficulties scientists face in explaining life. We learn that our assumptions, intuitions, origin myths, and trendy intellectual and cultural "isms" all too often lead us astray.… (more)

Media reviews

The book breaks no new ground but, as usual, it abounds with metaphors that make things brilliantly clear.
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Mr. Dawkins is often portrayed as the village reductionist, the man who thinks there is nothing to life but selfish genes. But this is less than fair. . . He is above all a masterly expositor, a writer who understands the issues so clearly that he forces his readers to understand them too. "River Out of Eden" displays these virtues to the full. It is a thinner book than his others, with no special message to deliver, but it maintains his high standards of clarity and excitement.

User reviews

LibraryThing member Michael_Rose
It's not his best book, and he covers much of the same material elsewhere too, but it's useful in understanding who we are as a species.
LibraryThing member KromesTomes
Simply put, this book fails the "Pinker test," something I developed when trying to read Stephen Pinker's "The Stuff of Thought."

Here's what I mean: In both books, the writing is so sloppy that I can't help but believe the same kind of sloppy thinking informs the actual scientific data the authors are trying to explain. And this even though I think the authors have important points to make about how the world works.

For example, on page 17 of "River out of Eden," we get this from Dawkins: "After Watson and Crick, we know that genes themselves, within their minute internal structure, are long strings of pure digital information."

Without getting into too deep a philosophical discussion about the meaning of the word "true," I'm confident in saying that in the sense Dawkins uses the word when discussing evolution and the like, that is not a true statement. It's a metaphor. Genes are not literally "pure digital information."

And Dawkins himself provides proof of this in the same chapter. After all, with digital signals, "things can be set up so that the information gets through perfectly."

But, of course, this doesn't happen with genes. The fact of the matter, as Dawkins himself writes, is that when genes are copied, there are "just enough occasional errors to introduce variety."

So, either digital signals are not copied perfectly or genes aren't digital information. (Or both.)

In a novel, or even in a nonfiction book that doesn't depend so much on supposedly rational, scientific thinking, I can let this slide. In a book that specifically purports to show how evolution "really" works, I can't.
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LibraryThing member seanpmurray
Only the fittest prose survives the judicious editing of BasicBooks’ “Science Masters” series. In this anorexically thin volume, Dawkins has, essentially, written the Cliff’s Notes to his own catalogue of modern classics. “River” is fun reading, but those with interests beyond cramming for a biology exam should take the time to enjoy Darwin’s rottweiler in his natural setting, unchained.… (more)
LibraryThing member isetziol
A concise and brilliant explanation of the forces of evolution. A good introduction for people with little or no science background.
LibraryThing member Robin_Goodfellow
Superb! I will be reading this again very soon.
LibraryThing member alv
"The universe we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil and no good, nothing but blind, pitiless indifference ... DNA neither cares nor knows. DNA just is. And we dance to its music."
LibraryThing member _Greg
This short and beautiful book explores the aspect of the evolution of genes within the context of the other genes they must cooperate with because they keep winding up sharing the same bodies. Another mind expanding trip from the magnificent Richard Dawkins.
LibraryThing member Othemts
Dawkins polemic on the "Darwinian view of life" while frustratingly dismissive of religious belief provides convincing counter-arguments to Creationist "got ya" points.

These include that things such as the eye do function beneficially when only partially evolved, in fact nothing is "fully evolved" as everything is constantly adapting and selecting through the generations.

"Science shares with religion the claim that it answers deep questions about origins, the nature of life, and the cosmos. But there the resemblance ends. Scientific beliefs are supported by evidence, and get results. Myths and faiths are not and do not." - p. 33

"Sex is an archivist's nightmare. Instead of leaving ancestral texts intact but for an occasional inevitable error, sex wantonly wades in and destroys the evidence. No bull ever abused a china shop as sex abuses the DNA archives." - p. 39-40
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LibraryThing member Diwanna
An amazing book that really opened my eyes to rethinking life. Great story of a probable history of life, and examples of the wonders of the natural world. Slightly technical but highly recommended.
LibraryThing member dahabdabbler
I can't say I understood 100% of this book, but I enjoyed this closer look at and exploration of Darwinism, DNA, and natural selection. I particularly enjoyed all the interesting tidbits about different animals that I learned along the way. Nature is fascinating!
LibraryThing member Razinha
Wonderful little book - I like Dawkins best when he doesn't write for academia. Excellent overview for Darwinian evolution...simple, logical explanations that should serve most receptive readers, and really dispels the "not possible for an intermediate stage" arguments. There are nice turns of phrase throughout (I especially liked "embryological origami"). And he points out an outstanding counter to the "you can't answer 'why' questions": The mere fact that it is possible to frame a question does not make it legitimate or sensible to do so.
...but at the very least, you have no right to assume that the "Why?" question deserves an answer when posed about a boulder, a misfortune, Mt. Everest or the universe."

Well worth the read, and likely a re-read.
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LibraryThing member celephicus
All in all, a bit of a disappointment. It reads like it was a commissioned book, and very heavily edited at that, at least in terms of style. Don't get me wrong, Dawkins is an extremely lucid writer, but this book appears just to restate a lot of earlier material, in a rather slick journalistic manner. For example, he refers to genes as a stream if pure digital information. Pure? What is an impure stream then. He then goes on to say that mistakes in copying are one of the sources of information. But surely pure information can be copied endlessly? The editors should have caught this.

As a secondary complaint, Dawkins can't resist ramming his brand of reactionary atheism down the reader's throat. As I am already an atheist I find this annoying, if I wanted to be preachd at I would read The God Delusion.
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LibraryThing member PickledOnion42
If someone were to ask me for a simple introduction to Darwinism – something not too deep and without showy technical digressions – River Out of Eden would probably be my recommendation. Dawkins is a wonderful communicator of complex ideas, and a true master of scientific metaphor; anyone already familiar with Darwinism may at times become frustrated with the author's seemingly round-about approach, but anyone new to the subject will surely appreciate his cautiousness in not assuming too much prior knowledge.

Some reviewers have criticised Dawkins's disparagement of religion throughout the book, but this I think misunderstands the point of the work, which is to present a way of thinking about life – how could he have avoided making reference to Darwinism's greatest intellectual rival? I don't think he has been gratuitously harsh. But whether you are religiously inclined or not, if you are looking for a brief yet well-explained introduction to the Darwinian way of thinking, this would be a very good choice.
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LibraryThing member dickmanikowski
Detailed exposition of the process of evolution, including some intriguing speculations.
LibraryThing member psiloiordinary
I have read all of Dawkins' other books. I loved the rest. This one slipped the net for some reason and so my wife bought it for me for x-mas. I loved this one as well.

This one is a quick meal but full of flavour. Elegantly worked out analogies abound.

Several jaw dropping moments. In particular I will look at bees with much more wonder in future.

Read all his books - now.
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LibraryThing member jonfaith
A scientist told me to read this and I did; it is poetry, an insight into a world largely incomprehensible. Facing such as a layman reader with an impoverished grammar, Dawkins illuminates.
LibraryThing member StephenBarkley
I don’t know why I keep torturing myself by reading Dawkins. I’m a believer in Jesus with a serious love and respect for the sciences. Dawkins would assume that my faith in God undermines my ability to think rationally about biology.

River Out of Eden, as the name might suggest, is a look at Darwinism with a polemical eye toward religion. It’s a short book with five chapters. He examines the following topics:

- DNA, with its combination of four letters, is essentially digital which allows it to copy itself without degeneration.
- Our ultimate ancestors are found in Africa.
- Natural selection is the most elegant way to explain every aspect of life.
- DNA is not concerned with good or evil; all that matters is self-preservation.
- A number of thresholds have been passed in self-replication (life).

Each of these topics are fascinating. Dawkins makes his case with his trademark wit and wisdom. Unfortunately, each argument is framed with pot-shots at the foolishness of religion. He’s managed to write an incisive book that’s almost impossible to read by anyone who disagrees with his view of religion (unless they have very thick skin).
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