Jun 6, 2016

The Selfish Gene by Richard Dawkins book review

The Selfish Gene is a book that should need no introduction to anyone with more than a passing interest in genetics.  More so than any book since The Origin of Species, The Selfish Gene has shaped our modern understanding of how life constantly evolves and adapts to the challenges it faces.  Unlike Darwin's 1859 masterpiece, however, Richard Dawkins' The Selfish Gene has the benefit of another century of knowledge incorporated, and as a modern classic is a joy to read.

          The Selfish Gene redefined genetics in 1976 with a fascinating, comprehensive, and accessible rendering of the theory of evolution, with a focus on the gene as the definitive level at which evolution occurs.  This subtle yet important distinction from the seemingly intuitive theories of organisms as the primary instruments of evolution, and other discredited theories such as "group selection" are highlighted and explained in a way both elegant and comprehensive, yet perfectly comprehensible even with little prior understanding of evolutionary theory.  Dawkins is a great scientist of course, but his writing shows his natural proficiency as an educator, explaining complex topics with fascinating examples and metaphors to engage learners of all backgrounds.

          Part of the joy of reading The Selfish Gene today is that not only does it come with a century of insight and thought after Darwin's original work, but that it also comes with the reflections of an author willing to reflect objectively on his own work and offer new ideas, thoughts, and revisions along the way.  The revisions which contrast with the original only serve to highlight the amount of precision that goes into checking and rechecking statements for accuracy and biases that may inadvertently arise.  The only points at which mild biases arise (in the original form) are due to either overly dismissive attitudes towards contrasting theories contemporary to Dawkins' at the time of writing or excessive enthusiasm about certain revelations, both of which Dawkins himself does not hesitate to correct and reflect on in his revisions.

This image singularly captures one of the grandest scientific ideas of the past two centuries

          I find genetics to be a fascinating field in that, more than anything, it gives insight into both who we are and why we are; it fulfills our innate curiosity as to why we exist, questions that religions thrived upon until Darwin and Wallace proposed the first complete fact-based alternative.  At the same time, it is an incredibly humbling field as it demands its students to look upon themselves not as a special being or the pinnacle of creation, but merely a minuscule point along a timeline too vast to comprehend.

          While reading The Selfish Gene, more than perhaps any other book, hope that you too will feel the urge to put in your bookmark for a minute, jot down a few notes, and let your mind wander.  Unlike many works, the questions The Selfish Gene leaves unanswered are not because of flaws or shortcomings in the book, but from the tremendous opportunity for discovery and thought opened up in this field that the reader will themselves be able to explore.

No comments :

Post a Comment

Questions, comments, concerns, complaints? Leave your thoughts below!