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The Selfish Gene (1976)

by Richard Dawkins

Other authors: See the other authors section.

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9,04296575 (4.29)1 / 144
"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)
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Showing 1-5 of 89 (next | show all)
Richard Dawkins' debut book, The Selfish Gene, was one of those books that I'd been meaning to read and never really wanting to. But I finally made myself, and it turned out I was glad that I picked it up! It examines a fundamental question about human nature: are people naturally generous, or are we naturally selfish? And to what extent is altruism (or the lack thereof) transmitted through our genes? To answer these questions, Dawkins examines how complex organisms, up to and including humans, evolved, to what extent behavior patterns are genetically transmitted, how deeply we might be motivated to help others depending on closely we're related to/share genes with them, and even gets into game theory.

The fundamental premise of the book is that genes "want" (to the extent that inanimate bodily particles want anything) to be passed on. Which one might think would automatically mean that genes that encode for behavior patterns that are selfish/centered on one's own survival at the expense of others would win out, but it's not as easy as that. One's genes also have an investment in being helpful (to a certain extent) to those who have a high likelihood of sharing them: parents, children, siblings, and to a lesser extent aunts/uncles, grandparents/grandkids, etc. And then there's the reality that we'll all need help, of some form or another, at some point, so there's a benefit to providing it to others in the hopes that it'll be returned when needed. So while it's not true altruism, there is some level of unselfishness that's been built in to most of our genetic codes as well.

I read one of Dawkins' later works a few years ago (The God Delusion), and did not like it at all. I found his authorial voice pedantic and grating. But The Selfish Gene is a science classic, so I made myself read it even though I thought I might not like it...and I didn't notice the same kind of condescending attitude. In fact, I thought it struck a good middle ground between dumbing down the concepts to the point where it's so basic there's no room for nuance, and be so technical it ends up talking over the heads of a non-science audience. Instead, it boiled concepts down to a level I felt comfortable with (I have an advanced degree, but I never took science beyond basic high school biology and chemistry because it just never much appealed to me) and honestly provided the first explanation of game theory (or at least The Prisoner's Dilemma) that actually took in my brain.

It's still a little bit pedantic, but as someone with a tendency to be a pedant myself I didn't really mind it. Some scientists convey a sense of wonder about the world that a lot of readers really enjoy, though, and if you're looking for something along those lines, this will probably not be for you. If your spiritual beliefs are such that you're going to want some room left for divine intervention as a factor in evolution, this again is unlikely to be a book you'll enjoy. Although he doesn't really touch on religion in this book, Dawkins is a militant atheist and this is strictly scientific. Otherwise, though, there's a lot to get out of this and I'd recommend it to readers interested in genetics and/or altruism! ( )
  GabbyHM | Jun 24, 2020 |
Color me very impressed. I can now see why this is considered to be one of those hugely popular science books I keep hearing about and the reason why Dawkins has become so widely known and/or respected with or without his notoriety.

Indeed, the pure science bits were pretty much awesome. We, or at least I, have heard of this theory in other contexts before and none of it really comes as much surprise to see that genes, themselves, have evolved strategies that are exactly the same as Game Theory in order to find the best possible outcome for continued replication. Hence: the selfish gene.

Enormous simple computers running through the prisoner's dilemma with each other, rival genes, and especially within whole organisms which could just be seen as gigantic living spacecraft giving the genes an evolutionary advantage of finding new and more prosperous adaptations.

Yup! That's us!

I honestly don't see the problem. I love the idea that we are just galaxies of little robots running complicated Game Theories that eventually turn into a great cooperative machine where everyone (mostly) benefits, with plenty of complicated moves going way beyond hawks and doves and straight into the horribly complicated multi-defectors, forgivers, and other evolutionary styles that depend on the events that have gone before and the pre-knowledge (or lack of) a set end-date for the entire experiment... in other words, our deaths, whether pre-planned or simply the entire mass of genes just coming to realize that it's no longer in their best interest to keep pushing this jalopy around any longer if they're not getting anything out of it... like further replication. :)

Even when it's not precisely sex, it's still all about sex. :)

Of course, what I've just mentioned isn't the entire book, because, as a matter of fact, the book walks us through so many stages of thought, previous research, developments, mistakes, and upgraded theories and surprising conclusions based on soooooo much observable data that any of us might be rightfully confounded with the weight of it unless we were in the heart of the research, ourselves.

It's science, baby.

Make sure you don't make the data conform to your theory. Build your theory from observable data. Improve upon it as the building blocks are proved or disproved, keep going until it is so damn robust until nothing but a true miracle could topple it, and then keep asking new questions.

The fact is, this theory has nothing (or everything) to do with our lives. We play Game Theory, too, in exactly the same way every gene everywhere does, but we just happen to be able to make models on top of the situations and we're able to choose whether to see through the lies, the hawk strategies, or when to stop cooperating if the advantages work out much better for us if we did. We, like our genes, can choose long-term cooperative strategies or play everything like a Bear market. :)

Even this book says that it's very likely that Nice Guys can win, but just like our lives, the gene lives keep discovering ever more complicated strategies and all eventual strategies become more and more situational.

Isn't that us, to a tea? I wonder if most complaints about this book stem from complaints about Game Theory rather than the perceived conclusion (much better spelled out, not in this book, but in later books)... that atheism rules the day. It really isn't evident here. Instead, we have a macrocosm mimicking the microcosm and no one wants to challenge their comfortable world view.

Things aren't simple. All choices to betray or cooperate are then met with situation and memory and ever complex meta-contexts, the difference between us and genes being that we're self-aware and the genes are not.

Yes, yes, I see where the arguments can start coming out of the closet about self-determination and such, but that's not really the point of this book at all. The point is that it's a successful model that accurately describes reality. It has nothing at all to do with the macro-world except obliquely, and makes no value judgments on our art, our beliefs, or how we think about ourselves except in our uniquely stubborn and self-delusional ways that love to take things out of context and apply misunderstood concepts to our general lives and wonder why everything gets so screwed up. :)

But then, maybe I'm just applying my own incomplete models to yet another and we lousy humans still lack WAY TOO MUCH data to build a really impressively improved model. :)

Come on, Deep Thought. Where are you? :) ( )
  bradleyhorner | Jun 1, 2020 |
Richard Dawkins' brilliant reformulation of the theory of natural selection has the rare distinction of having provoked as much excitement and interest outside the scientific community as within it. His theories have helped change the whole nature of the study of social biology, and have forced thousands of readers to rethink their beliefs about life.
In his internationally bestselling, now classic volume, The Selfish Gene, Dawkins explains how the selfish gene can also be a subtle gene. The world of the selfish gene revolves around savage competition, ruthless exploitation, and deceit, and yet, Dawkins argues, acts of apparent altruism do exist in nature. Bees, for example, will commit suicide when they sting to protect the hive, and birds will risk their lives to warn the flock of an approaching hawk.
This revised edition of Dawkins' fascinating book contains two new chapters. One, entitled "Nice Guys Finish First," demonstrates how cooperation can evolve even in a basically selfish world. The other new chapter, entitled "The Long Reach of the Gene," which reflects the arguments presented in Dawkins' The Extended Phenotype, clarifies the startling view that genes may reach outside the bodies in which they dwell and manipulate other individuals and even the world at large. Containing a wealth of remarkable new insights into the biological world, the second edition once again drives home the fact that truth is stranger than fiction.
Source: Publisher

The Selfish Gene is a 1976 book on evolution by the biologist Richard Dawkins, in which the author builds upon the principal theory of George C. Williams's Adaptation and Natural Selection.
Source: Wikipedia
  Shiseida.Aponte | May 26, 2020 |
4.5*

A bit too pragmatic on some things but I'm glad he wrote the book. I wish I had been more focused while reading it, but I'll probably get back to it in a few years. ( )
  parzivalTheVirtual | Mar 22, 2020 |
It was decades ago that I read this, I remember thinking that it was OK but, I thought, claimed and ignored too much in stating its claim. ( )
  GirlMeetsTractor | Mar 22, 2020 |
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» Add other authors (71 possible)

Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Dawkins, Richardprimary authorall editionsconfirmed
Ferreira, Karin de SousaTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Huizen, Peter vanTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Pietiläinen, KimmoTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Scheepmaker, HennyTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Ward, LallaNarratorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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Intelligent life on a planet comes of age when it first works out the reason for its own existence.
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Un saggio scientifico incentrato sulla stupefacente verità che si rivela a chi si interroga sull'universo, l'immortalità e il posto dell'uomo nell'universo. Noi siamo macchine da sopravvivenza, robot semoventi programmati ciecamente per conservare quelle molecole egoiste note col nome di geni. Un libro pensato per stimolare con ironia l'immaginazione del lettore - dello studente come dell'esperto e critico severo, o del profano - che riesce a semplificare e rendere comprensibili sottili e complicati concetti scientifici in un linguaggio non matematico, senza che ne vada perduta la sorprendente essenza.
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