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The Selfish Gene (1976)
by Richard Dawkins
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good reminder for why pop science should be avoided
This book is 45 years old at this point, but it ages well. If you could ignore the handful of references to computers and floppy disks of the era, you could believe it was written relatively recently. We have, of course, learned since it was initially written, and the 30th anniversary edition I read did include some helpful interjections in addition to the extra chapters added to the second edition in 1989.
The Selfish Gene is and continues to be wildly popular for a reason. It provides an extremely accessible explanation of the mechanism of evolution, popularizing the concept that the gene is the fundamental building block that the whole process revolves around. What’s a gene? The definition he uses is approximately “any sequence of any length of DNA”, with the understanding that shorter sequences are more likely to survive longer unaltered than longer sequences, but allows him to ignore quibbling over terminology of specific lengths when it’s largely not meaningful to the concepts being presented.
The core idea is that genes that are successful are genes that increase the number of copies of themselves in existence. It explains the concept that there is a mechanism for even extreme “altruism”, such as an organism sacrificing itself for others to be selected for, if you recognize that multiple close kin relations each have many of their genes in common with that individual, and that dying saving several siblings increases the number of copies of your genes propagated to future generations than failing to do so.
It goes further into many other elements of how to view evolution from the perspective of individual genes, in specific environments, and how natural selection does and doesn’t work to change species over time.
One thing I’m not sure I was aware of, going into this reading of the book, is that Dawkins also coined the term “meme” and gave the first(?) presentation of ideas as replicators subject to very similar selection pressures as genes. This explanation is relatively simple and there are entire books on the concept now, but I did enjoy his short treatment here.
It's painfully obvious I wasn't meant to be a geneticist. I'm still interested in the theory, just not on this granular of a level. I felt as though half of every chapter was like a huge math word problem.
Too many good books, not enough time. C'est la vie.
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Wikipedia in English (34)
The million copy international bestseller, critically acclaimed and translated into over 25 languages.This 30th anniversary edition includes a new introduction from the author as well as the original prefaces and foreword, and extracts from early reviews. As relevant and influential today as when it was first published, The Selfish Gene has become a classic exposition of evolutionary thought.Professor Dawkins articulates a gene's eye view of evolution - a view giving centre stage to these persistent units of information, and in which organisms can be seen as vehicles for their replication. This imaginative, powerful, and stylistically brilliant work not only brought the insights ofNeo-Darwinism to a wide audience, but galvanized the biology community, generating much debate and stimulating whole new areas of research.
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Melvil Decimal System (DDC)576.5Natural sciences and mathematics Life Sciences, Biology Genetics and evolution Genetics
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Basically, Dawkins starts off by saying "Genes aren't selfish or unselfish..." followed by writing a whole book trying to show how genes are, in fact, selfish. That's the contradiction. He simultaneously attests that genes do not exist in the world of human morality, but at the same time strictly follow a selfish human morality.
He further explains that every 'selfish' action a gene takes is 'by design', and every 'altruistic' one is 'a mis-firing' of a selfish action. So, looking at a natural phenomenon, he's decided that every time it does something "selfish" it's doing what it should, and every time it does something "altruistic" it's not doing what it should. "Should" according to whom? It's a natural phenomenon without morality!
It would be as if I were staring at a weather vane, and every time it pointed East, saying "oh the wind is doing what it's supposed to", and every time it pointed West I said "oh, that's a mis-firing of the wind, which is always Easterly by nature".
At the end though, there's an unrelated section in which he talks about how ideas spread and reproduce like genes. He actually coins the term 'meme' in this book to describe the unit of an idea. This blob is worth reading, in my opinion. The rest, well... ( )