The second volume of the acclaimed evolutionary biologist’s autobiography.
Dawkins (An Appetite for Wonder: The Making of a Scientist, 2013, etc.) begins this installment with the bewildering experience of attending a celebration of his 70th birthday when he still felt, at least spiritually, like a 25-year-old. At the close of the first volume, he had just published his groundbreaking book The Selfish Gene (1976). His metaphorical personification of the gene as the agent of natural selection raised a furor at the time and is still controversial. As Dawkins is at pains to explain, he intended to compare economic-utility functions that maximize profitability with the successful reproduction of genes over generations. Despite widespread misunderstanding, his intention was not to suggest that they replace the function of individual, decision-making organisms but rather to apply the method of cost-benefit analysis used in economics to the process of natural selection. The author also explicitly distances himself from genetic determinists who attempt to explain human behavior mechanistically—e.g., attributing a specific behavior to a genetic predisposition, as might be the case with a putative aggressive gene. Dawkins refers readers to his 2004 book The Ancestor’s Tale: A Pilgrimage to the Dawn of Evolution, in which he discussed his recent views about higher-level genetic cooperation. The Selfish Gene and his spirited defense of atheism, The God Delusion (2006), are his most controversial works, and many readers will welcome his belated attempts to heed criticisms of his unnecessarily abrasive style when debating religious opponents. However, Dawkins justifiably boasts about his publishing success: “through nearly 40 years, not one of my twelve books has ever been allowed to go out of print in English.” Though the narrative could have used some pruning, the author provides an entertaining portrait of his life and times, including the quaint customs still in practice at Oxford.
An impressive overview of Dawkins’ life's work, written with the freshness of youthful vigor.