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THE SELFISH GENE by Richard Dawkins


By Richard Dawkins

Pub Date: Jan. 27th, 1976
ISBN: 0199291152
Publisher: Oxford Univ.

Richard Dawkins is an English zoologist who is determined to refute not only the man-is-nasty ethologists like Lorenz or Ardrey but also the E. O. Wilsons who see cooperation and altruism as genetic traits, exemplified even at the level of the social insects. Dawkins' point is that neither the individual entity--man or plant or animal--nor the race is the measure of evolution. It is the gene (or rather a genetic unit which could comprise several different traits) which is replicated throughout generations. At that level all the arguments about man's true nature fade into the statistics of the probability of selection (and hence survival) in the gene pool. The arguments are sophisticated game-theory ones, and the language largely metaphor. The gene is endowed with sentience to make the idear clear, which explains the book's title. It is in the gene's best interest, for example, to see to it that the genes of near relatives get a better chance to survive, because this increases the chances of the selfish gene's identical replica also surviving. Thus some degree of altruism is to be expected, even an occasional suicide. The danger, repeatedly acknowledged by the author, is that the "thinking gene" metaphor may be taken too literally; certainly the reader who skims may be misled by the constant reification. Ultimately Dawkins bails the human race out of the selfish gene concept by postulating yet another metaphor: the meme. This is the cultural analogue of the gene--the idea, custom, or belief that spreads through human populations much more rapidly than biological traits. It is through memes, Dawkins believes, that mankind can achieve true altruism, the foresight that directs individual behavior toward the good of the group. A very interesting treatment of a complex, controversial subject, not to be read lightly but all the more rewarding for that reason.