Richard Dawkins

Richard Dawkins first catapulted to fame with his iconic work The Selfish Gene, which he followed with a string of bestselling books: The Extended Phenotype, The Blind Watchmaker, River Out of Eden, Climbing Mount Improbable, Unweaving the Rainbow, The Ancestor’s Tale, The God Delusion, The Greatest Show on Earth, The Magic of Reality, and a collection of his shorter writings, A Devil’s Chaplain.

The Selfish Gene

The Selfish Gene

An oldie but a goldie! The Selfish Gene was first published in 1976 and is soon approaching the 40th anniversary of this legend in science writing. I spent three years referencing Dawkins at university whilst reading Marine Biology. I consider it a primer to understanding human behavior and why people do things. Is there truly such a thing as altruistic behavior? Dawkin’s would argue that there is not. Personally I agree him and he makes a convincing case for why.

Dawkins inspired a generation of biologists and life science students with this title as well as thousands of popular science readers. Over a million copies have been sold and it has been translated in to 25 languages. When originally published, it caused a small revolution in the ‘Life Sciences’ and is still the topic of hot debate.

In short, Dawkins proposes that we are simply a container for our ‘Genes’, a machine that aids in their propagation. Your genes simply want to be passed on and they will do just about anything to achieve this.  A seemingly charitable act of kindness can be whittled down to a, essentially, non-altrustic motive (even if it is a subconscious motive). He explains how related individuals may perform acts of kindness – due to genetic relationships and investment in protecting related gene carriers over those who are not related.

Dawkins does not stop there. In fact he starts with a first class primer in genetics and the biological concepts you’ll need to understand his message. He covers how the earliest forms of life came to exist and how molecules can in fact replicate themselves to give birth to organic compounds in turn to living creatures. He discusses group behavior, why it may be advantageous to not breed in a peer group and how co-operation may have arisen.

My favourite chapter is ‘You Scratch my Back, I’ll Ride on Yours’. This is really about reciprocal altruism, in that I will only do a kind act because you promised to do one in return or I you expected to return the favour.

Reviewers often claim that this book will change your life, if this one doesn’t… at least you’ll understand about life that bit more!

Dawkins end his book with these thoughts:

We are built as gene machines and cultured as meme machines, but we have the power to turn against our creators. We, alone on Earth can rebel against the tyranny of the selfish replicators.