The Selfish Gene by Richard Dawkins was a revolution in evolutionary biology. Here I have compiled a review of the book together with a brief explanation of the theory for the layman interested in reading it.
First of all, who should buy/read this book? I read the book when I was 17, but anybody older than that would still find it fascinating. It was never intended for 17 year olds, but for people working in biology college professors, researchers, scientist, etc. However, Dawkins’ clear and concise writing means that even secondary school students with an interest in Biology will be able to understand it. A basic understanding of genetics of how bases of nucleotides strung together to form pieces of DNA form genes which code for proteins, and how occasionally these genes change through mutation in a way that is either beneficial or detrimental to the final organism they help code.
Those not strictly interested in biology, or even science for that matter, may find they understand the world better after reading this book. How can evolution have made the peacock’s tail so large when this results in the bird being easier prey for tigers and other predators? This book will clarify just how imperfect the process of evolution through natural selection is and thus give the reader fascinating (as not to say disturbing) insights into how we are made.
As a vet student, understanding the theory (together with the deeper understanding of evolution that comes wit it) has given me tremendous advantages in analyzing adaptations’ in both veterinary species and their parasites, as well as providing me with an excellent way of charting change between species.
Secondly, what is this “Selfish gene theory?” Don’t worry, I’m not about to give away the ending.’ I am simply going to lay down the groundwork the reader must know in order to understand the book. Science is not value laden! The book’s title does not mean that that are genes for’ selfishness. It DOES NOT mean we can justify our actions because our genes code for’ them. All the theory says is that the genes which increase their likelihood of being passed on to the next generation will become more numerous. Furthermore, it argues that the individual’ cannot be regarded as the unit of natural selection. The individual cannot mutate’ or be passed on.’ Only the gene can be. While the exact definition of a gene may still be up for debate, the view that the most important unit on which natural selection can act selecting for or against is not tail size, or eye color, but the genes which in the long run result in those traits has far-reaching implications for understanding of stable combinations of genes within whole populations.
Is it worth buying the book or should I simply borrow it from the library? I have the second edition and I always keep it within reach. I refer to it at least once a week to either remind myself of specific parts of the argument, find fascinating facts to share with friends and lecturers, or to reference it in university write-ups. The second edition has complete end notes and a very useful index so you really could use it as a reference book!
Any books I should reed before it? Excellent question, if I may say so myself I strongly suggest reading either “River out of Eden” or “The Blind Watchmaker” (both by Dawkins) first. They fully explain the concept of looking at genes as the units of natural selection. Both are equally fascinating reads (although I personally prefer the Blind Watchmaker).
Any books I should read after it? If you haven’t already, The Origin of Species (if I need to tell you who it’s by do not buy the Selfish Gene). However, if you find this too tedious read The Extended Phenotype (Dawkins). Parts of it are a repetition of The Selfish Gene and you may skip a few pages, but it truly is a revealing extension of the theory!