In The Selfish Gene, Richard Dawkins primarily tries to by zlr11756


									Date: September 9, 2007
Forthcoming in The European Legacy
Note: This piece is a draft. Obtain the latest review from author before citing.

The Selfish Gene (30th Anniversary ed.). By Richard Dawkins (Oxford: Oxford University
Press, 2006), xxiii + 360 pp. £14.99 cloth; $15.95/£8.99 paper.

         In "The Selfish Gene," Richard Dawkins primarily tries to answer the following question:
What is the unit of selection upon which the forces of natural selection act? As the title of the
book suggests, Dawkins argues that the answer to the question is genes, and not any other
higher-order entities, such as individuals (whole organisms) or groups. Dawkins is fond of using
analogies as a tool of persuasion and one that he provides to make his case is that of tryouts for a
crew team. According to Dawkins, while individual boats win races (i.e. single organisms
manage to survive and reproduce) it is clearly the individual rowers (i.e. genes) that are
responsible for the successful outcome. Moreover, if rowers are constantly switched around to
form different teams and compete in many different races (i.e. there is genetic variation upon
which selective pressures can operate over a longer period of time), by and large, good rowers
will tend to disproportionately be represented among the winning boats. In other words, what is
important in Dawkins' view are the gene frequencies in a population's gene pool. A "selfish
gene" is one whose fraction in the gene pool increases with successive generations. According to
Dawkins, while organisms may often seem to be the unit of selection, they are merely transitory
vehicles for the benefit of their "gene replicators."
         In addition to arguing against selection at the unit of the individual, Dawkins argues
against selection at the unit of the group. For instance, a fair amount of space in the book is
devoted to showing how various "altruistic" behaviors (or those that seem beneficial to the
group) are really "selfish." For example, it may seem that a gazelle that high-jumps when a
predator approaches is acting altruistically by drawing attention to himself and warning other
members of the group of an approaching threat. One "selfish" interpretation of this behavior,
however, is that the gazelle is trying to demonstrate how fit he is and why the predator ought to
attack other, frailer members of the group.
         The target audience for "The Selfish Gene" seems like the general reader who has an
interest in science, but who might have little or no prior understanding of the basics of biology or
evolutionary theory. Dawkins excels at presenting the material clearly, staying away from jargon
and big words. Further, the text is narrative in style, with a focus on careful explication of the
main argument and presentation of a relatively small number of illustrative examples. The main
text of the book was written in 1976, and in 1989 a second edition added two new chapters, new
endnotes, and a new preface. While the third edition of the book contains a new introduction,
some reviews of the book in its earlier editions, and restores the original forward left out of the
second edition, one of the drawbacks of the latest edition is that there is not more new material,
especially considering the active discussion (and controversy) The Selfish Gene has generated.

Omer Gersten
University of California, Berkeley

-- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- --
Omer Gersten, Ph.D.
Research Scientist
Center on the Economics and Demography of Aging (CEDA)/Department of Demography
University of California, Berkeley
2232 Piedmont Ave.
Berkeley, CA 94720-2120
Phone: ++510-704-1749
Fax: ++510-643-8558

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