Sunday, November 09, 2008

The Selfish Gene

For as many times as I've written about the selfish gene theory on this blog you'd think I'd be intimately familiar with the book of that name, by Richard Dawkins. However, I only just finished reading it. I started it once before, a few years ago, but then something came up and I had to set it aside, and by time I got back to it, so much time had passed that I felt I had to start over; and ended up deciding to start something else instead.

Now that I have read it, I've added a few more books by Dawkins to my wish list. I can't really overstate how much of an impression the book made on me. It's no exaggeration to say that I feel like, before this, I never really understood evolution. Even reading The Origin Of Species didn't really make me understand it. It just made me think I did.

To explain this I need to make a metaphor that references metaphors, so bear with me as this gets a little confusing.

Someone who understands quantum physics only by understanding the kind of metaphors used in popularizations of science to explain quantum physics, doesn't really understand quantum physics. She understands more than she would without the metaphor, certainly, and she can get a feel for what quantum physics is like, but she is also likely to mistake elements of the metaphor for elements of the actual thing, and certainly won't see the real ramifications of actual quantum physics.

What I used to understand as evolution wasn't exactly a popularization metaphor -- after all, some of it came from reading Darwin -- but it had the same sort of relationship to what evolution actually is. It was an approximation, almost like a metaphor, analogous to but not the same as evolution.

Dawkins showed not just how the real relationship between genes (immortal replicators) and organisms (their survival vehicles) turns evolution right-side-up, but then went on from there to explore the many ramifications of this more correct, more consistent view of evolution. Virtually every page of the book was an exploration of another implication of this view, or a fascinating anecode about animal or plant behavior previously inexplicable made perfectly logical by this understanding of evolution.

I cannot recommend the book enough for anyone interested in the natural sciences.

1 comment:

litlfrog said...

I've read some extended excerpts from the book--both the strictly biological and his definition of memes--but never the thing in its entirety. Writing coherently in a way that enhances scientific understanding is one of the rarest gifts, I think because our current state of scientific understanding is both vastly broad and highly specialized.