Non-Fiction Reviews

The Extended Selfish Gene

(2016) Richard Dawkins, Oxford University Press, 20, hrdbk, xxxiv + 548pp, ISBN 978-0198-78878-2


This is really two book reviews in one: first that of The Selfish Gene, and second that of The Extended Selfish Gene and both are currently in print.

The Selfish Gene was first published in 1976 to quite some success given it is a popular science book. Its doing well is undoubtedly down to two things: its subject is fundamentally important to science and especially to biology, and its author's easy-to-read writing style.

The idea Darwinian evolution (or more correctly the Wallace-Huxley-Tyndall-Matthew-Darwin evolution through natural selection and the survival of the fittest, but I must not start getting pedantic) is not only one of biology's central tenets but one that has been both innocently and deliberately misunderstood. 'Innocently', because it is a nuanced notion that seemingly defies random chance (it actually employs a chance filter), and 'deliberately' because it flies in the face of some religious dogma adherents who cannot abide critical challenge. Both these factors drew readers to The Selfish Gene; both those seeking be they school-level biologists or even non-scientist members of the public to understand Darwinian evolution and how it works, and those open-minded individuals weighing up the strengths of certain (extreme) religious beliefs against those derived from science.

All well and good, but over the subsequent years the religious extremists continued to gather a significant following, or at least showed no signs of waning in many places (such as the 'Bible belt' in the US) and so Dawkins followed up The Selfish Gene with The Blind Watchmaker (1986), an equally interesting and absorbing work. However, the non-science brigade was not the only challenge Dawkins faced: amazingly, there were some critics from within the biological community. Now, to my mind such biologist critics (though many biologists lauded The Selfish Gene) were being pedantic (I did warn about not getting pedantic earlier). One principal argument from a band of biologists was that genes are not selfish: they have no consciousness or thought even if they can code for the machinery (a brain) out of which there is the emergent property of consciousness and thought hence the capability for selfish thought. The counter to this is that Dawkins is using the term 'selfish gene' as a metaphor: he does not literally believe that genes are selfish but that genes are the mechanistic instrument of evolution and (broadly) the genes that confer a benefit on their species' survival and those that don't tend to die out; in this sense the genes 'seem' selfish. And then there are biologists who though agreeing with Darwin lend weight to nuance (for example whether evolution is gradual or moves in fits and starts due to bio-geo change).

Because of such attacks from some biologists, Dawkins followed up The Selfish Gene (1976) with The Extended Phenotype (1982), albeit that the former was more for a general readership and the latter in the main for biologists. Now, it should be said that not all biologists' attacks were overtly hostile. Science works by challenging hypotheses and while the idea of Darwinian evolution through the survival of the fittest (or, in Dawkins-speak, the genes that confer fitness traits to an individual) is firmly accepted in biology (nuts excluded) there are a number of possible ways in which this can be done and here the merit of these is debated. (I am not even going to touch on the Gould-Dawkins debate.) But debating nuances and detail does not derail the fundamental Darwinian premise, though some in the media (who like a good story to sell) as well as some who wanted to see Darwin derailed, made a big deal out of this nuance-and-detail discussion. So Dawkins aimed to put the record straight with The Extended Phenotype. This last is a book that all biologically-related undergraduates should read.

2016 saw the 40th anniversary of The Selfish Gene and Oxford U. Press have marked this bringing out The Extended Selfish Gene which includes two chapters from The Extended Phenotype. It is a splendid edition with a new introduction as well as (importantly) the introductions to the previous editions. (Big thumbs up from me.)

So, should you get it? Let's be clear each version of The Selfish Gene has different merits. I recall the other bioscientist on the SF² Concatenation team who at the time was doing some undergraduate research on Charles Darwin's garden (a plumb student assignment if ever there was one) being quizzed by the Downe House groundsman as to whether or not he had actually read Origin of Species? Our team member replied that he was about to. At this point the groundsman advise that the first edition was the best as the many later editions' added content consisted of counters to the arguments that had been presented to challenge Darwin's first edition. And so for a non-biologist reader I'd recommend The Selfish Gene. However, for the bioscience undergraduate I'd go for this The Extended Selfish Gene 40th anniversary edition with the caveat that if you are a biologist who is going to specialise in evolutionary theory (which includes all the various specialist nuances) then you will need The Extended Phenotype too (and I'd also recommend Dawkins vs Gould: Survival of the Fittest).

Jonathan Cowie

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