‘Intelligent life on a planet comes of age when it first works out the reason for its own existence’
With his theory of the ‘selfish’ gene, Richard Dawkins took up the story of evolution essentially where Darwin had left off, changing for ever our perception of humanity and life on Earth. Since its first publication in 1976, The Selfish Gene has been translated into 25 languages, and it is considered one of the most important scientific works of the late 20th century.
Dawkins’s key proposition is that in evolutionary terms, the good of the individual far outweighs the good of the species. If a groundnesting bird sacrifices herself to a fox to protect her offspring, this is not done out of an altruistic desire to preserve the species, but to perpetuate the genes she carries – called, for this reason, ‘selfish’. Genes are of course not selfish in themselves, and Dawkins does not ascribe motivations to them, but uses the term to explain the behaviour of the ‘survival machines’, or animals and humans, that carry them.
His story takes in a vast array of creatures from polar bears to blackheaded gulls and vampire bats, and behaviour from cannibalism and deception to aggression and mating. He explains why members of a species, though they compete, do not try to eradicate each other – one answer being that this would leave them vulnerable to even more dangerous predators. His arguments find many parallels in human social behaviour – as in the ‘prisoner’s dilemma’ and the choice of mates – but his aim is to study the effect of behaviour and not its moral worth. Removing value-judgements from the study of evolutionary biology, Dawkins opens our eyes to evolution as a fascinating and never-ending struggle for survival. In this, the first-ever illustrated edition, Dawkins’s ideas are enhanced with superb colour photography.
Read more about the life and work of Richard Dawkins
Review by anon on 29th Nov 2012
"Great book! On page 7 last line shouldn't 'it there...' Be 'if there...'? Or maybe it's just my error in comprehension."