Review: The Selfish Gene by Richard Dawkins

I read this book as part of the Book Riot Read Harder Challenge 2016 – #2 Read a non-fiction book about science.

The quote on the front cover of this book says it all really; “the sort of popular science writing that makes the reader feel like a genius”. I have learnt so freaking much from this book I don’t even know where to begin.

Firstly, I really like Richard Dawkins. He’s often angry and pernickity and this comes through in his writing (case in point – a paragraph on how to correctly pronounce algae (hard g) in case you’re American and don’t know how to do it correctly) – but I love that. It adds real personality to the text which otherwise could be quite dry. Weirdly, there were moments of humour (his criticisms of other scientists with rival theories are always proper put downs) that made me snigger. In anyone else this could come across as big headed but because Dawkins’ arguments are so meticulously put together you always end up on his side.

I loved the way that such complex ideas were broken down, without being patronising. Lots of examples were used so that you really got a clear picture of what he was trying to say. Peppered throughout the text are some real mind blowing sentences which Dawkins presents as throw away one liners – which for me only added to their impact. For example: of course, all of our ancestors were successful enough to reach maturity and breed, going back to the first primitive species. Woah, wait, surely….oh yeah!

Interestingly, as The Selfish Gene was written in the 70’s it is weirdly sexist. All pronouns are “he”. Take this sentence from the preface “three imaginary readers looked over my shoulder while I was writing…first the general reader, the layman. For him I have avoided technical jargon…but I have not assumed that he is stupid”. I found my inner feminist interrupting my reading whenever I came across these comments which in itself was quite jarring – but obviously this was the given convention at the time so I can’t hold it against the author. My copy of this book was from 1989 so I’m not sure if it’s been updated since? I also came across this absolute cracker of a paragraph;

“It is of course true that some men dress flamboyantly and some women dress drably but, on average, there can be no doubt that in our society the equivalent of the peacocks tail is exhibited by the female…women paint their faces and glue on false eyelashes. Apart from special cases, like actors, men do not. Women seem to be interested in their own personal appearance and they are encouraged in this by their magazines and journals. Men’s magazines are less preoccupied with male sexual attractiveness and a man who is unusually interested his own dress and appearance is apt to arouse suspicion…when a woman is described in conversation, it is quite likely that her sexual attractiveness, or lack of it, will be prominently mentioned. This is true whether the speaker is a man or a woman.”

So many things wrong with this…

Again, I accept that this was written in a time when sexism was rife but for a scientist to present AS FACT what is written above is just bullshit. I particularly enjoyed the part about mentioning another woman’s sexual attractiveness prominently when describing her in conversation…”you know my friend Kathy? Yes you do, she’s really sexually attractive. Like, an 8 out of 10. Great boobs. Nice legs. You know.” What woman has ever talked to her friends like that? Even in the 1970’s? Also, great insinuation that any man who is interested in his appearance is gay (or arousing suspicion, as he obliquely calls it). Again, I know this is a product of the time but surely, such a great thinker as Dawkins could have based his words on actual evidence instead of bland assumptions? I actually agree that in the 60’s and 70’s women did, on average, spend more time than men on their appearance but a simple bit of data regarding male average spend on cosmetics vs female would have sufficed. Oh, and we don’t all wear false eyelashes.

Ok, rant over…

Of course, the Selfish Gene is by no means a light hearted romp through evolution. There were some passages that I had to re-read several times and I had to be in the mood to pick it up. I found that reading 10 or so pages at a time was about my limit before I had to take a break to absorb what I’d just read. It also helped that my partner is a scientist so I could talk through some of the concepts with him.

Overall, I would recommend this book to anyone. It taught me so much and helped me to understand a broad range of ideas, not just about evolution and genetics. In particular, there is a really interesting chapter towards the end of the book on game theory which was so intriguing I’m going to have to read more about it. In parts, I did feel like Dawkins was labouring the point but his style of writing was so easy to follow that it was always engaging.

Right, I’m off to read my “journal of false eyelashes” 🙂

Overall rating: 8/10

PS If you don’t mind a bit (a lot) of swearing, Love Letters to Richard Dawkins is an incredibly funny video of the man himself reading his hate mail. I can’t think of a better way of dealing with trolls than this.

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16 thoughts on “Review: The Selfish Gene by Richard Dawkins

  1. 😀 😀 😀 Oh my god… video was good! Especially the biatch part XD Hmm I have read God Delusion by Dawkins and it was pretty good. This sounds also like a good book…except for his comments on females.

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  2. I’ve seen the video. Hilarious. I read the God Delusion and his humor is so subtle and SO awesome. He burns homeopathy and theologians and it’s just like in dry tone and it takes me a moment to understand what he did and then I began chucking like crazy and people look at me like what’s wrong with this guy.
    Addressing your issue of sexism, well I will concede to the not including she and only using he. However, he did state on average, and on average women are more concerned about beauty. There are much less variety of cosmetics for men, largely due to lack of demand. And women, from what I’ve noticed, judge each other more. It’s more like ‘did you see that dress she was wearing? Yellow and purple together! Ugh.’
    He didn’t present it as absolute empirical evidence, but as the average behaviour.

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    1. Hi! I love Richard Dawkins humour too. However, I think you’ve relied on some pretty old fashioned stereotypes about women in your comment. The male cosmetics market is experiencing a huge amount of growth year on year, so I would argue that the demand is certainly there. Dawkins didn’t say anything about the way that women supposedly judge each other and again I would say that you’ve relied on a stereotype of the way that women talk – it’s certainly not the way that any of the women I know talk about each other and I definitely don’t think it’s “average” behaviour. In my review I was just trying to make the point that some data would have been useful to back up the statements made because I think that the world has moved on so much since the 70s. Also, it would be interesting to see how those stats have changed and what inferences we can draw from that.

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      1. Well, to be honest, we can only draw upon what we have experienced, and since that would be anecdotal, neither of us can claim to know what exactly the aggregate was during that time. I think in God Delusion Dawkins said that feminists did bring into attention things and acknowledged them for that. Personally, I’m not a feminist. I simply don’t agree with the ‘feminism = equality’ thing. Your theoretical foundation may be equality but you simply cannot claim ownership over it. I dislike how most feminists I’ve encountered say that you if you support equality you’re a feminist. Feminism is not the concept of equality but a movement allegedly aimed at equality. I may agree with equality but I may not agree with the way feminists believe it should be achieved, or the way feminists act.
        If I had to, I’d label myself egalitarian. Labels often restrict individuality and egalitarianism and humanism labeling actually allow you to preserve your individual identity.

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      2. Ok, that’s your opinion and obviously you’re entitled to it 😊I’m just curious about what feminism means to you though. How do you think feminists believe equality should be achieved? And what behaviour that feminists display do you not like? To me, feminism just means that we should stop judging people based on their gender and remove any restrictions that prevent people from doing what they want solely “because they’re a girl” or “because they’re a boy”. Because feminism to me means the removal of stereotypes (about both men and women) it actually encourages individuality in the same way that egalitarianism and humanism do.

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      3. Well what you display are concepts of egalitarianism. The thing is, we define something by what it does. What feminism does is not equality. The vocal feminists are more inclined towards spreading the victim complex. I’ve seen countless feminists raise the gender pay gap issue and whenever I counter it with actual reasoning, they resort to name calling. You’re a misogynistic person if you simply don’t agree with them. Obviously not all feminists. But majority of the feminists who speak out.
        The thing is, everyone likes a villain. People love things to be black and white. To point at someone or something and say that’s the cause of all problems. The third wave feminists do just that. They point at ‘male privilege’ and ‘patriarchy’ and oppression. They masquerade as equality yet hardly represent the other side. You take instances of York University where feminists interrupted a conference on male suicide awareness. 24 hours later, one of the male students committed suicide. You are told so often about how males have everything easier, until you look at the facts. In United Kingdom, for instance, suicide is the biggest killer of males under 45. Men are much more likely to be murdered in any country. In United States, women will receive 63% lighter sentences for same crime while having similar criminal background. These issues do not get recognised. If feminism admitted to being a woman empowerment movement, it would be a bit better. But right now, it’s pretending to be equality. And then it’s stopping all talks which focus on issues of men. I’m not a men’s rights activist either; as I said earlier, I tend to avoid labels. But I do like to, as an individual, engage in respectful exchange of opinions. And with the their wave feminists, you can’t do that.
        The vocal feminists are quite sexist themselves. The thing is majority of feminists are the silent ones. They don’t speak. They just support feminism because they perceive it to be equality. And here’s what happens. These perfectly fine men and women think they are feminists because they believe in equality. They look at themselves and say, hey! I am a peaceful person. I believe that men have problems too. I believe they should deserve attention.
        And then they think that simply because they, as individuals, recognise the problems of men, therefore feminists recognise the problem of men. And this equation is false because you are equating what you believe with what your movement believes. Movements aren’t defined by the beliefs of their members but the actions of their members.

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      4. Ok, there’s quite a few points that you’ve raised there that I disagree with – we seem to have very different experiences of interacting with feminists and reading feminist literature. I am a third wave feminist and proud of it. I believe that feminism is absolutely about spreading equality. There is a gender pay gap and I’d be interested in your reasoning for it – I promise I won’t resort to name calling! I believe that feminism is better for everyone. If you look at the reasons for male suicide a large factor is that men don’t seek help for medical issues, especially depression and anxiety as often as women because there is still a societal pressure to “man up”. Obviously this is rubbish and feminism seeks to remove such gender based stereotypes, thus helping both men and women. In the example you cited, there was a petition at York University not specifically from feminists but from staff and students concerned about the university aligning itself to international men’s day due to some of the rhetoric associated with the campaign.

        I would consider myself to be a vocal feminist and I believe that my beliefs and actions are concurrent with the wider feminist agenda. Obviously we are all individuals so not all feminists are going to agree on every issue but I believe that we’re broadly all on the same page. I think that you and I fundamentally disagree with our perception of what feminism is and I’d be interested to know what’s informed your views?

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      5. The gender pay gap is pointless because it compares average pay of men and women working full time. It does not include the hours worked, the different fields, the different positions and many other relevant factors. Once those are accounted for, the pay gap diminishes to the point of statistical insignificance. Men tend to take higher paying jobs such as STEM fields while women occupy jobs such as nursing and teaching which are not as highly paid. So when some feminist says that women are paid less for the same work, they represent gross misunderstanding of statistics and data.
        Secondly, the pressure to man up is not helped by the feminist male tears and mockery of men’s issues. Many countries, including mine, have a women’s ministry yet no men’s ministry. There is a lack of concern towards problems of men. Men have to handle their problems themselves and are not encouraged to express their emotion. And feminists do not help the cause. They talk about ‘rape culture’ and ‘manspreading’ and ‘mansplaining’. Not really the major issues.
        There was also an attempt in my country to make rape laws gender neutral, which failed due to opposition from… You guessed it. Feminists.
        So I don’t see how feminism is helping. Most feminists are actively protesting against international men’s day, disregarding high murder rate of men, high suicide rate of men, the dangerous and dirty jobs like sewage cleaning, electrical, plumbing, construction, military, law enforcement which are dominated by men. They’re neglecting how men form almost 93%(not certain of the figure but I think that’s it) of workplace death. But what do you hear about more from a feminist? Workplace harassment or workplace deaths? I’m condoning neither, merely pointing the lack of attention to the latter.

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      6. The gender pay gap is just an overall figure from lots of different data sources – it can be broken down into all the categories that you’ve mentioned. There is still a trend towards men being paid more for exactly the same type of work as women – it’s not statistically insignificant. You’ve raised a good point about the types of careers that men and women choose – have you thought about why women are underrepresented in stem fields? Perhaps it’s because women aren’t actively encouraged to consider those types of jobs. Perhaps it’s because it can be really daunting to be the only female applicant for a certain role, or to be the only woman in a team of men. Perhaps it’s because of casual (or overt) sexism in the workplace. Perhaps it’s because women may have other responsibilities that mean they can’t work as many hours overtime, or stay away from home, or travel long distances which take them away from their families. Perhaps it’s because the company has poor maternity/flexible working policies, or those types of jobs mean that because research and technology move so fast, you can’t afford to take a year off to have a baby. I’m not saying that these issues will be relevant to all women or to all male dominated industries but in my experience they can often be contributory factors.

        The pressure to man up is a societal construct based on stereotypes of gender which feminists are actively working against. I’ve never seen any mockery of men’s issues and I’ve certainly never heard of any feminist agenda to get men to “man up” and deal with their own problems quietly by themselves. Again – I can’t say this loudly enough – this is exactly what feminists are working against.

        Women’s ministries were set up to try to level the playing field for women. We have a women and equalities minister who is there to represent all disproportionately undervalued or underrepresented members of society – be they female, black, gay, disabled etc. Men have traditionally had a privileged role in society, hence why there is no specific men’s minister.

        Yes feminists talk about rape culture and mansplaining. So what? Focusing on the way that women are treated is absolutely a valid point and is a major issue. We can, as society, deal with lots of different issues at once and discussing these issues doesn’t take away from any other discussions around other societal problems. Yes there are lots of problems that men face – so let’s discuss them too. You can’t say that feminists can’t discuss something as serious as rape culture because problems that primarily affect men somehow take priority. I think you’re failing to see how lots of the problems that men face are part of the wider issues that feminism is arguing against too.

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      7. Well, there’s isn’t a rape culture. So discussing it is sort of pointless. And the reason women opt for other fields is pretty simple. When men choose their job, they are pressurised to take one which helps them economically. Their main concern is ‘will a degree in this subject get me a job that earns enough to support a family?’ women aren’t discouraged from higher paying jobs; men are discouraged from lower paying jobs. Mansplaining is not a concern. It essentially means talking in a condescending manner to a woman. It does not imply talking in a condescending manner because she is a woman. You’ve never seen mockery of men’s issues? I’m surprised. I’ve often watched debates of feminists just to improve my understanding of what it encompasses, and I’ve seen plenty of hateful feminists outrightly denying that there’s any male problem.

        Here’s an interesting video to watch. I often watch discussions, since they tend to raise thought provoking points and then I came across this one.

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      8. Wow. Ok, I think you need to qualify your points. The definitely is a rape culture. From the way that women are sexualised in everyday life, to the way that victims are treated when they report abuse, our society does not support them.

        No, men are not pressured into taking higher paid jobs. Most people don’t have families to support when they start their careers. Plus nowadays many women earn more than men and there are lots of families where both partners work full time. STEM subjects are not always well paid but they still tend to be male dominated. Even if we take your argument, why should men be discouraged from taking lower paid jobs? How does that happen? And if it did, can’t you see how that’s inherently sexist?

        Mansplaining is a concern and it does mean that men talk to women condescendingly because they are female. It happens frequently and is indicative of a much wider issue.

        I watched the video and was really shocked by the contents. I didn’t see any mockery of men’s issues, I saw someone trying to spread hatred in order to increase their social media presence.

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      9. You would notice in the video that when the feminist says men hate women, there is no audience reaction, and when Milo says women hate men, there is an uproar and the moderator says “what a horrible thing to say”
        Kinda points out the hypocrisy.

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      10. No. The feminist says that social media showcases men’s hatred of women. She’s right. Time and again I see women receiving the most awful sexist, personal attacks on social media because of what they’ve said (often innocuously). What actually happens is that Milo says that women hate everyone, which is an absurd lie and there is a justifiable outcry.

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      11. Yes, why give airtime to someone who is a) spreading hatred b) lying and c) is doing it purely for their own benefit? I doubt Milo has any conviction in what he’s saying, he’s obviously trying to be as controversial as possible to fuel an argument, get people talking about him, increase his twitter followers and ultimately continue his career as a protagonist. That’s what’s so frustrating.

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