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.