Archive for April, 2011

Selfish Gene


I just finished reading The Selfish Gene, the first of Richard Dawkins’ many books popularizing the fascinating byways and unexpected consequences of evolutionary theory.

The Selfish Gene was first published the year before I was born. I was fortunate to be reading the 30th anniversary edition, which includes not only the original text, but also extensive notes by the author on more recent developments, as well as two all-new chapters (one of which seems to be a teaser for The Extended Phenotype – now on my reading list). For my money, the original text would have been worth it alone. I know that it’s not cutting-edge any more, but to a layman like me it’s all relatively new (even having read several of Dawkins’ other books – he’s not one to beat the same facts to death book after book).

So here I am, urging you to read it if you haven’t. It’s not stale or unreadable – it’s Dawkins through and through. And if you have read the original version, it still might be worth checking out the footnotes of this edition – they are a beautiful illustration of scientific eagerness to learn and willingness to admit mistakes.

I am not really into book reports, so I’m not going to draw this out too much. (I will say that the worst part of the book for me – through no fault of Dawkins – was the discussion of parasites. I read it while trying to get over a rather nasty bug: not wise. In retrospect, now that my gut is my own again, it is a fascinating and well-written discussion.)

I did want to point out, rather gleefully, a quote near the end. (Don’t worry – it’s not a spoiler.)

Indeed I suspect that the essential, defining characteristic of an individual organism is that it is a unit that begins and ends with a single-celled bottleneck. (p 264)

Why am I delighted? Because it (and the surrounding text backing up this claim) expands on a fact that I have contemplated with wonder in the past – for example, here on this blog not long before my son was born.

Think about it. Between any parent and child on a family tree, there was a time when the line of descent was reduced to a single cell – one fertilized egg. We have each, with the help of billions of years of evolution, built ourselves from such humble beginnings. We each, if we are to leave children ourselves, must humbly do so through a single cell yet again.

How ennobling science is, to give us such narratives from which to understand our place in the universe!