Letting the rest of the world go by
Author states that any philosophy of man's place in the universe before Darwin's 1859 "Origin of Species" will be incomplete. The book fully supports that statement. His metaphors for understanding genes and evolution are the best you'll ever come across. He explains the science so that even I can understand it.
I warn you, if you listen to this Dawkins book, you will listen to all of his others. I have and I am much wiser for it.
Family father, neuroscientist, and non-fiction audiobook addict.
I can't remember how but when I was 16 I came across this book and it changed my life. The title of Dawkins biography is "An appetite for wonder", and this appetite is no where more apparent than in this book (I have read most of his books). It is a wonderful introduction to the theory of evolution by natural (and sexual) selection, behavioral ecology, and the wonders of nature. At the same time it serves as a terrific example of first rate scientific reasoning. The writing is clear and fluid and extremely elegant. In his autobiography Dawkins admits that every sentence has been rewritten multiple times. Those that have survived this selection process really deliver. Every sentence seem to fill a purpose and yet, rarely does one feel that information is in some way lacking. This book, when it came out in the late seventies, influenced the general public and academics alike. It changed how academics thought about genes and evolution, and it introduced the meme, which has subsequently entered our dictionaries.
As I have said elsewhere, this book really is a literary masterpiece. The fact that it also teaches science to the reader is an added benefit that makes this book one of the best and most important ever written.
The book has a very good structure. At no point does it feel as if new concepts are introduced inappropriately. Dawkins begins by slowly and carefully introducing the replicator concept. In the widest sense a replicator is, as the name implies, something that replicates itself. This can be a mineral shape, a computer virus or a molecule such as RNA or DNA. It is inevitable that a replicator that produce more copies or copies that are more durable will become more prominent in the population. And so it is with our genes. The genes that exist in humans that are alive today are descendents of a very long series of genes that outperformed other genes. To achieve this success the genes have used many different tricks. Primary among these is cooperation with other genes to construct vehicles such as a plant or an animal that can both protect the genes and pass them on. Humans are thus "merely" vehicles created by genes for the benefit of genes (though in another sense we are of course much more than that).
Dawkins carefully builds from this starting point and reaches startling conclusions about many different aspects of nature and evolution. Why did sex evolve and why do the different sexes differ to a greater or a lesser extent in different species? Why are males in general more aggressive? Why do we cooperate? Does altruism exist? How did sterile ants evolve? Whatever he is discussing, Dawkins always provides illustrative examples from nature and when he use metaphors he is (unlike many others) always careful to translate those metaphors back into the language of replicators. The Selfish Gene also derives some of its fame from the fact that it introduced the meme concept. A meme, Dawkins suggested is like a gene in that it can replicate itself, typically via language or imitation. Successful memes (think viral youtube clips) will spread throughout population of less successful memes in the same way that successful genes spread, however, for memes the sexual reproduction of its host matters little. Rather, the success of a meme is determined by its ability to make its host share the idea with others. The meme concept is now in most dictionaries.
Throughout the book Dawkins is careful to point out that even though we are products of evolution and as a result have many instincts that are not always very noble, that does not mean that it is in anyway good or moral to follow ones evolutionary inclinations. Indeed if we understand human instincts we may be better able to construct societies that combat our caveman instincts.
If you have difficulty comprehending complicated subjects on audio, this may be one best left to reading. If you can absorb science through listening, then this is one of those crucial listens, which may drastically change your perspective of the world if you are unfamiliar with Dawkins or his work.
There are very incredible topics here that people just normally don't discuss and think about, like that we are all "survival machines" designed to allow our genes to replicate. The last few chapters were especially interesting, as meme has now become such a famous word used for internet phenomenas, and Dawkins coined the word here for culturally-catching trends like fashion, melodies or song lyrics, etc. The last few chapters take the concepts he's been working with the whole book so far that I felt they were tickling the very back of my brain. He talks of how genes can be seen as not modifying only the bodies they are in but their external environment as well, if I understand correctly, in the last chapter, and this made me go "Oh my."
The most delightful part of the audiobook was the narration. The text of the book itself, which was originally published in 1976, is narrated by the soothing, concise, and English-accented Lalla Ward. But as there have been subsequent versions of the book released with Dawkins noting further revelations and thoughts and responding to his detractors, he narrates the countless footnotes and endnotes, choosing to narrate them throughout the book when they are relevant rather than at the end for ease of comprehension. The effect is as if Dawkins himself is constantly popping into your mind as you are reading his book, arguing with those who have spoken out against it and defending it when necessary. It was a very entertaining way to do things.
My interests run to psychology, popular science, history, world literature, and occasionally something fun like Jasper Fforde. It seems like the only free time I have for reading these days is when I'm in the car so I am extremely grateful for audio books. I started off reading just the contemporary stuff that I was determined not to clutter up my already stuffed bookcases with. And now audio is probably 90% of my "reading" matter.
Some science books have one or two key ideas but then resort to padding or rehashing to flesh out the rest of the book. This isn't one of those. Dawkins starts off with a premise about how the proper unit of evolutionary study is the gene rather than the organism, and then goes on with one fascinating topic after another, all designed to show how how the behavior patterns that exist today are the ones that outcompeted their rivals. Outcompeting is a misleading word here. Dawkins himself struggles with this point over and over. It's not that genes are consciously competing with each other. It's that behaviors that are less successful at propagating genes get squeezed out over time. One of his key examples is Evolutionary Stable Strategies (ESSs) where he shows how competing strategies often end up in some kind of optimal mix. His book is full of interesting examples and illustrations to support his ideas, some of which he acknowledges as speculative. I will not comment on all of them here. A good chunk of the end of the book is devoted to a deep analysis of The Prisoner's Dilemma. I hadn't thought of that as anything other than a cute logic puzzle, but Dawkins persuades me that it has extraordinary significance for competing behaviorial traits and societal development in general. I have to point out that this is also the book where Dawkins invented the idea of the meme. His discussion about memes as a kind of meta-gene with its own plane of existence emerging out of our own consciousness is as fascinating as anything else in this book.
I had not realized this book came out all the way back in 1976. I am glad he was able to revise it. And I am glad that the revisions were grafted on in the way they were. Leaving in the outdated portions and commenting on them in footnotes was enlightening. Other portions have simply been added to reflect new information in this extremely fast-moving subject area.
Dawkins is a tolerably good reader, and so is his wife, Lalla Ward. However, there were many times that I wish they had used a single, professional reader to record this book. I had to slow this book down a bit just because Dawkins's articulation is just a shade too muddied for clear understanding, or maybe I'm just getting old. Despite having been a fan of Romana (Lalla Ward's character on Doctor Who), her alternations with her husband sound a bit jarring and prissy. (And if you're a current Doctor Who fan, I should clarify that I'm talking about the Tom Baker era.)
"Who's driving this bus"
Having the footnotes and extra comments read by Ward was a highly effective way of keeping track of which idea stream we are in. A good idea very effectively implemented.
Well, I don't exactly know how to describe this book. It's profundity is beyond anything I am capable of putting into words. I basically had to listen to it two times because I needed to rewind it in order to grasp all of the rather complex ideas being shot out. I would say that I have an okay grasp of biology, but there are a whole lot of concepts that require a double take or a double listen because all of the ideas are so important. I must say however that if I had tried to read the book, I probably wouldn't have finished it because there are some boring and complex components, and I don't do all that well with reading stuff compared to listening. I would have fallen asleep after reading for five minutes. But it would be nice to have a picture reference for some of the stuff in the book. Maybe a 16 hour video narrative of the book with computer graphics demonstrating all of the concepts like the game theory stuff that would be appropriate and really help to understanding everything contained within this book. That would be a project. Heck that could comprise a college course on this subject. Really, to deeply understand all of the concepts that are touched on in this book you would probably need a college course or two on every chapter.
When I listened I got a sense of the rightness of evolutionary theory. This is why the book was so profound and life changing for me. The idea that life has evolved one little molecule at a time. Every little molecular change of a protein segment of DNA has caused the world to be what it is, is a profound idea, and this book explains this idea and all of the corresponding evidence so well that the truth becomes almost undeniable.
I don't know whether God exist or not. After reading this book a person comes to seriously doubt the existence or need for God. I don't suppose it really matters. The whole paradigm of the gene being the final determinant and driving force of life on earth simply is too good of an idea, as if there was any such thing, and in that sense the gene in all of its selfishness is God, but once the idea of a selfish gene takes hold of a persons mind it doesn't let go. That is why I say that this is the most important book I have ever read.
Dawkin's arrogance is matched only by his brilliance. I find it hard to listen to him, but his ideas are so compelling that you can't not listen. I decided to ignore his persona and stick with the content. This is a seminal book and should be viewed as a companion to the Origin of the Species. Dawkins lays out the framework of evolution through the unit of information called the gene (which has a special definition in this work--not quite what we think of as a "gene" today). I decided to read the Selfish Gene after reading James Gleick's wonderful book "The Information," which has a chapter that draws on Dawkin's theory in The Selfish Gene. While Gleick gives you the essential high points, there is no substitute for following Dawkins through his tight-nit, intellectually disciplined, and detailed support for his theory. I am glad I listened to this book, but it took more commitment than other science audiobooks. I suppose that is because unlike many books that try to popularize science or treat it as historical biography, The Selfish Gene is itself a scientific work in which Dawkins sets out his theory of the gene as the fundamental unit of evolution.
Each chapter is full of brilliant ideas. The argumentation methods are state-of-the-art. Such a pleasure to listen to. WOW!!!
I quite liked the fact that Dawkins didn't rewrite the book for this edition but added footnotes and explanations. May take a couple minutes of listening to get used to this, but will be certainly worth it. This will give you a flavor of how science is made. And you will have a true genius as your guide.
Narration: excellent, the switching between Richard and Lalla keeps the story fresh. They both understand what they read and have nice voices to listen to.
Story: science explained, and although this book is from 1976, endnotes from 1989 and 2011 update some aspects based on current insights. But they are rare, indicating the truth and value of the original work.
This book outlines why genes are the ultimate survivors, and all organisms mainly vehicles for the protection, survival en reproduction of genes. That this leads to a multifaceted world in which even behavior can be explained scientifically, is desribed wonderfully.
Well worth the read if you are interested in understanding the origins and perpetuation of life.
This audiobook is highly educational and has the potential to liberate someone who has been programmed by religious stories about life on earth and human behavior.
However; The truths in this audiobook about the behavior of animals due to their genetic programming via natural selection for continued replication, can feel like a dry eye opener and slap to the face vs the benevolent nature point of view.
Much respect to the author who has taken the responsibility of teaching us the ugliness of nature, while still advocating altruism among beeings as the most logical behavior (win win scenario) in most cases.
We can and should be genuinely good to each other and to nature and still we will be under our naturally selected selfish genetic objectivism. I am at peace with that.