Thursday, September 15, 2011

Books: The Selfish Gene by Richard Dawkins - Revisited

Some books changed public thinking, the way we see the world around us. One of them is "The Selfish Gene" by Richard Dawkins, a follower of Charles Darwin ( The author describes how evolution works and how this selection & adaptation process informs our behavior. Although this book was first published in 1976 it still gives valuable and precise insights into the basics of life.

Dawkins likes to provoke his readers. He confronts us with a challenging thesis: Humans, animals and plants exist just for the survival of their genes. We, and animals & plants too, are just survival machines for our genes, claims this scientist.

Yes, that´s hard to swallow. But Dawkins develops his thesis step by step and he has a lot of good arguments & evidence for it. He starts with the youth of the earth, as molecules developed, which became more and more complex. Some of these molecules began to copy themselves. This was the start of a long chain of reproduction which shapes our lives until today. These self-reproducing molecules had to compete which each other to win more space and energy. The most successful molecules survived this natural selection process and now shape the lives of people, animals and plants.

As the earth got older some of the self-reproducing molecules developed further into complex chains of molecules, our genes. These genes built constructions around themselves to protect themselves and to survive. First they built bacterias, later more complex shapes like plants, animals and - finally - us.

Dawkins sees us (and animals and plants) as machines formed for the success and the survival of the genes. Our bodies contain teams of genes working together, with the common aim to survive and to reproduce. Dawkins describes this as a huge library, which consists of books, called the chromosomes, which contain a lot of pages, called the genes. This library, the DNA, contains all the information which is needed to shape us. DNA is the blueprint of our bodies.

Genes, which survived millions of years, are successful by definition. Many of them are just identical copies of the genes which existed a long time ago. Others are the successors of mutations, which are just mistakes which happen in the process of copying. Both groups gave us successful strategies, like running fast while hunting for food, being handsome while competing for sex (for reproduction). For example, genes are the reason that we crave fat & sugar, because both store a lot of energy, which was highly welcome in the frugal stone ages. Genes which make us more likable & eloquent might help our careers as tribal chiefs, lawyers and politicians.

The book describes a lot of strategies employed by our genes, because such strategies were in the past very often successful in outcompeting rivals. Genes that developed less successful strategies are now much less common or extinct.

Even if you don`t want to follow Dawkins` argument everywhere, reading this book sharpens your mind and refreshes your picture of the world. Therefore "The Selfish Gene" should be an essential part of every advanced school education, an element of the curriculum.

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