Wednesday, April 18, 2012

The Science Penguin Talks about The Selfish Gene by Richard Dawkins

Some of you may have noticed the lack of a Misc. Mondays or any other posts so far this week. Most of you probably don't care why, but I'm going to explain myself anyway. I got stuck reading a book for school (what's up with that?) and it forcibly consumed my life for 72 hours and left me feeling tired and cranky. And than I had to write an eight page review about the book that had made me so cranky, and that felt a bit like pounding on my own skull with a sledgehammer. Now that it is over, I've decided I'd like to share the experience with you guys, since this is a book blog after all*. 

 This assignment was for my Evolution class, which is the capstone course of my Bio degree. We had a long list of books to choose from, all of them mainstream non-fiction books dealing with some aspect of genetics or evolution. I really wanted to read something smart and meaningful that would resonate with me, and I had my book possibilities all lined up. But, true to form, I procrastinated on actually acquiring my book until it came down to the final weekend before the paper was due. This was the only book on the list that the library had.

I want to stress my reluctance going into this book: I really, really did not want to read anything by Dawkins. I'm a firm believer in evolutionary theory, but I'm also not an atheist. I knew from reading reviews and descriptions and discussions that Dawkins is an adamant, unapologetic atheist who has no problem making constant jabs at religion and faith and the concept of God in general. And that really pisses me off. I've spent a lot of my time, since I chose biology as a career, trying to explain to religious and skeptical friends that God and evolution are not mutually exclusive concepts. And there Dawkins is, writing these damn books and making everyone feel defensive and anti-science.

Okay, rant over. Moving on.

So, I sat down to read this book, just hoping to get lost in the science. Little did I know, it was the science that became the problem. Dawkins makes the assertion that genes are self replicating machines who's sole purpose is to make as many copies of themselves to survive into future generations as possible. And genes build bodies that make this possible, and because the genes that inhabit those bodies are ruthless and selfish, the bodies are selfish by nature. He then goes on to explain all sorts of animal behavior, and how various behaviors are secretly driven by selfish genes.

The problem, for me, was the giant leaps in logic and the lack of evidence. Any credibility that the book might have rests on being able to prove that genes really do have "selfish" properties. And the evidence is out there. I know, because I've spent time with the topic in text books and primary literature. But instead of offering evidence, Dawkins does a lot of hand waving and speaking in metaphors and repeating himself. The evidence that he does offer is observational, dealing with animals in situations where hundreds of confounding variables make it impossible to tell how sound the evidence really is.

There are a few chapters where the book gets philosophical, and these are the most irritating of all. There's a chapter on population control and the human behavior of having too many children, which would have been interesting in a sociology book, but it doesn't belong here. There's a chapter on memes, or self replicating human ideas. Things like ideas or songs or the concept of God. Interesting, but again, WHAT THE HELL IS IT DOING IN THIS BOOK? I swear, it's there just to make Dawkins sound deeper and more intelligent than he really is.

All I know is, by the time I finished this book, my head ached and my blood pressure was up and I felt cold and empty inside. It's not that there aren't good ideas in this book. There are. It's not that it isn't well written. It is. It's the fact that, in making a book that would be entertaining for consumption by the general public, Dawkins completely clouded the issues at hand. He failed to really prove the core concept, and instead jumped right into all of the huge implications of that concept. If this were science fiction, I'd be protesting the ill explained premise.

Bottom line: nope, I don't recommend this book. It really bugged the hell out of me. And not because I believe in God, but because I believe in science. I ended up hating this book for exactly the opposite reason that I thought I would hate it. I don't understand why this is so popular.

*This is a one time deal, though. I'm don't usually review nonfiction books, and this does not change that fact. Please, please do not send me review requests for nonfiction books.

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