Friday, February 15, 2008

Thirty years of the selfish gene

Darwin's daring champion

Review by Kuldip Dhiman

Richard Dawkins: How a Scientist Changed the Way We Think
Ed. Alan Grafen and Mark Ridley. Oxford University Press. Pages 283. Rs 425.

IN 1976, The Selfish Gene appeared and created a publishing coup the reverberations of which are being felt thirty years on. Richard Dawkins, then a young biologist from Oxford, had written a book which all talk about, but only a few actually read and understand. The title was controversial enough; some never got over the initial shock, yet whoever did, changed his or her worldview about life. Without exaggeration, The Selfish Gene can be called one of the most influential scientific books of the twentieth century.

Not a flash in the pan, Dawkins followed his success with more great works like The Extended Phenotype, The Blind Watchmaker, River Out of Eden, Climbing Mount Improbable, Ancestor's Tale and dozens of papers. This book is a belated tribute to the great evolutionist who explained many missing links in Darwin's original theory, links which Darwin himself could not explain satisfactorily, as the science of biology was then still in its infancy.

The basic tenets of the evolutionary theory are that every organism was concernedRichard Dawkins: How a Scientist Changed the Way We Think with its own survival and procreation; that the resources are scarce and there is a fierce intra-species and inter-species struggle to make the best of the conditions and survive. However, Darwin realised that with this framework, he could not satisfactorily explain altruism, celibacy, self-sacrifice, suicide, and homosexuality. The answer had to wait till the science of genetics came into its own in the mid twentieth century.

Later on, with George William's group selection hypothesis, William D. Hamilton's mathematical kin selection speculations, John Maynard Smith's evolutionary stable strategies, and Robert L. Triver's intra-family competition, evolution began to make more sense. However, it was Dawkins who took stock of what these thinkers proposed. To this, he added his own insights. Evolutionary theory got a boost; the questions that nagged Darwin and his followers could finally be answered without twisting the basic evolutionary theory.

What are Dawkins arguments and why do these generate controversy? Early evolutionists believed that evolution worked at the level of the individual organism, and the organism worked for the good of its species. Dawkins disagreed. He said the basic unit of evolution was not the individual, but the gene, which was in a sense blind, had no foresight, no belief, no intentions and no goals.

The gene cared only for its own survival and replication, it did not care about the group, or other species. With these assumptions, he clearly and precisely presented his solutions to the persisting questions. To get his message across, Dawkins used the metaphor "the selfish gene", but throughout the book, he repeatedly reminded the reader that it was only a metaphor and that though the genes were selfish, the individual need not be. Who would listen; the metaphor was so powerful that the people concluded what was in the book by just reading the title.

The present book contains twenty-five essays by internationally acclaimed scientists and thinkers such as Steven Pinker, Daniel C. Dennett, Matt Ridley, Steven Pinker and Philip Pullman. The book's seven sections deal individually with biology, genetics, logic, human behaviour and so on. There is a section on the extraordinary writing of Dawkins and two dealing with controversial issues and disagreement. There is also an essay by the Bishop of Oxford.

Helena Cronin, in The Battle of the Sexes Revisited, neatly captures the conflict between the sexes in humans and other animals. David Haig, Alan Grafen, Ulica Segerstrale dwell on the importance of the gene as the basic unit of evolution and the way it armed evolutionary thinking in dealing with puzzles of altruism and homosexuality.

In Deep Commonalities Between Life and Mind, Steven Pinker points out the common fallacy of concluding "selfish genes means selfish people". He and others in different chapters forcefully argue how selfishness actually leads to social cooperation and altruism.

As there are twenty chapters by experts, it is not possible to give a gist of all, but the reader might find common misunderstandings about the Darwinian theory answered by Randopph M. Nesse in Why a Lot of People with Selfish Genes are Pretty Nice Except for their Hatred of 'The Selfish Gene'.

The theory of evolution, from the day it was published, got into controversy because even the laymen got interested in it to write about it. Far from making the theory accessible to the masses, they only created controversies that do not seem to go away. They who do not have the time to read Dawkins' original works, might get an idea of his concepts from this volume that commemorates thirty years of The Selfish Gene.

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