Greater Minds: Richard Dawkins on the 40th birthday of The Selfish Gene

  • The Selfish Gene by Richard Dawkins was published 40 years ago.
  • It argued that life, with all its beauty and its flaws, is a product of gene selection.
  • It is an object lesson in explaining complex and controversial subjects in simple terms.
  • No science writer has ever received a Nobel Prize in Literature, and Dawkins argues that Carl Sagan should have done.

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Richard Dawkins in 2015 (Magnus Norden Follow [CC / Flickr])

“I read The Selfish Gene when I was unemployed. I didn’t know what I wanted to do with my life but when I read it, so many things made sense. I knew what I wanted to do so I went to university to learn more about it.”

Twenty years ago, I was an undergraduate who was trying to make sense of the world and to work out what I wanted to do when I graduated in a few months. When one of the best lecturers I had said that in a course in animal behaviour, it was his enthusiasm as much as his words that inspired me to the bookshop. It was on the very long list of books I intended to read one day, and that list still defies mathematics by getting longer rather than shorter as I work my way through it. But that day, The Selfish Gene flew to the top of it.

His name is Jonathan Wright, and a quick search shows me that he’s now a full professor of zoology. The Selfish Gene worked for him.

A lens on the world

Reading The Selfish Gene, closely followed by The Red Queen and The Origins of Virtue by Matt Ridley, had a profound effect on the way I saw the world. Evolutionary biology was the key to the way everything worked, from the biosphere to the latest girl who didn’t want a date with me.

Looking back, I may have got a little bit carried away.

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(Timothy Wells [CC / Flickr])

Yet twenty years later, most of them spent as an academic biologist, I’ve seen nothing to counter the central hypothesis of The Selfish Gene. Genes that are good at passing themselves on will become prevalent in a population, even if they code for traits that ultimately cause the population to collapse. Genes don’t think ahead. They don’t think at all. They either get themselves passed on or they don’t. Every aspect of life stems from that fundamental truth.

Each of us is the latest in a long line of loose alliances of genes going back to the beginnings of life itself. We are the product of trillions of winners going back billions of years who not only survived but passed on their own genes and avoided untold catastrophes. Luck and selection conspired to produce us, and also to saddle us with the myriad imperfections that we carry around with us.

Eye of the dinosaur

To give one example, we’re lumbered with eyes that any engineer could improve on in their first undergraduate project. Our mammal ancestors didn’t need fantastic vision, as they spent their days hiding in burrows from the dinosaurs lumbering overhead. When they came out at night, they needed to hear and smell more than they needed to see. It didn’t matter to them that their eyes were evolving with the blood vessels and nerve cells on top of the light-detecting retina. There was no pressure to evolve eyes that were better than good enough.

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Someone can see you (Boogeyman13 [CC / Flickr])

Fast forward past the asteroid that cleared the dinosaurs from above their heads to their descendants who climbed up a tree, who suddenly needed to see the branches they were leaping between. Their eyes were already so complex that no simple mutation was going to shift all the paraphernalia out of the way behind the retina. The best that could happen was a tiny gap could allowing one little piece of the retina and unobscured view. It couldn’t be much more than a couple of millimetres across because the cells had to be close to a blood vessel.

We call it the fovea, and it’s what you’re using to read these words a few letters at a time. That blur around it is the peripheral vision, which is all you get when you’re seeing through the blood vessels keeping your retina functioning.

Birds have it much better. They evolved from those dinosaurs that were prowling around during the day. Their eyes have a much more sensible structure with all the blood and nerves out of the way behind the retina. They have no peripheral vision. It’s all as sharp as our fovea, which is why a sparrow’s tiny eye sees far more than we can.

Remember that scene in Jurassic Park where Hollywood’s idea of a dinosaur expert tells the kids the T. rex can’t see them unless they move? If you heard a groan when it was first broadcast, that was the collective response of every biologist watching. A predatory

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(Loozrboy [CC / Flickr])

dinosaur would have been able to see like a hawk, or probably better as the larger the retina, the better the vision.

Dawkins’s law of conservation of obscurity

Apart from being a solid introduction into evolutionary biology, I often quote The Selfish Gene as an object lesson in explaining complex concepts in layman’s terms. My couple of years of undergraduate study didn’t make me an expert, but I found no difficulty in seeing through the description to the underlying argument. Jonathan didn’t even have that much behind him when it changed his life.

I’ve often quoted it as an example of how to make complexity understandable without simplifying it, though as with all the best writing, I’ve never fully understood how Dawkins did it. I could see the rhetorical trick of recapping a point before developing it, sometimes on a sentence by sentence level, and I’ve tried to emulate that where I could. I’ve been keeping an eye on his essays ever since for his own description of his technique, but the best I could find was in his article on the 40th anniversary of the publication of The Selfish Gene:

I haven’t thought enough about it. Such principles as I can articulate are almost obvious, though surprisingly neglected. To “put yourself in the position of the reader” requires an empathy, a sensitivity to other minds which can be difficult to train.

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A metaphor for postmodern metatwaddle? (Thalita Carvalho [CC / Flickr])

His rhetorical tricks remain hidden behind the curtain, apparently even from himself. I’ll admit to being a little disappointed, though the trick of imagining a hypothetical beta reader is worth keeping in mind. If she tips her head on one side and asks what I’m wittering on about, it’s time to rewrite before anyone outside my imagination is allowed to see it.

Like many writers who aren’t sure how they practice their own craft, he falls back on what not to do, albeit in a satisfyingly colourful way:

Dawkins’s Law of Conservation of Obscurity states that obscurantism in a subject expands to fill the vacuum of its intrinsic simplicity.

I’m sure I’ve been guilty of what he calls ‘postmodern metatwaddle’ myself and if you’ve read a few of my pontifications, you may be rolling your eyes in agreement. If so, I can only apologise and pledge to do better.

The prize Carl Sagan didn’t get

I recent years, Dawkins has become more famous as a provocateur than as a scientist or science communicator. I’m not going to contribute anything to the many debates he sparks off, which are never short of coverage. All I’ll say is that love him or loathe him, he has a talent for raising the issues that get people excited.

In the 40th anniversary essay mentioned above, he raises another one:

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Carl Sagan (Javier [CC / Flickr])

If [Carl] Sagan were still alive, I’d nominate him for the Nobel prize in literature. The availability of other Nobels for science should not rule scientists out for the literature prize, in competition with fiction.

He has a point. The Nobel prize in literature has been awarded to novelists, dramatists, philosophers, memoirists and historians, but never to a science writer. The closest was the 1950 laureate, Bertrand Russell, who was a mathematician but is much better known and was awarded on the basis of his philosophy.

For myself, I fully agree with Dawkins that Carl Sagan was robbed Cosmos is the most over-arching introduction to science I’ve come across. I read his novel, Contact, while I was doing an undergraduate course in earth science and found that as well as being extremely readable, it functioned as a companion to the course. As usual, the film replaced a lot of the better aspects of the novel with flashing lights, so it was something of a disappointment.

If Sagan were still alive, I fear that the stigma of having written a science fiction novel may disqualify him from the Nobel prize in spite of his decades of inspiring people to get interested in science.

Dawkins v Lovelock

The next two names on my list would be Dawkins himself and James Lovelock, author of Gaia among other books. I don’t name them because I agree with everything they’ve ever said. In fact, they have debated each other often enough that it would be impossible to completely agree with both of them. I name them because they have spent decades discussing scientific concepts in terms that make it possible for a layman not only to understand them, but to join the debate.

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Nobel Prize Medal (European Parliament [CC / Flickr])

Science is frequently accused of being a monolithic structure that brooks no criticism, and it’s not hard to see how it could appear that way from the outside. In fact, the frontiers of scientific knowledge are constantly shifting and they are necessarily ahead of scientific understanding; it’s necessary to identify and describe something before it can be fully explained. Debate and criticism are central to the process by which understanding catches up with description.

Dawkins and Lovelock have done more than anyone else to bring that process into the mainstream, as well as the understanding that derives from it. Is it too much of a stretch to suggest that they deserve literature’s highest award for doing it? Please leave your thoughts in the comments.

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Posted in Greater minds, Wednesday Pontification
4 comments on “Greater Minds: Richard Dawkins on the 40th birthday of The Selfish Gene
  1. Just started The Blind Watchmaker recently, so this caught my eye.
    Dawkins has been a one man wrecking ball and really doesnt get the credit he deserves, but his writing will be referenced for some time I’m sure. If anything I think he will be more revered as time goes on as theology falls apart.
    Just dont go to a lecture of his…superbly boring lol

    • DJ Cockburn says:

      I think Dawkins deserves a great deal of credit for The Selfish Gene, which managed to be influential in the world of science and accessible to the layman at the same time. It came out when there was a lot of debate about the level at which natural selection occurs, and it summarised the arguments that led to gene selection as the main paradigm as well as advancing a few original ones.

      I find the stuff he’s been doing more recently, since he decided he was a wrecking ball, a lot less interesting. That’s why I wrote about what he did 40 years ago!

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