"The Selfish Gene" by Richard Dawkins (1976/1989)
"An uneasy tension disturbs the heart of the selfish gene theory. It is the tension between gene and individual body as fundamental agent of life. On the one hand we have the beguiling image of independent DNA replicators, skipping like chamois, free and untrammeled down the generations, temporarily brought together in throwaway survival machines, immortal coils shuffling off an endless succession of mortal ones as they forge towards their separate eternities. On the other hand we look at the individual bodies themselves and each one is obviously a coherent, integrated, immensely complicated machine, with a conspicuous unity of purpose."
Richard Dawkins is a well-known popular science writer, and also one of the most noted atheists of modern times. His life as a public personality almost overshadows his work as a writer and scholar. One of his other books, "The Blind Watchmaker," has guided many discussions on the role of religion in modern life.
"The Selfish Gene," for the most part, steers clear of religious debate. Instead it concerns itself with the role of the gene in evolutionary development, and the way in which many leading scientists have focused on the evolution of the individual organism (or group of organisms) at the expense of the true change agent - the gene. Group selection, argues Dawkins, is most often a case of failing to see the trees for the forest, and to even talk of individual selection can be grossly misleading. In Dawkins' account, one does not speak of the survival of a group or even of the survival of an individual organism, but rather of the survival of individual genes that are temporarily bound together within that organism.
I liked this book, even if Dawkins can be condescending at times. I felt that he also takes some unnecessary jabs at religion, where using less controversial examples would have better served his arguments. I didn't feel that the "faith vs. reason" argument had any place in this book, and it only alienates readers who would have otherwise learned a lot from this overview of evolutionary theory. In the end I think the "faith vs. reason" argument is pointless, because the faithful invariably have reasons behind their faith, just as the reasonable have faith in their ability to reason.
But perhaps I digress - just as Dawkins digresses, on innumerable occasions in "The Selfish Gene." In the course of the book he discusses genes as "replicators" and individual organisms as "vehicles" for these "replicators, the structure of genes and their arrangement within chromosomes and DNA, kin relationships as a reflection of gene survival strategies, tension between generations of individual organisms and how this contributes to gene survival, sexual relationships, group dynamics and altruism, a genetic theory of ideas (this part is fascinating), and the long reach of the phenotype (also fascinating).
Of all the topics listed above, I found the sections on sexual relationships to be the most interesting, followed by his theory of "memes" (ideas), and how the phenotype of a particular gene might extend well beyond the organism in which it inhabits. Dawkins dwells on game theory a bit too much during one of the later chapters, and his chapter on "the gene machine" is slow going.
I could attempt to recapitulate some of his arguments here, but if you are interested you should probably just go out and buy the book. The first few chapters are less than captivating, but the chapters near the end had my complete attention. I'll probably read Dawkins' "The Extended Phenotype" when I get the chance.