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Dawkins: Selfish Gene)

Richard DAWKINS: The Selfish Gene

Review by Michael Edwards - also appears on Amazon.com

Appears on Amazon.com:
    Date : 7 August, 1999
    Rating : 5/5
    Heading : Fascinating, but at times I wish I could unread it.

      This review does not attempt to summarize the actual content of this book, or the philosophy that may lie behind it - I think to do that well would be beyond my ability, or at least not possible without rereading the book slowly and thoroughly and spending a great deal of time writing the summary and weighing every word. Also, the book is so dense with detail (fascinating detail, but still detail) and so spare with padding, that it would be very difficult to summarize briefly without reducing its message to triviality; the wealth of interlocking, interdependent detail is in a very real way the essence of this well-written book.
      Rather, the review discusses my reaction to the book and the philosophical, even spiritual concerns it raises for me. It is thus a subjective review which will perhaps mean more to readers who have already read the book and who therefore know what it is about.
      For those who haven't read it, I can briefly mention that it is about the origin and evolution of life and the prominent role genes play in that process, and expounds Dawkins' view that it gives a clearer view of how evolution works if you regard genes as the main unit of natural selection rather than individual organisms. But this particular distinction has fewer ramifications on my reaction to the book and on this review than the mere fact that the book gives such a convincing view of evolution, just about proves its reality chapter and verse, as to make any religious or spiritual beliefs seem superfluous at best, and fatuous at worst.
      That my review, although perhaps technically irrelevant to the scientific message Dawkins was intending to impart, impelled approximately a dozen strangers who read the Amazon.com version of it to write to me to discuss it demonstrates that indeed I touched on issues that are important to a significant number of people. And I welcome e-mail from anyone else who would like to discuss it with me, although due to pressure of trying to keep in touch with so many people by e-mail, I can't promise to write back really quickly or at great length - but I will try (eventually at least) to reply to anyone who writes to me about it. This review alone, in the time it has been on Amazon's web site (since August 1999), has been responsible for a huge volume of the personal e-mail I've exchanged over that year. And in many cases this correspondence developed into a friendship that went beyond mere discussion of the ideas behind the book or my review of it.
      In some cases, to my considerable regret, I have lost touch with some of those kind people who wrote to me, with whom I developed quite a good friendship by e-mail. This loss of contact was sometimes my own fault, because I was not diligent enough in writing further e-mails. I am sorry this has happened, but at times I felt "written out" on the topic of The Selfish Gene; but if anyone with whom I've corresponded on this and with whom I became friendly happens to read this web page and would like to contact me again, I would love to hear from you again. But, as things stand now, and with time having elapsed since last contact, I don't feel sure whether I should initiate contact once more.

      I wish I could rate this book at 5 stars and 0 stars at the same time. It is a fascinating book, very well-written, and it conveys a real sense of how life works on the biological level, how all sorts of diverse factors interact with each other to create an incredibly complex system (the evolution of life, in this case); it also just as vividly conveys a sense of how scientists come to understand these processes.
      I started it many years ago at the suggestion of a friend, thinking I wouldn't find it very interesting, and not much liking the kind of philosophy of life that (on the basis of my friend's description) seemed to lie behind it. But only a chapter or two in, I was completely hooked, and wanted to read more Dawkins.
      On one level, I can share in the sense of wonder Dawkins so evidently sees in the workings-out of such complex processes, often made up of quite simple elemental mechanisms, but interacting so complexly to produce the incredibly complex world we live in.
      But at the same time, I largely blame "The Selfish Gene" for a series of bouts of depression I suffered from for more than a decade, and part of me wants to rate the book at zero stars for its effect on my life. Never sure of my spiritual outlook on life, but trying to find something deeper - trying to believe, but not quite being able to - I found that this book just about blew away any vague ideas I had along these lines, and prevented them from coalescing any further. This created quite a strong personal crisis for me some years ago.
      The book renders a God or supreme power of any sort quite superfluous for the purpose of accounting for the way the world is, and the way life is. It accounts for the nature of life, and for human nature, only too well, whereas most religions or spiritual outlooks raise problems that have to be got around. It presents an appallingly pessimistic view of human nature, and makes life seem utterly pointless; yet I cannot present any arguments to refute its point of view. I still try to have some kind of spiritual outlook, but it is definitely battered, and I have not yet overcome the effects of this book on me.
      Richard Dawkins seems to have the idea that religion and spirituality are not only false, but ultimately unable to give a real sense of meaning and purpose in life. Their satisfaction is hollow, empty, and unreal, in his apparent view, and only a scientific understanding of life can give a real, lasting sense of wonder and purpose.
      I would question this. While I am not sure what (if anything) there is spiritually, I know that a scientific view of life cannot offer the slightest hope of life after death, and since we're all going to die and most of us don't want to, this is a crippling drawback to the kind of scientific vision Dawkins wants us all to have. If there is nothing beyond death, no spiritual dimension to anything, and everything is just a blind dance of atoms, I fail to see how this by itself can give one a real sense of purpose, however fascinating the dance that Dawkins describes - and it is fascinating; let there be no mistake about that.
      Because of this, I have the curious feeling of dichotomy about Dawkins' book that it is certainly fascinating on one level, but that I cannot give even qualified emotional commitment to the outlook on life that seems to lie behind it. I would in the end rather have the hope of something wonderful and purposeful that only some spiritual outlook can offer, even though it may be a deluded fantasy, than the certainty of a scientific vision that eliminates any possibility of long-term hope, that condemns us to an empty, eternal death of nothingness in the end. This scientific view may be completely rational; but rationality is not the only important consideration to shape our outlook on life.
      Anyone who has a narrow religious view of life, who is absolutely sure their religion is completely right, would be best off avoiding this book like the plague - it probably won't change their views, but they will quite likely get very upset and outraged. And anyone with an open-minded spiritual view had better at least be prepared to do a lot of thinking, and perhaps be willing to change some of their views, because this book will challenge almost any spiritual or religious viewpoint I can think of - whether it is of the open-minded or dogmatic sort.
      Some critics of this book have found its reasoning unconvincing, its materialist reductionism too superficial and shallow. But, from my perspective, the problem does not lie here; the problem with the book is that it is too convincing, that it is entirely convincing. The book makes it very difficult to continue to believe in anything that contradicts its basic premise, but which might be more comforting, and might give a greater sense of hope and inspiration, and provide a real sense of purpose in life.
      Such have its effects on my life been that, in my more depressed moments, I have desperately wished I could unread the book, and continue life from where I left off.
      It has been said that each of us has a God-shaped hole inside, and that we spend most of our lives trying to fill it with the wrong things. I firmly believe that God-shaped hole is there, that we have inner longings of a wonderful sort almost impossible to describe in words. Whether a God exists to fill it, I do not yet know. But what I am sure of is that, as wonderful as Dawkins' view of nature and of life may be on its own level, it will not fill that God-shaped hole.

Michael Edwards,
Victoria, Australia.

E-mail me about this book.

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Original text copyright (C) 1999, 2000, by Michael Edwards.

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This page created on Friday, 12 May, 2000;
last modified on Sunday, 16 September, 2001 (introductory note modified).