(M.J.E. / Writings / Book Reviews / Non-fiction /
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
E-mail me about this book.
Click here if you need an
explanation for the strange appearance of the e-mail address which will appear
when you click on the e-mail link, or if you don't know what you need to do to
make the e-mail address work properly.
Original text copyright (C) 1999, 2000, by Michael Edwards.
More material on this web site related to Richard Dawkins
( Book listing for Richard Dawkins )
Amazon.com customer reviews
Amazon.co.uk customer reviews
Introduction - Front page, which leads to Contents
Web Site of Michael Edwards - Contents
Writings by Michael Edwards
The Selfish Gene (this page)
This page created on Friday, 12 May, 2000;
last modified on Sunday, 16 September, 2001 (introductory note modified).