A friend bought me this book as a present but it had sat idly on one of my bookshelves for nearly four years. I suppose that I felt that it was going to be overly dry and the selfish' part of the title made me think that maybe it was advocating an extreme capitalist way of life. Having grown up in Thatcher's Britain, I have little time for the take care of yourself and screw everyone else' mentality that her politics championed.
When I did get around to reading it, however, I found that I was immediately spell-bound. There's a note on the front cover from the New York Times that says the sort of popular science writing that makes the reader feel like a genius'. I don't think I've ever read a more spot-on review snippet, as that's exactly how it feels. The skill of Dawkins, as a writer, is that he has managed to convey what is in essence a series of scientific facts in a way that even a layperson can easily understand. His method of doing so is to use plenty of analogies with everyday things, whilst at the same time reminding us that these are analogies and that everything can be tied back to the science of mathematics, etc, when required.
So, what does the book reveal to us? Well, the first thing to say is that it's not about the whole science of evolution although Darwin's breakthrough discovery is at the heart of the science that Dawkins is writing about. What he actually discusses in this book is the role that genes have had in our (and all life's) evolution. We know that genes determine what colour eyes we have or whether we're susceptible to certain diseases. However, what Dawkins shows is rather more fundamental and remarkable than that.
Everyone who has been educated in the theory of evolution will know how natural selection has played a role in the way species have evolved. It's previously been accepted that natural selection happens at the individual level (although some have also rather fancifully argued that it can happen at a group level). So, to give a simple example, females choose males who were tall (because taller males could reach higher fruit) and so the next generation of babies were more likely to have genes that predispose an individual to being tall. What Dawkins argues is that you can go one step further and say that natural selection (and evolution) happens at the level of the gene.
He goes back to the beginning of life on Earth and explains how the first ever living organisms would have been very simple single celled organisms, existing in the primordial soup that characterised our planet in its infancy. Some of these cells discovered' the ability to replicate themselves. The membrane around them was their protection against the other organisms and evolution started with those organisms that could design the most effective bodies and who were the best at reproducing themselves being the ones that thrived.
Dawkins refers to the bodies of organisms as their survival machines', a term I really like! Horns, teeth, body armour, all these things went towards the organisms survival machine, along with eyes, noses, etc, as the creatures over a huge stretch of time became ever more sophisticated. And all the time, the cells were busy replicating themselves, through reproduction.
Dawkins looks then at whether genes can be altruistic or whether they are always selfish. In other words, is their aim always to maximise the outcome for themselves or could there ever evolve a situation whereby altruistic behaviour can be observed. His conclusion is that even instances that at the outset look altruistic can (when analysed) be seen to actually be selfish.
I think it's a fascinating and very revealing book. There will be many people who will be sceptical about some elements of it. This includes people from the scientific community who still believe that natural selection happens at an individual level and that genes play a subsidiary role. Whatever your initial biases, however, I would thoroughly recommend that you read this book. If nothing else, you will gain a new appreciation for the complex behaviours of some of our fellow species.