Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Book Recommendation: The Selfish Gene

Besides poker and the occasional out-of-my-real-life anecdote, I was also planning to write about some of the better books I come upon. I’m an avid reader, and like most avid readers I have the kind of enthusiasm about books that expresses itself by encouraging others to read them, too. And isn’t this just a great venue for encouraging it?

I kick off this series with The Selfish Gene by Richard Dawkins, and a few words about him, first of all:

My first encounter with Dawkins was in an interview on the Colbert Report (a show that, most unfortunately, we do not get in Sweden), where he talked about his book The God Delusion - a book that I may well write more about on a later date. Watching the show, I appreciated his dry humor and his wit, and decided that I'd go get that book he was talking about. And I did.

And I became a fan of sorts. I really liked his style of writing. So I decided that I'd like to read more of what he has written, and he had kept mentioning his first book, The Selfish Gene, when he referred to various evolutionary evidence in The God Delusion. "So," I thought to myself, "maybe I should read that."

A word on evolution: Now, I tried to read Darwin's own book a few years back, but was, sadly, bored out of my mind. It's a brick, and it's dense, and it's not precisely written for its entertainment value. I'm not questioning that it's fascinating if you're already in a state of mind to be fascinated by the historical and scientific importance that this book has. But I wasn't, and I'm not sure I will be. I don't mind taking the road more travelled, sometimes. So when I was visiting my in-laws in Minnesota over easter and ran around in various bookstores (as I tend to do when I'm in the US), I noticed The Selfish Gene on a shelf and saw that it was
  1. less of a brick than Darwin's "Origin of Species" and
  2. likely more entertaining and therefore possibly more educational and worthwhile to read.
Also, my 8th grade knowledge of evolution could use a freshening-up. So I put it in the pile of books I was going to take with me home.

By now, I'm sure you've figured out that it - The Selfish Gene - is a book about evolution. Specifically, it addresses the central point of the evolutionary mechanism: The gene. It's not the species (as Darwin assumed) that is subject to natural selection, it's the gene. Some genes multiply and survive well, some multiply and survive poorly. We, the species, are "merely" carriers of a bunch of genes, and it's through us that they survive.

It's difficult to read this kind of material in one sitting. So despite being fascinated and curious, it took quite some time to get through it. I had to pause pretty often and turn to Lori and say "did you know that..." or "hah! guess what it says here!" or "hey, this is kinda cool." The book is not what you'd call light reading, but it is a very, very interesting read.

In terms of non-fiction work, this book is top-notch. I can't recommend it enough.

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