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Alan Grafen and Mark Ridley (editors)

Richard Dawkins

How a scientist changed the way we think

Book review by Anthony Campbell. The review is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

Richard Dawkins first attracted widespread public attention in 1976, when he published a book called The Selfish Gene. I remember finding it disturbing and unacceptable at the time, because it didn't fit in with my world view. Since then, my thinking has changed very considerably and I now see that the "gene's eye view" came as a welcome alternative to the idea of evolution with which I grew up. That way of thinking, in which individuals were supposed to sacrifice themselves for the good of the species, seems to me now to be in some ways a relic of the public school ethos with its emphasis on team spirit.

Quite a few of the contributors to this tribute to Dawkins seem to have undergone broadly similar conversions in their thinking. But there is, of course, much more to Dawkins than just the selfish gene idea, and his thought as a whole is treated in the essays included here.

The book has seven sections. The first is introductory and has essays by four biologists whose work in parasitology, gender differences, communication, and animal artefacts has been influenced by Dawkins.

The second section concentrates on the selfish gene idea itself and draws out some of its implications. For example, David Haig takes up the idea of memes and considers how genes can be considered, recursively, as memes. Another interesting piece, by Ullica Segerstrale, looks at how far Dawkins and Edward O.Wilson are in agreement, and concludes that their views are in fact quite divergent; Wilson, it appears, is much more sympathetic to the idea of group selection than is Dawkins.

The selfish gene idea has been important for a number of philosophers, notably Daniel C.Dennett, who contributes an essay to the third section. There are also essays from the standpoints of computer science, physics, and cognitive science.

Not everyone agrees with Dawkins, of course, and the book includes, in the fourth section, some essays by people who dissent from his ideas in certain respects. However, the dissent is fairly muted and the tone of these essays is friendly rather than controversial.

Dawkins's ideas have, inevitably and controversially, been applied to humans. This is the subject of the fifth section, which includes an essay by Randolph M.Nesse. Nesse has previously written extensively about the relvance of evolution to medicine, but here he touches on this only obliquely, which I found rather disappointing.

Dawkins has always been fiercely critical of religion and his writing in recent years has been increasingly concerned to promote atheism. Part six provides several essays looking at this aspect of his thought. One is by Richard Harries, Bishop of Oxford, who finds that he has a lot in common with Dawkins.

The final section considers Dawkins as a writer, and includes a contribution from the novelist Philip Pullman, who provides a perceptive analysis of what it is that makes Dawkins's books so good considered as literature.

People who are already interested in Dawkins's ideas will want to add this book to their reading list.

%T Richard Dawkins
%S How a scientist changed the way we think
%E Grafen, Alan
%E Ridley, Mark %C Oxford
%D 2006
%G ISBN 0-19-929116-0
%P xiii + 283 pp
%K science

Book Reviews | Titles | Authors | Subjects