Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Selfish Gene

I bought my copy of this book recently but am in the midst of Daniel Dennett's painfully diffuse tome "Darwin's dangerous idea". I made a vow to myself to read it through.

I am so greatly looking forward to Dawkins' lucid writing after slaving away through Dennett's verbose Jackson Pollock spewing of loosely related ideas.

If my own personal history is to judge, I will re-read Dennett's book in 5 years and proclaim it to be one of my favorite of all time. But for now, it is sort of like Mr. Miagee's paint the fence, sand the deck. He gives you a work out, but it is very slow to pay off. However, I appreciate Dennett. He is no shallow thinker. He treads deep honest waters and slowly takes you for a mesmerizing swim. It's one of those books that will fundamentally alter my worldview, but in ways which I have yet to quite fully realize. I have to digest it. I don't enjoy reading it, but it is good to read something over your head once in awhile to force you to stretch out and realize how much you don't know.

I also picked up voyage of the beagle, origin of species, and have the ancestors tale as a bathroom book. I'm spread a bit thin with this reading binge I'm on, but I am obsessed with becoming historically informed on evolution because I am fascinated to no end by the complete ignorance of public discourse on the subject, particularly by people like Francis Collins. Also, Naushaba and I were talking about going to the Gallapagos Islands, and one MUST read voyage of the beagle before that.

Anyways, I wanted to post what I thought was a most extraordinary piece of writing. It is review number one from Amazon.com's page on the selfish gene. I think this reviewer speaks for alot of us. Though I've yet to read the book, I am already very familar with the premise. The book landed Dawkins on the map and was considered #9 on the all time most important science books in history (Discover magazine) behind only:

Darwin (Origin of Species and Voyage of the Beagle)
Newton (Principia)
Galileo (Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems)
Copernicus (On the Revolutions of Heavenly Spheres)
Aristotle (Physica)
Vesalius (De Humani Corporis Fabrica- an anatomy book)
Einstein (Relativity: The Special and General Theory) .

One cannot underestimate the importance of "the selfish gene" by Dick Dawkins. The logic of "the gene's eye view" explains so much and is so clearly obvious, but the implication has devastated many people's satisfying view, including my own. When I believed in a view of guided evolution like Collins has or Ken Wilber has or Andrew Cohen has, I really thought that I understood evolution through natural selection, but I did not. I think the only way to truly grasp that evolution is blind is to do years of field work observing and studying nature like E.O. Wilson and Darwin. The idea has led to strong backlashes by those who insists that nature is not just a blind algorithm. I am at the part in Dennett's book right now where he is attempting to prove that Stephen J. Gould was trying desperately to find a way to show that orthodox neo-Darwinism is not true because the implications of the idea were too unsettling for him to take. Gould never succeeded within the science community at doing this in his lifetime. But Dennett illustrates his frustration that the public is too divorced from facts to realize this. The problem is that the human mind is absolutely unwilling to accept the idea (see my reply to the reviewer's post afterwards)

Fascinating, but at times I wish I could unread it., August 7, 1999
Michael Edwards (Healesville, Victloria Australia) - See all my reviews

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.

Aaron's comment:

I thought this was a wonderful review. It describes what I have gone through as well. Dawkins' ideas not only make sense, they make so much sense that any idea that denies their validity is immediately suspect. In truth, I think that reality leads one to nihilism. Our perception of beauty and grandeur is *also* an illusion set up by our genes. Just as one elephant finds another elephant to be the sexiest imaginable beast, so our concept of "beauty" is equally arbitrary and ungrounded in ultimate reality. All of our imaginable perceptions as human beings are just smoke and mirrors. I've always thought that secular humanists were nihilists in denial. I'm willing to pretend personally. What else is their to do?


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Aaron said...

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M.J.E. said...

      Hallo. I am the writer of the review of "The Selfish Gene" quoted in this article, and in many, many other web sites. I originally posted it on Amazon.com in 1999 (where it can still be found), and I am astonished at how far it has spread in the years since then, and even more astonished to find out just now that the Introduction to the 30th-anniversary edition of "The Selfish Gene" quotes part of this review. Dawkins has also quoted this review in a public speech which has been broadcast at least here in Australia.
      I cannot really believe that I am inherently so perceptive of a certain view of this book, but feel that somehow, by fluke, I just hit on a certain combination of ideas that provoked thoughts in other people (whether favourably or otherwise).
      To Aaron, who finds that beauty is arbitrary, secular humanits are nihilists in denial, and who is willing to pretend (presumably meaning to pretend that there is some kind of spiritual purpose to life): I would probably be willing to pretend, too, but I somehow find that I can't. I have yet to learn the secret, seemingly well-known by many people, of willing myself to believe something I know is untrue, or for which there is no evidence, in order to avoid the awful emptiness of life that would otherwise be apparent - I have yet to figure out how to pretend that things are true when I know jolly well that they aren't.
      What else is there to do but pretend? That is another question. If there is no reasonable alternative (and I can't think of one), that does not in the slightest degree increase my ability to pretend that a fantasy is true.

Michael Edwards.

      If there are follow-up comments to be sent to me personally (as against on this blog), please ignore the thing that says to use the supplied Gmail address. It is valid, but I check it very rarely - like once a month or less; instead, please use m j edwards (one word) at foxall dot com dot au, which I check every day. (Written that way to minimize the risk of spam robots; edit into normal e-mail address format before using.)