Coming up to the 30th anniversary of the publication of Richard Dawkins’ The Selfish Gene. An edited version of his foreword to an anniversary reissue appears in the Sunday Times online:
Perhaps the most telling quote..
Many critics, especially vociferous ones learned in philosophy as I have discovered, prefer to read a book by title only.
and to reassure us he isn’t a nihilist..
if something is true, no amount of wishful thinking can undo it. As I went on to write, ìPresumably there is indeed no purpose in the ultimate fate of the cosmos, but do any of us really tie our lifeís hopes to the ultimate fate of the cosmos anyway? Of course we donít; not if we are sane. Our lives are ruled by all sorts of closer, warmer, human ambitions and perceptions. To accuse science of robbing life of the warmth that makes it worth living is so preposterously mistaken, so diametrically opposite to my own feelings and those of most working scientists, I am almost driven to the despair of which I am wrongly suspected.î
I have to say that The Selfish Gene was a book that changed my life.. only in a subtle and insidious way that it took me a while to notice but a permanent change nonetheless. One the simple face of it, it was a book that was utterly exhilarating to read aged 17 and full of optimism that maths had the answer to everything. I found a copy hidden in a tiny library in little cubby hole under a stairway at school. I was sitting in there supposedly writing a philosophy paper. I put that hold while I raced through these new ideas.
Suddenly, evolution looked a bit more powerful and cunning than the boring story that we had been told in biology classes. Those tales of the differential survival of fortuituous mutants seemed trivial and obvious once you got the mechanism. But here was a book that took a deeper view, that didn’t try to hide you from the actual mechanisms of genetic selection.
let’s leave aside debate over whether these are the actual mechanisms.. the point for me then was that there was distinction between genotype and phenotype. And that evolution was an arms race where competition drove innovation.
Adding to that a smattering of the mathematics of game-theory and I began to get a sense of how powerful the modern genetic version of Darwin’s theory really was. And while that is all lovely, this new knowledge wasn’t the main and most important change that the book effected in me. After all, I’d have found that all out in due course anyhow.
The most profound effect was one that it took me a little longer to notice. It was my first Eureka moment. Reading that book was one of my biggest and strongest experiences of the fact that the world is rational and comprehensible. That the right theories can be incredibly powerful in explaining the world around us. I was, of course, already an atheist. I already felt that science was something pretty neat.. but I had taken that for granted.. and none of the science facts or philosophical theories i was learning in school were really capturing that excitement.
It took this little book, that I stumbled across by accident, and that had a sense of forbidden or hidden knowledge to ignite that excitement for me. In my case that was fifteen years ago. At times since then I forgot it or could not see a way for a failure of a mathematician to be part of the fun but will I was disillusioned with my own directions and tried the mundane world of commerce for a while.. I guess I never forgot that excitement of a good theory. And ultimately it was that got me back into science.
Which is where I belong.