Richard Dawkins: how a scientist changed the way we think

Richard Dawkins: how a scientist changed the way we think      

Alan Grafen and Mark Ridley   

Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press 2006 | 304pp | ?12.99 (HB) | ISBN 0199291160 

The selfish gene (30th anniversary edition) 

Richard Dawkins 

Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press 2006 | 384pp | ?8.99 (SB) | ISBN 0199291152   

Reviewed by Bea Perkins

It’s 30 years since Richard Dawkins published The selfish gene, giving Oxford University Press the perfect excuse to release not only a special 30th anniversary edition (a bit of gold on the cover and a new introduction), but also a separate collection of essays reflecting on the great man’s contribution to science and its public understanding. 

It might sound a bit commercial, and some readers could be put off by the earnest reflective pose Dawkins strikes on the cover of How a scientist changed the way we think, but these are nevertheless both important books.  

If you haven’t read The selfish gene, it will astonish you. It was written in 1976 with the express intention of astonishing readers - from laymen to experts and anyone in between. Natural selection made us what we are, Dawkins argues; it made plants, bacteria and fungi what they are too, and selfish genes led the way. Although, as Dawkins now concedes, the word ’selfish’ wasn’t perhaps ideal - it’s been prone to all manner of misunderstandings. The cooperative gene would have been just as good, he says. It sounds quite the reverse, but self-interested genes could do even better by cooperating with other self-interested genes.  

The book is beautifully written; monstrously complex theories are unpicked as prose that isn’t just easy to understand, but enjoyable to understand. In a helpful introduction to this latest edition, Dawkins gives a potted history of the book and brings us up to date on where it stands today. 

Since its release, The selfish genehas gathered both tumultuous applause and many dissenters, partly because Dawkins is a strident atheist. Charles Darwin began struggling with his faith in light of his work on natural selection, but appears to have held onto some semblance of Christianity to the end. Dawkins is having none of it, and has made enemies as a result. 

But it isn’t all black and white. In Richard Dawkins: how a scientist changed the way we think, essays by fellow evolutionary biologists lie alongside essays by philosophers and even churchmen. The Rt Revd Richard Harries, Bishop of Oxford, has previously co-authored articles with Dawkins to oppose the teaching of creationism. It flies in the face of evolutionary biology and, in Harries’ words, belittles God and brings Christianity into disrepute. 

The two Richards disagree entirely when it comes to God, but the Bishop is nevertheless a vocal supporter of Dawkins the ’fellow humanist . who believes in the importance, dignity, and utter worthwhileness of being a human being’.