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Tuesday, June 19th, 2007

Time Event
11:05p
How odd ...
This may be the most "popular" book that I've read over the past several years ... there are 1,780 folks on LibraryThing who have a copy, and 22 of them have already penned reviews. While I enjoyed reading this well enough, I really didn't get much "new" from it (which, I suppose, it not remarkable as this is the "30th Anniversary Edition", meaning that the concepts in it have been kicking around for quite a while), just more details to things "I already knew" for the most part.

I've been trying to "find an angle" for a review here, and am, frankly, coming up a bit dry. I would certainly recommend Richard Dawkins' The Selfish Gene to all and sundry as a very good basic book on the concept of genetics and what that whole group of ideas means, although many will no doubt find the basic thread (that people, like all "living beings", are simply machines developed by genes to ensure their survival and propagation) somewhat less than engaging. Now, I'm hardly the "religious" type, but I must admit coming away from this book feeling a bit, well ... irrelevant. Not only do the individual carriers of the genes not really matter except as a vehicle for those genes, but the idea that after not very many generations the recognizable inheritance of the individual is so diluted that it becomes almost meaningless. Frankly, I wish to have meaning, and I guess that's the rub on Dawkin's approach ... the individual plant, animal, etc., doesn't ultimately seem to have any.

On a brighter note, The Selfish Gene is chock full of fascinating tidbits (such as all the aphids on a particular plant are likely to be the "clone" offspring of a single mother, and are genetically identical, and could be thought of as a single entity expressed over a hundred or so discreet packages), and is a very interesting read. While intentionally shying away from going into the mathematics behind the science, there are some quite detailed looks at "game theory" elements like the classic "Prisoner's Dilemma" which are here used to chart out "evolutionary stable strategies" dealing with such things as in-group altruism and inter-species cooperation. Also, some of those inter-species arrangements (especially in the insect kingdom) that are described here are quite remarkable. I was also amazed to find that the very familiar Internet term "meme" was originated by Dawkins 30-some years ago to describe a self-replicating concept (the example he tracks was an attribution error in the title of a work that spread from two initial mis-typings to be a common error in the literature ... it would be interesting to see what he thinks of the like of "L.J. memes" so prevalent in "social networking" sites today).

The "30th Anniversary Edition" has two extra chapters which bring some of the ideas up to current understanding, and there are rather extensive notes (one chapter had almost as many pages of notes as there were of text), putting some of what had originally been written into a broader context of academic development on the subjects being addressed. I make this distinction in part due to the fact that used copies of the old edition are going at a fraction of what the new one is. In fact, at this writing, there is only about a buck separating the lowest used price from Amazon's discounted price ... and you'd be paying shipping on top of that for the used copy. While this is no doubt sitting on the shelves of your favorite brick-and-mortar book vendor, your best bet might well be Amazon (which has it new at 37% off of cover) if combined with other stuff to get free shipping.


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