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garysmith

The Selfish Gene, by Richard Dawkins

I have just started to read this. I hope it is not to full of technical expression's, I know very little about biology.Any of you lot read it? And what was it like for you?
Gary
TheRejectAmidHair

While I have read many articles and essays by Dawkins, I have never read a full-length book, and I'd be interested to know what you make of this.

The Selfish Gene is a particularly controversial work - and not merely because of Dawkins' anti-religious stance. The rhetoric in the opening paragraph, especially, has attracted a great deal of criticism.

One work that I have found particularly illuminating on the subject of evolution is Almost Like a Whale by Steve Jones, in which he takes Darwin's Origin of Species, presents the same arguments in the same format, but illustrates those arguments with scientific evidence that would not have been available to Darwin.
Ann

I've read The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins and found it very persuasive and easy to follow. I'm not a biologist but I think he writes clearly about sciency things.
mike js

Himadri, Almost Like a Whale sounds interesting. Will look out for that one. I have heard Steve Jones on the radio, and he seems to be affable and a good communicator.
Simon The Sponge

I did enjoy the Selfish Gene but found his writing a little muddled at times.  some of his analogies I thought could potentially do more to confuse than clarify.  He was keen to emphasize the dispassionate nature of natural selection, but at the same time returned to using phrases and analogies that are anything but dispassionate and, out of context, suggest sonscious decisions on the part of organisms that quite clearly are incapable of them.  

He also begins to explore his idea of memes in this book.  The theory that, as we are biologically merely carriers for genetic reproduction, we are also dispassionate carries of information and ideas (memes).

I'm less and less inclined to read him now as his atheistic vitriol is starting to show in his TV "Documentaries" and interviews.  I should really read the God Delusion
Hector

Simon

I've heard Dawkins labelled as vitriolic before but I just don't see it. He always comes across as calm and relaxed on television either when being interviewed or interviewing someone else. If anything he is almost too polite (a skill which he uses to great effect).

Arguably at times he mights become frustrated at the responses he gets, but certainly no vitriol in my eyes. Just a considered line of reasoning. I think it's a label that his detractors have used against him.

Regards

Hector
Simon The Sponge

Hi Hector,

You are right, I think vitriol is too stronger word, but his prejudice and intolerance of those with alternate views to his own does show in his works and I think his mask of politeness slips occasionally.  

I think he is very adept and calculating however at portraying himself as a very rational and calm person and (in his own documentaries at least) using careful editiing showing others with alternative viewpoints in a lesser light
MikeAlx

I don't think Dawkins has a problem with alternative viewpoints - just with plain wrong ones. He does have a habit of choosing unfortunate metaphors though - the blatantly anthropomorphic Selfish Gene being one such, which certainly raised the hackles of Mary Midgely (who, however, seemed to get entirely the wrong end of the stick as far as I can see).
TheRejectAmidHair

Dawkins is, as you say, very polite and measured in his presentation, but what he presents is bound to occasion immense controversy – and not merely amongst the religious.

Take for instance his espousal of the idea of “memes” (I believe he has retracted somewhat on this issue since the writing of The Selfish Gene). The hypothesis (for it is no more than that) that human thoughts, ideas and cultural values are encoded in our genes is potentially a very dangerous idea, as it can be (and, indeed, has been) used to support all sorts of racialist ideology. Of course, the truth or otherwise of any idea is independent of whether or not it is politically dangerous, but in this instance, there is not the slightest empirical evidence that this idea is true: there is nothing to indicate that ideas and cultural values are genetically encoded. Dawkins has, I believe, backtracked on this particular issue, but a great many mischievous people (not Dawkins himself though, I hasten to add) have made a number of very spurious pseudo-scientific assertions based on this.

When it comes to arguing against creationism, I couldn’t agree with Dawkins more, and I find myself just as angry as he clearly is when creationism (or some form of creationism pretending to be science) is taught in schools. And, like Dawkins, I find it hard to hide my exasperation when it is claimed that in our post-modern world, there is no such thing as objective truth, and therefore everything is equally valid, and  mythological accounts of creation are just as valid a way of explaining the world as the scientific ideas … etc etc. However, on the matter of religion, I do think that there are more nuances than Dawkins is prepared to admit. Dawkins’ viewpoint is quite simple: one shouldn’t believe in religion because it isn’t true. However, this presupposes that people believe in religion because they think it’s true. It seems to me that with intelligent believers (and yes, such people do exist!) it’s the other way round – it’s not that they believe because they think it’s true, it’s more that they are inclined to think it’s true because they cannot help believing.

Dawkins would dismiss this sort of thing as casuistry: something is either true or it isn’t, he insists, and if we are to be rational, we should accept only what we know to be true – or, at least, what, on the basis of empirical evidence, is probable. But the human mind just doesn’t work in this way.  It always amuses me when Dawkins appeals to our rationality in arguing against religion: after all, various totalitarian regimes in the past have tried to abolish religion, and I hardly think Dawkins’ appeal to reason will succeed where these regimes with their somewhat more persuasive means have failed. I don’t think there has ever been any people in any part of the world in any period of history that have not believed in some form of divinity. Belief is, if nothing else, a human need, and I can’t see it ceasing to be a human need just because Dawkins dismisses it as a “comfort blanket”.

(And incidentally, there seems to be some confusion on this point in the anti-religion camp. On the one hand, religious belief is spoken of as a “comfort blanket”, but on the other, they run an advert saying “There’s probably no God, so stop worrying and enjoy your life”. If religious belief is a “comfort blanket”, how can they think that this same comfort blanket is causing people to worry and not enjoy their lives?)

I suppose I fall into that category of people Dawkins particularly dislikes, those “I’m not a believer myself, but….” people. But it’s true: I’m with Dawkins on a great many points: I agree with him on the matter of faith schools, and on the influence of religious bodies in secular legislation; I share his exasperation with the “everything is equally valid” nonsense of post-modernists; and I am just as angry as he is on the teaching of creationism in schools. But if, as Dawkins tells us, everything must be questioned, then I don’t see why Dawkins himself does not appear to question his stance that our world-view should be strictly consistent with what we know to be objective, empirical truth, as that is the most important thing of all. I’m not saying it isn’t – just that this statement surely needs to be questioned as well. And once we begin to question it, all sorts of nuances and subtleties begin to emerge that, I suspect, Dawkins doesn’t have much time for.
Simon The Sponge

I think you've encapsulated alot of my own issues Himadri, although my reading of his ideas on memes was a little different - probably to my own glossing over these last chapters in the book - will post a little more when I'm back home and not supposed to be "working" (in the loosest sense of course)
MikeAlx

TheRejectAmidHair wrote:
Dawkins’ viewpoint is quite simple: one shouldn’t believe in religion because it isn’t true.

I don't think that's quite accurate. As far as I'm aware, Dawkins' viewpoint is more like "one shouldn't believe in religion because there's no evidence it's true" - which is a significantly different claim.
TheRejectAmidHair

Yes, you're quite right: it's an important distinction.

But this still presupposes that those who believe do so on the basis of empirical evidence, and I really don't think this is the case. People do not, I think, believe on the basis of evidence, so pointing out that evidence does not exist is hardly going to deter anyone from believing.
Simon The Sponge

MikeAlx wrote:
I don't think Dawkins has a problem with alternative viewpoints - just with plain wrong ones.


I was making some large generalisations my post wasn't I, although Like Himadri I sympathise with Dawkins in the face of viewpoints like creationism which can be proved to be plain wrong, but he also has similar emphasis on viewpoints which cannot be disproved with empirical evidence.

On the subject of memes, I didn't realise that he'd linked meme evolution with gene evolution,  I thought he only used genes as an analogy for the survival of cultural ideas and information and so demonstrating that the mechanism is quite widely seen in other areas of nature.  Moreover he also uses this to suggest that religion itself is a meme - a cultural idea that is spread by speech or ritual behaviour.  If this is the case then religion will only disappear when the cultural environment has changed so that it cannot survive or isn't required, as with the gene analogy.  In which case it seems like he's whistling in the wind against his own argument.  

I too found the Bus adverts a little odd too Himadri as a I thought removing God was more likely to induce worry through existential angst (to use a Dai phrase) Smile

But I guess the most important question would be what would Dawkins have to say about the explanation of spoons jumping across draining boards - any developments on that Himadri?
MikeAlx

I'm also very uneasy with the idea of memes. There's nothing physical or measurable to underpin it, so it's at best a metaphor, and certainly not part of empirical science.

It also seems to me to be based on a rather simplistic conception of what an idea is - for all we know, it might be the case that no two people ever have exactly the same idea. It ignores questions about whether certain ideas can exist independently of language, and whether they inevitably change when they cross into another language or culture, and suchlike.
Caro

Very very much sideways here, sorry, but I hear that Stephen Hawkings is very ill.  I have read his Brief History of Time (to the end! but rather skipping parts) and also an autobiography, or was it a biography? of his first wife, which showed him in a rather different light, though just as intelligent and focussed.  Not much of a husband, though.

Cheers, Caro.  (Perhaps I should have put this elsewhere, but I can hardly open a thread on the death of authors who haven't actually died.)
Caro

Back to memes though, there are lots of scientific ideas which don't have actual evidence at the time of their proposals, but that doesn't necessarily invalidate them.  I don't think there was much evidence of black holes when they were first mentioned or the big bang or some of this string theory that I don't understand.  

And does calculus actually exist? Isn't it just made up?  It shouldn't exist anyway, as far as my 6th form maths was concerned.

Cheers, Caro.
TheRejectAmidHair

Simon The Sponge wrote:
But I guess the most important question would be what would Dawkins have to say about the explanation of spoons jumping across draining boards - any developments on that Himadri?


For those who haven't seen my page on Facebook, I should explain that this refers to an event that happened in our very kitchen about a month or two ago. My wife and I were ready to retire for the night, when we heard a crash in the kitchen: we went there to find a saucepan on the floor - it had obviously fallen from the kitchen worktop. I was just explaining that we must have left it too close to the edge, and that it must have toppled over, when, before our very eyes, a spoon that was standing upringht in the plastic drainer next to the sink leaped out a good yard or so across the kitchen worktop. We both saw this. And what's more, not only were we both stone cold sober, but neither of us had been experimenting with any sort of drug at all - not even aspirin.

Whatever the reason, I can definitely report that there has been no further poltergeist actvity in the house. As you all know, I am sceptical and rational about everything, but if this wasn't the spirits of the dead trying to contact us, then I'm Uri Geller.
Caro

Apparently there is connection between poltergeist activities and teenagers in a home, though I have never understood how the two combine.  That is a very weird thing to have happened, Himadri.  There must be logical explanations, though it is often hard to see what.

Cheers, Caro.
TheRejectAmidHair

Caro wrote:
Back to memes though, there are lots of scientific ideas which don't have actual evidence at the time of their proposals, but that doesn't necessarily invalidate them.  


I doesn't invalidate them, but it doesn't give us any particular reason to talk about them either. One could make any hypothesis about anything, but if there's no evidence, then what's the point?

Quote:
And does calculus actually exist? Isn't it just made up?  It shouldn't exist anyway, as far as my 6th form maths was concerned.


Very Happy Oh, that's good! I don't have to explain the ideas to the children then!
Simon The Sponge

Quote:
but if this wasn't the spirits of the dead trying to contact us, then I'm Uri Geller.


Probably why the spoon was making a bid for freedom then Wink

Caro,  I've also read Jane Hawking's Music to move the stars, if that's the book you're referring to.  It was a few years ago that I read it, but I found it a very honest book.  From what I remember she came across as being a very caring and warm person and despite the circumstances of their divorce it struck me that she was resolved not to be too bitter
MikeAlx

I hear that Stephen Hawking is expected to make a full recovery.

Caro, calculus may be 'made up', but it is part of mathematics rather than science per se, and is a useful tool for science because it's rather good at predicting quantitatively how things will behave, given Newton's laws. It's entirely testable by measurement. Integration tells us, for example, that the volume of a sphere is 4/3 * PI * r cubed. Dunk a sphere in a measuring vessel full of water, and whaddya know?

String theory, however, is entirely speculation and has yet to produce a single prediction testable with current technology. Some in the physics community are starting to challenge its dominance.

As to Himadri's spooky spoon, I suspect some sort of springboard effect, probably on the part of the draining board.

I've seen one 'hidden camera' study showing a very direct connection between poltergeist activity and a teenage girl. A connection of the most unmysterious kind!
Caro

Quite a number of them turn out to be right - and then ones that seem to have evidence turn out to be wrong.  I think speculative scientific ideas do need to be talked about so people can look for things to prove or disprove them.  I presume there is some sort of evidence for people to consider them.  Scientists do not speculate on the possibility of angels dancing on a pin for instance.  Or flying pigs. Or earthquakes being caused by falling stars.  

Yes, Simon it was that book I was meaning.  

And Himadri (and Mike) I hope you are better at explaining calculus than my 6th form (first year) teacher was.  I feel a bit cheated since I was quite good at maths till then.  All I remember - all I ever knew - was dx by dy.  No idea what that meant though.  Or what it was supposed to do. I know more from my grandmother's teachings.  She used to say, a propos of water and volume, "When a body is immersed in a liquid it loses weight and the        of the weight lost equals the            ."  (The gaps are the bits I have forgotten!)

There must be a way I could use this knowledge to fool the doctor about my weight.  

Cheers, Caro.
TheRejectAmidHair

MikeAlx wrote:
As to Himadri's spooky spoon, I suspect some sort of springboard effect, probably on the part of the draining board.


Well, you're no fun, are you?  Very Happy
MikeAlx

Wouldn't get a job at Hammer films, would I?  Wink

Seriously though, I speak as someone frequently woken in the middle of the night and ordered to patrol the house because 'I'm sure I heard a noise'.  Smile
MikeAlx

Caro wrote:
All I remember - all I ever knew - was dx by dy.  No idea what that meant though.

More usually dy by dx - which is the rate of change of y with respect to x, or, if you have a graph, the gradient (slope) of the graph at any given point.

Finding dy/dx is called differentiation; its inverse is called integration, which is useful for calculating areas and volumes and doing anything else that involves summing large numbers of infinitely narrow shapes.

Well, aren't I just the life and soul of the party today...  Wink
Caro

Hmmm, thank you, I think...

I'm dismayed about dy by dx though - for 40 years I have thought we talked about dx by dy and now you've thrown that into disarray with one sentence.  I wonder if I can remember differentiation and integration long enough to work that into a conversation.  
Quote:
summing large numbers of infinitely narrow shapes.
is not quite a phrase I can get my mind round.  "Adding up lots and lots of tiny numbers"?  How can shapes be infinitely narrow?  I don't like 'infinite' - it confuses me and I like to avoid it.

Cheers, Caro.
MikeAlx

dx by dy is equally valid; it's just that dy by dx is more common (because of the way round we normally draw graphs). I just depends which way round you hold your graph-paper, really!

Calculus is all about infinitely small bits - it calculates things to do with curves by pretending they're made up of lots of points joined by straight lines, then seeing what happens when you add more and more points and the spaces between them get smaller and smaller (in the jargon, "tending to zero"). Very clever really - and to think Newton & Leibniz worked all this out 300 years ago!

All of which is a long way from the original topic of this thread!  Embarassed
Caro

My fault, sorry.  

People could work this out, yet no one could understand there were bacteria causing illnesses.  I find this very odd. (No, I am NOT diverting this to a new discussion on biology!)

Cheers, Caro.

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