Inspiring Evolutionary Thought, and a New Title, by Turning Genetics Into Prose

From The New York Times:Dawkins_9

Thirty years ago, a young biologist set out to explain some new ideas in evolutionary biology to a wider audience. But he ended up restating Darwinian theory in such a broad and forceful way that his book has influenced specialists as well. “Richard Dawkins: How a Scientist Changed the Way We Think” is a collection of essays about Dr. Dawkins’s book “The Selfish Gene” and its impact. Contributors to the book, edited by Alan Grafen and Matt Ridley, are mostly biologists but include the novelist Philip Pullman, author of “His Dark Materials,” and the bishop of Oxford, Richard Harries.

The biologists have copious praise for Dr. Dawkins’s work of synthesis, while the writers remark on his graceful and vivid style. It is quite surprising for anyone to be commended from such opposite quarters, but “The Selfish Gene,” published in 1976, was unusual. Written in clear and approachable language, it worked its way so logically into the core of Darwinian theory that even evolutionary biologists were seduced into embracing Dr. Dawkins’s view of their world.

Dr. Dawkins’s starting point was the idea that the gene, not the individual, is the basic unit on which natural selection acts. The gene’s behavior is most easily understood by assuming its interest is to get itself replicated as much as possible — hence the “selfish” gene of the title.

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