Unselfish genius continues to inspire

March 17, 2006

For 30 years, Richard Dawkins's The Selfish Gene has challenged readers like no other academic book, says Marian Stamp Dawkins

I haven't lived with the author of The Selfish Gene for nearly 25 years. But I have lived in close and constant contact with the book itself since before it was published. Its words and figures of speech are thrown at me almost daily from student essays. The questions it raises are the driving force behind the most successful tutorials, and the sound of pennies dropping as each new generation of undergraduates takes in the extraordinary implications of what the book says is as loud now as it ever was. The Selfish Gene seems to occupy a unique place in biological writing.

If it had not been written when it was, there would still be a need for it today. No book has taken its place, even now when so many others have followed in its wake.

The Selfish Gene has the power to educate in the original meaning of the word - it literally leads people out of one way of thinking and forces them, often quite painfully and agonisingly, to see the world in a different way. It confuses, it disturbs, it offends even. It makes people see that what they may have believed before is not compatible with a gene-centred view of the world, so that they have to either rearrange their minds to accommodate a new reality or think more logically about what they do believe as a viable alternative. Some people love it. Some people are shocked. But no one who reads it and fully takes in what it says is ever quite the same again.

The first advantage of teaching with The Selfish Gene is that it instantly solves the problem of detecting plagiarism in essays. Students often take shortcuts and copy paragraphs of papers or textbooks, imagining that this will not be noticed. But they could never get away with trying it with The Selfish Gene . Laboured student prose that suddenly bursts forth with words such as "immortal coils" immediately gives itself away. I used to deal with such "borrowings" by saying, "I see you agree with Richard Dawkins" but gave that up because I never once met a student who was in the least embarrassed or contrite. So I then switched tactics and discovered an even more powerful way in which The Selfish Gene educates the unwary.

The language of The Selfish Gene so seductively captures exciting new concepts in a few well-chosen words that at first people don't realise that they are being enticed into a gentle trap of their own making. Captivated by the poetic way in which difficult ideas are described, they swallow them whole and later regurgitate them, undigested, in their own speech and writing. That is when the trap closes and the real education begins. Simple questions such as "What exactly do you mean by describing an elephant as a vehicle for genes?" can be devastating. By using the ideas themselves, people have owned them. They skate out on to thin ice of their own accord and then find there is no escape from the difficult process of finding their own way on to firm ground. That is real education - beginning to think for yourself and finding the intellectual courage to negotiate both the doubts and the certainties that result.

The Selfish Gene makes it possible to be a devil's advocate of a most gentle kind, using doubt and confusion as constructive educational tools rather than as destructive ones. How can you possibly say that genes - as bits of DNA - are selfish? Are you really saying that parents look after their young because that's the way genes for parental care spread themselves? Come to that, how on earth can you say that there are genes for behaviour at all when we know no genes act in isolation? The great thing about putting such questions to someone who claims to have read and agreed with The Selfish Gene is that the answers to most of them are there, in the book itself. By asking awkward questions, you are not casting your students adrift in a sea of confusion with no maps. You have given them a guidebook that, despite all the criticisms that have been heaped on it, actually contains the answers to most of its critics.

In the summer of 2005, an Oxford student sat down to write a final examination paper. The first question the student chose to answer was about why some animals do not reproduce and how natural selection could possibly favour them. The student wrote a scholarly essay, citing many different authors and relevant examples. Technical terms were correctly defined and used. But there was something familiar about the style. With unusual frankness, the student remarked: "And here I rely heavily on the words of Richard Dawkins." Yes, I thought, as I marked the script and gave the candidate a high mark not just for the content of the essay but for acknowledging the source. Yes. Don't we all?

Marian Stamp Dawkins is professor of animal behaviour at Oxford University and fellow in biological sciences at Somerville College. The text is an edited extract from her contribution to Richard Dawkins: How a Scientist Changed the Way We Think , published this week by Oxford University Press, Pounds 12.99.

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