Thursday, March 29, 2007

End of One, Beginning of Another

Yesterday I finished The Selfish Gene by Richard Dawkins. I'm very sad! So thoroughly have I enjoyed the book that I was purposefully reading slower as I began to realize I was nearing the final chapters. It's a truly fabulous book, up there with Jared Diamond's Guns, Germs & Steel on the top of the list of books that have changed the way I look at the world. I now understand more fully just how natural selection functions, for I must admit that until reading Dawkins's book I was a (now embarrassed) follower of the individualist school of thought: mainly that natural selection acts at the level of the individual organism and selects those individuals best suited to their environment.

I now know that while that is partially true, it isn't the whole story. One of the questions that drove me to Dawkins regarded meiosis. Why, if (as I had been taught) natural selection is choosing individuals best suited for survival, do those individuals turn around and essentially destroy themselves, scattering their genes by way of a random dispersal of haploid gametes? Enter the selfish gene theory. Not only does it explain that it is the gene that is the fundamental unit of natural selection, but that genes are the ones actually doing the competing, and they just happen to have organized themselves into "communities", which we call the genomes of individual organisms.

Everything makes so much more sense now! So, what did I do when I finished the book? Well, I ran to the library for more Dawkins, of course! Imagine my disappointment, though, at finding that my school library does not have a copy of The Extended Phenotype. For shame! I really want to own that book, but since it's crunch time for my meagre student budget I decided to resort to the library. But alas, they had it not. Instead, I checked out a copy of a later book by Dawkins, Unweaving the Rainbow. I've read through the first two chapters or so, and I must say it's quite enthralling.

In this book Dawkins aims to takes on those who believe science to be a dry and loveless way of explaining the world and gathering information, that somehow we lose something if we don't embrace some sort of mystical reverence for the universe. This is not, of course, to say that Dawkins is a cold, calculating Grinch with no love for life. On the contrary, he argues in this book that science can offer all the wonder, mystery, and beauty of the greatest works of art. As he argues in one memorable passage, if one can enjoy a Mozart clarinet concerto without actually being able to play it, why not enjoy science in a similar fashion? It is clearly not within every person's ability to learn Mozart, but there are many who enjoy it nonetheless. It is possible to become very knowledgeable about music without knowing how to play a single note. Why not the same for science? There is a definite misconception amongst the general public that science is for some small elite class of people, shut away in laboratories in their white coats, plugging away at long equations, making charts and graphs, and mixing all sorts of strange chemicals together. Surely, we need these type of people to advance science, just as we need clarinet players to play Mozart, but why not have a large section of the public who simply enjoy science, as so many enjoy Mozart?

This is, in a nutshell, what I expect the rest of the book to cover. I can't wait! It's already fascinating to read Dawkins's always eloquent expressions of the beauties of science and rationalism, and I haven't even scratched the surface of the book yet. I guess The Extended Phenotype is going to have to wait for a little while yet!

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