The Selfish Genius : How Richard Dawkins Rewrote Darwin's Legacy, Paperback Book

The Selfish Genius : How Richard Dawkins Rewrote Darwin's Legacy Paperback

4 out of 5 (3 ratings)


Richard Dawkins' brand of evolutionary theory - which says that natural selection acts at the level of genes, not organisms or species - now seems to dominate our understanding of what Darwinism is all about.

His shoot-from-the-hip style of communicating science has also fuelled a growing but unproductive feud between science and religion.

But does Dawkins give us the full picture? Does disagreeing with him necessarily make you anti-Darwin, or anti-science?

Fern Elsdon-Baker explores the historical, philosophical and scientific arguments that are beginning to show the cracks in Dawkins' thinking.

Published in the year that celebrates the 150th anniversary of "On the Origin of Species", "The Selfish Genius" argues that Dawkins' way of seeing evolution - and indeed the world - is far from the only one possible, and that his popular image as the guardian of Darwinism in fact does it a disservice.


  • Format: Paperback
  • Pages: 240 pages, Illustrations, unspecified
  • Publisher: Icon Books Ltd
  • Publication Date:
  • Category: Popular science
  • ISBN: 9781848310490



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While, once upon a time, I enjoyed The Selfish Gene I have grown increasingly less fond of Richard Dawkins' programme the more I have read around it, and the more he has developed his personality cult. The arch-baiter of dogmatists these days has sufficient hubris - and a corresponding lack of self-awareness - to label his own website, which resembles nothing quite so much as Jerry Falwell's, a "clear thinking oasis". And no, I'm not a Christian. Despite a one-time flirtation with Daniel Dennett's Dangerous Idea, these days dispositionally, I line up with the enlightened pluralism of Richard Dawkins' scientific nemesis the late Stephen Jay Gould. I think there is value in the philosophy of science, and to make matters worse, Thomas Kuhn (according to Dawkins, merely a fashionable version of that ghastly "postmodernist" Karl Popper) is one of my favourite philosophers. I stake out my credentials unapologetically so the Dawkins faithful can with clear conscience write off my largely positive views of this book as heretical screed, just as they will the book itself. There are some things, you see which just shouldn't be said. Fern Elsdon-Baker says quite a lot of them in this nicely put together volume. And this time the charges have a chance of sticking: Much of the (abundant) public criticism of Richard Dawkins' recent output has been tarred somehow by a brush of religious inclination - even Richard Holloway's striking, insightful and substantively secular views can be discounted as emanations from a man of God, erstwhile though that relationship may be. Elsdon-Baker's a biologist without an evangelical bone in her body: notionally one of Dawkins' (or at any rate Gould's) congregation. And I have a strong feeling that she doesn't like Richard Dawkins much. But, like the dog in the night-time, you can only deduce that from the studied absence of any evidence for it. Elsdon-Baker treats her subject with a striking equanimity - especially startling since Dawkins himself often fails to display that courtesy to those holding opinions which transgress the Clear Thinking Oasis' prayerbook. Elsdon-Baker's politeness; her painstaking even-handedness can only have been born out of a peculiarly British contempt. For, once she gets going, Elsdon-Baker drives a coach and horses through much of Richard Dawkins' oeuvre, and is especially devastating about his extra-curricular forays into philosophy and religion. She often scores in playfully self-referential ways, describing the "evolution" of the idea of evolution in a way which belies Dawkins' "whiggish" notion that natural selection sprang perfectly formed from Darwin's brow one blustery afternoon on Galapagos. If I had a criticism of this book it would be that much of the early chapters are bogged down in that exposition of the origin of the natural selection idea, and in particular what Darwin himself thought about group selection and Lamarckian transmission. I suppose Eldon-Baker would justify this since her first charge is that Dawkins has expropriated Darwin's name and applied it to his own, radical, reconstruction. So much whiggishness, I suppose, but other than settling an academic score this won't quicken the reader's pulse. What matters more is whether Dawkins' neo-Darwinian account stands up on its own. Whether it does or not is a narrower question, and one of even more limited interest to non-specialists. But it seems dogmatic - the pluralist version advanced by Gould (that the evolutionary algorithm (being, in Dennett's terminology, substrate-neutral, after all) can operate on any constructions which replicate with variation, and so may operate at different levels of abstraction (gene, cell, organism, species, idea, theory - why artificially limit?) provides less overall certainty and predictability but correspondingly more plausibility as an explanation. Elsdon-Baker mentions Popper's casual (and subsequently retracted) remark that evolution might not be falsifiable at all - being compatible with any observations. This is an interesting point and I think worth of more study, particularly when rendered more like a mathematical property than a scientific one: after all, when any phenomenon replicates with variations, isn't it necessarily the case that those variations best suited to the environment will be most prosperous? Conversely those variations which did not prosper would, *by definition*, be less "fit". And evidence for that is the extraordinary surfeit of otherwise plainly contradictory sociological and scientific theories which claim Darwinian antecedence - possible only because, if you are imaginative enough, you can make the Darwinian argument support just about any proposition you fancy. As she moves from the technical quibbles within biology towards Dawkins' emotive style of discourse (questionable, from the Professor of Public Understanding of Science) and ill-advised forays into philosophy and religion, Elsdon-Baker picks up the pace, but while entertaining this part of the book is less essential (the criticisms being obvious on their face for the most part). Nonetheless, an entertaining and skilfully put together work. Not, I imagine, that this will faze the congregation of Dawkins' clear thinking oasis for a moment. But no reason not to hope for it, all the same. Let us pray.

Review by

Nothing is more dangerous than a dogmatic worldview - nothing more constraining, more blinding to innovation, more destructive of openness to novelty." — Stephen Jay GouldRichard Dawkins has been called the new Darwin. It’s an attribution that his legions of mostly fawning followers would vigorously defend (See, ludicrously subtitled “A Clear-Thinking Oasis”, for some textbook sycophancy). If you thought this idea had any currency then “The Selfish Genius” by Fern Elsdon-Baker should put you straight.Dawkins has written extensively on Darwinism but it’s possible to identify some themes that preoccupy him-Darwin was a lone and cool voice of reason crying in the wilderness-Darwin believed selection was the only evolutionary driver-Atheism is a necessary consequence of a proper understanding of evolutionThis presentation is remarkably supportive of Dawkins own viewsUnfortunately for Dawkins, however, "The Selfish Genius" examines the basis for them and finds little empirical evidence.The first section provides an historical overview that locates Darwin within a scientific and theological community largely receptive to the idea of evolution. It also touches upon Darwin’s thought on the mechanisms “driving” evolution and shows they include the idea of use and disuse drivers (for Dawkins a Lamarckian heresy). Ironically, Dawkins view of evolution with its exclusive emphasis on selection is shown to owe more to Wallace & Weismann than it does to Darwin. This is not exactly breaking fresh ground - Stephen Jay Gould said this years ago when he labelled him a neo-Darwinian. In fact this characterisation of Dawkins is remarkably apt. This is the same label that Darwin’s close friend George Romanes used to describe Wallace and Weismann’s articulation of the theory. Despite the lack of fit Dawkins presents his ideas as a seamless continuation of Darwin’s work. Clearly, attempts to cloak your own views with the respectability of another’s authority is an age old trick. However, it’s ironic that Dawkins should make consistency with the scriptures the litmus test of respectability. In this he’s a little like an evangelical Christian! In his wilful(?) misrepresentation of the writ he’s a lot like a Stalinist!The second section is devoted to Dawkins’ public role promoting the public understanding of science, particularly his more recent interventions into religious affairs. His thinking on religion although at odds with Wallace could not be called “Darwinian” for the simple reason that Darwin was a professed agnostic. This is something that Dawkins appears to have belatedly, and reluctantly, recognised. How he’s managed to suggest otherwise for so long is a source of wonder. However, the nature of Darwin’s faith is largely of historical interest. The real thrust of this section is an attempt to reframe the debate on religion and science. Elsdon-Baker believes that Dawkins’s approach is not just wrong-headed but also dangerous (Dawkins Dangerous Idea?)Unfortunately, whilst Dawkins has shown considerable flexibility with regard to his day job (adapting it to incorporate the challenge of horizontal gene transfer for example) it’s here where he’s at his most dogmatic. You only have to bear in mind Daniel C Dennett’s phrase “Brights” used for atheists to get the flavour of the debate. Although Elsdon-Baker doesn’t go as far as Gould & Ruse in suggesting Science should steer clear of moral and ethical questions she recommends a more measured (rational?) debate.As well as a plea for a less fundamentalist atheism the book is also a timely corrective to Dawkins’ self-serving misappropriation of Darwin. This misuse and distortion is not uncommon. Marx when faced with the use of his name to justify some of the more outlandish activities of the 1st International is alleged to have quipped “All I know is that I’m not a Marxist”. I’ve a sneaking suspicion that if Darwin was alive today, facing Dawkins’ version of evolutionary theory, he might want to deny his own name too.

Review by

If you're looking for pure drama, sorry, the title is just intended to be flippant. If you're looking for a genuine, in depth critique of Dawkins' work and public persona -- everything from his published research to his way of communicating with the public to his attitude in <I>The God Delusion</I> -- then you might well enjoy this. Fern Elsdon-Baker has a scientific background and is an atheist, and has some fairly large bones to pick with Dawkins, while acknowledging at the same time his work in the field, his intelligence, and the accessibility of his popular science books.<br/><br/>Mostly, Elsdon-Baker respects Dawkins, and just disagrees with the way he chooses to express himself, pointing out that he often acts as though science is right <I>now</I>, rather than a subject which is always growing and making new discoveries. There's some critique of his actual ideas as well, though, and this isn't some kind of tone argument -- Elsdon-Baker firmly believes that there is a correct way to communicate science to the public, and Dawkins isn't doing it.<br/><br/>The writing is clear, and Elsdon-Baker makes it constantly clear on what grounds she criticises Dawkins, on the background to the various issues discussed, and the fact that this is an opinion, and most of it is not <I>factual</I>. I enjoyed reading it, and not just because I think it's high time someone criticised Dawkins professionally and thoroughly.