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"OH WATERS, TEEM WITH MEDICINE TO KEEP MY BODY SAFE FROM HARM, SO THAT I MAY LONG SEE THE SUN." - Rig Veda
These days, Dawkins makes the news so often for buffoonery that some might wonder how he ever became so celebrated. The Selfish Gene is how. To read this book is to be amazed, entertained, transported. For instance, when Dawkins describes how life might have begun — how a randomly generated strand of chemicals pulled from the ether could happen to become a ‘replicator’, a little machine that starts to build other strands like itself, and then generates organisms to carry it — he creates one of the most thrilling stretches of explanatory writing ever penned. It’s breathtaking.
Dawkins assembles genetics’ dry materials and abstract maths into a rich but orderly landscape through which he guides you with grace, charm, urbanity, and humour. He replicates in prose the process he describes. He gives agency to chemical chains, logic to confounding behaviour. He takes an impossibly complex idea and makes it almost impossible to misunderstand. He reveals the gene as not just the centre of the cell but the centre of all life, agency, and behaviour. By the time you’ve finished his book, or well before that, Dawkins has made of the tiny gene — this replicator, this strip of chemicals little more than an abstraction — a huge, relentlessly turning gearwheel of steel, its teeth driving smaller cogs to make all of life happen. It’s a gorgeous argument. Along with its beauty and other advantageous traits, it is amenable to maths and, at its core, wonderfully simple.