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The idea of the selfish gene can be traced back as far as William Hamiltonís very first paper, written in 1963; but agency and intelligence did not appear among genes until 1972, when. Hamilton, was trying to dramatise and clarify his explanation for the evolution of sterile worker castes among the ants. "A gene is being favoured in natural selection if the aggregate of its replicas forms an increasing fraction of the total gene pool." He wrote. "We are going to be concerned with genes supposed to affect the social behaviour of their bearers, so let us try to make the argument more vivid by attributing to the genes, temporarily, intelligence, and a certain freedom of choice. Imagine that a gene is considering the problem of increasing the number of its replicas and imagine that it can choose between causing purely self-interested behaviour by its bearer A (leading to more reproduction by A) and causing Ďdisinterestedí behaviour that benefits in some way a relative, B. Specifically, let d A and d B represent the alternative increments to fitness that the gene in A is able to cause. Let the probability that our gene in A occurs as a replica in a random gamete of B be rAB" ó and so on for two paragraphs of mathematics, after which he surfaced briefly to write: "We can now abandon the fanciful viewpoint of individual genes" before plunging into the maths again. Seldom has so clever a man been so wrong. The mathematics are remembered by only a few professionals. The metaphor has run all round the world.

The book which spread that metaphor, The Selfish Gene , started as a course of lectures: Richard Dawkins is a wonderful teacher. He has two huge talents as a prophet of science: he can present explanations that intensify a sense of wonder at the world; and he can scythe through the lazy peripheral assumptions of common sense as if they were so many nettles. You can see this by comparing his books with those of the people whose ideas he shares. The Selfish Gene is largely an exposition and development of the ideas of Hamilton and John Maynard Smith: Hamilton has never tried to popularise his ideas, which leads to the peculiar Turkish bath quality of his Collected papers, in which one is continually plunging from the warmth of the prefaces into the chilly mathematics of the papers themselves before scrambling out to a fresh preface. Maynard Smith, by contrast, has written a popular textbook, which comes with a generous and enthusiastic foreword by Dawkins. It richly deserves this praise. It is beautifully lucid, scrupulous and clearly argued. But it is written on the assumption that the reader wants to learn. Dawkins, by contrast, writes as if what he has to say is overwhelmingly important to everyone, whether they want to learn or not. He does not just expect the reader to be curious, but to be excited and delighted by what he will find.

I donít know anyone who has read his books and not come away fizzing with ideas. Some of them may be wrong or ephemeral, but this is true of any author. And there are very few who can have succeeded as well as Dawkins does in opening up an entirely new way to ask questions about the world. More than any other author that I know of, he makes vivid the central scientific idea that there are good logical reasons for things to happen one way rather than another and we can, if we try, discover them.

This contagious enthusiasm is not to be explained by his genes, so letís tell a different sort of story, and say that when he was born in Nairobi in 1941, the fairies gathered round his cradle: the good fairy gave him good looks, intelligence, fame, a succession of beautiful wives, a chair at Oxford specially endowed for him ... The bad fairy studied him a while, and said: "Give him a gift for metaphor."



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