BOOK REVIEW; Once more into the gene pool

RIVER OUT OF EDEN: Richard Dawkins; Weidenfeld & Nicolson, pounds 9.99

Share
Related Topics
Richard Dawkins and I share a picture of evolution. Its essential feature is that evolution is the transmission of information. Units of evolution are replicators which, when they reproduce, transmit information to descendants. Indeed, it is the information that is replicated, not the physical objects that encode it. A replicator survives, or rather, its information survives, if it has effects on the world that ensure that it is copied. This natural selection is responsible for the complexity and adaptation of living organisms.

This idea had its roots in Darwin's Origin of Species. In its modern form it depends on Watson and Crick's discovery of the structure of DNA, because this reveals how information is embodied and copied in theorganisms we know about - those found on earth. Its precise formulation we owe to GC Williams' Adaptation and Natural Selection, published in 1966, and to Dawkins' The Selfish Gene.

Both books, especially the latter, can be read, and were meant to be read, by those with no training in biology. Unhappily, this has led many biologists to miss the fact that these books also made important contributions to evolutionary biology.

River out of Eden shows how the idea has developed in the past 20 years. The notion of information has become still more explicit: this is natural in a society dominated by information technology. It has also become clear that there have been major transitions in the way information is stored and transmitted - "replication thresholds". Examples are the origin of replicating molecules (equivalent to the origin of life), of sex (whereby information from different ancestors is combined), of multicellular organisms (each carrying many billions of copies of the information), and of human language (the invention of a new way of transmitting information).

Dawkins has an enviable gift. He can write books that are fun to read, yet which present fundamental ideas clearly. River out of Eden is no exception. The river of the title is the ever-branching stream of genetic information.

A peculiar difficulty faces anyone who writes about evolution for a wider public. Many readers do not want to accept what biologists are telling them. Most previous cultures have had myths about origins. Today, both cosmologists and evolutionary biologists are telling stories about origins. Understandably, people expect these stories to perform the functions previously performed by myths.

Oddly, they seem willing to accept a Big Bang. Perhaps they can imagine the creator lighting the blue touch paper: in any case, Big Bang has no obvious moral implications. But evolution by natural selection is another matter. As Dawkins remarks, so long as DNA gets passed on, it does not matter who or what gets hurt in the process. As he emphasises, Darwinism is a beautiful idea, in that it explains a multitude of facts with a minimum of assumptions, but it is a lousy myth. It is a scientific theory, not a guide to good behaviour. But inevitably, many readers will reject it because they dislike what they imagine to be its moral implications.

Dawkins is good at answering objections often raised to Darwinism - in particular what he calls the argument from incredulity. This asserts that there has not been time for natural selection to produce what we see around us, or that it is impossible anyway, because there are no useful intermediates between perfect structure and no structure. He points out that these are assertions, not arguments, and provides convincing answers. But my experiences suggest he is fighting a losing battle. If people don't want to believe something, they won't.

John Maynard Smith

The writer is professor of biology at the University of Sussex.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Junior Graphic Designer / Marketing Assistant

£18000 - £22000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: As a Junior Graphic Designer / ...

Recruitment Genius: Trainee Finance Assistant - Automotive

£15500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: One of the South East's leading Motor Re...

Recruitment Genius: General Maintenance Person - Automotive

£16000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: One of the South East's leading Motor Re...

Recruitment Genius: Receptionist / Meeter-Greeter - Automotive

£16500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: One of the South East's leading Motor Re...

Day In a Page

Read Next
An air strike against Isis by the US-led coalition in Kobani, Syria  

US-led airstrikes in Syria: Only two civilian deaths have been officially recognised – that would be extraordinary, if it were true

Chris Woods
 

A promised 'women's museum' opens as a Jack the Ripper exhibit tonight, and I won't take it lying down

Becky Warnock
Turkey-Kurdish conflict: Obama's deal with Ankara is a betrayal of Syrian Kurds and may not even weaken Isis

US betrayal of old ally brings limited reward

Since the accord, the Turks have only waged war on Kurds while no US bomber has used Incirlik airbase, says Patrick Cockburn
VIPs gather for opening of second Suez Canal - but doubts linger over security

'A gift from Egypt to the rest of the world'

VIPs gather for opening of second Suez Canal - but is it really needed?
Jeremy Corbyn dresses abysmally. That's a great thing because it's genuine

Jeremy Corbyn dresses abysmally. That's a great thing because it's genuine

Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, applauds a man who clearly has more important things on his mind
The male menopause and intimations of mortality

Aches, pains and an inkling of mortality

So the male menopause is real, they say, but what would the Victorians, 'old' at 30, think of that, asks DJ Taylor
Man Booker Prize 2015: Anna Smaill - How can I possibly be on the list with these writers I have idolised?

'How can I possibly be on the list with these writers I have idolised?'

Man Booker Prize nominee Anna Smaill on the rise of Kiwi lit
Bettany Hughes interview: The historian on how Socrates would have solved Greece's problems

Bettany Hughes interview

The historian on how Socrates would have solved Greece's problems
Art of the state: Pyongyang propaganda posters to be exhibited in China

Art of the state

Pyongyang propaganda posters to be exhibited in China
Mildreds and Vanilla Black have given vegetarian food a makeover in new cookbooks

Vegetarian food gets a makeover

Long-time vegetarian Holly Williams tries to recreate some of the inventive recipes in Mildreds and Vanilla Black's new cookbooks
The haunting of Shirley Jackson: Was the gothic author's life really as bleak as her fiction?

The haunting of Shirley Jackson

Was the gothic author's life really as bleak as her fiction?
Bill Granger recipes: Heading off on holiday? Try out our chef's seaside-inspired dishes...

Bill Granger's seaside-inspired recipes

These dishes are so easy to make, our chef is almost embarrassed to call them recipes
Ashes 2015: Tourists are limp, leaderless and distinctly UnAustralian

Tourists are limp, leaderless and distinctly UnAustralian

A woefully out-of-form Michael Clarke embodies his team's fragile Ashes campaign, says Michael Calvin
Blairites be warned, this could be the moment Labour turns into Syriza

Andrew Grice: Inside Westminster

Blairites be warned, this could be the moment Labour turns into Syriza
HMS Victory: The mystery of Britain's worst naval disaster is finally solved - 271 years later

The mystery of Britain's worst naval disaster is finally solved - 271 years later

Exclusive: David Keys reveals the research that finally explains why HMS Victory went down with the loss of 1,100 lives
Survivors of the Nagasaki atomic bomb attack: Japan must not abandon its post-war pacifism

'I saw people so injured you couldn't tell if they were dead or alive'

Nagasaki survivors on why Japan must not abandon its post-war pacifism
Jon Stewart: The voice of Democrats who felt Obama had failed to deliver on his 'Yes We Can' slogan, and the voter he tried hardest to keep onside

The voter Obama tried hardest to keep onside

Outgoing The Daily Show host, Jon Stewart, became the voice of Democrats who felt the President had failed to deliver on his ‘Yes We Can’ slogan. Tim Walker charts the ups and downs of their 10-year relationship on screen