Book Review: ‘The Selfish Gene’, by Richard Dawkins

The Selfish Gene

A few popular science books rise above the genre and become pop-stars of the book world – bestsellers. Even fewer among them change public discourse and, finally, culture. The Selfish Gene (TSG) by Richard Dawkins is one of these rare books. Published in 1976, TSG is not only still in print, but according to the a long, chronologically uninterrupted trail of stamps on the card inside of the 30th anniversary edition from my local public library, is still being read.

But despite all the fame (or notoriety?) of TGS, I have yet to meet a biologist under 40 who actually read the book. Before deciding to review it for BitesizeBio, I was hesitant about investing time in The Selfish Gene, suspecting that it would be a dated evolutionary biology book dumbed down for non-biologists. After reading it, though, I think there is a lot to appreciate about this book.

The title: runaway metaphor

Dawkins defines the selfish gene as follows:

“…In sexually reproducing species, the individual is too large and  too temporary a genetic unit to qualify as a significant unit of natural selection…

…[A gene] leaps from  body to body down the generations, manipulating body after body in its own way and for its own ends, abandoning a succession of mortal bodies before they sink into senility and death… The genes are the immortals, or rather, they are defined as genetic entities that come close to deserving the title. We, the individual survival machines in the world, can expect to live a few more decades.”

In the preface, Prof. Dawkins writes that “The immortal gene” would have been a better title for the book, however (and this is true for the whole work) the caveats and explanations don’t stick in your memory: the metaphors do. It is ironic that the neodarwinist term “selfish gene”, introduced and explained in TSG, has achieved a similar level of popularity as another vivid but inaccurate arwinian metaphor, “survival of the fittest”.

Less than sum of its parts?

In Dawkin’s book, a species (including humans) is reduced to a population, population to an extended family group, –a family group to an individual, and an individual to a gene, which absolutely defines the organism. There is no emergence between different levels: a “gene” equals behavior.  This simplified picture is put across forcefully, with an erudition and conviction that are typical for Dawkins, who, since TGD and a chain of relatively less well known popular books (The Extended Phenotype, anyone?) has gradually become an embodiment of non-compromising atheism. Having read “The Selfish Gene,” I can understand why my local librarian told me that TSD forced him to doubt the existence of the free will, despite Dawkins’ declaration that:

“We, alone on earth, can rebel against the tyranny of the selfish replicators”


Another, perhaps even more significant contribution of “The Selfish Gene” to the cultural discourse and, as a result, vocabulary, is expanding of the idea of an immortal replicator from biology to culture and coining of the term “meme”:

“…a new kind of replicator has recently emerged…unit of cultural transmission… meme. Examples of memes are tunes, ideas, catch-phrases, clothes, fashion…”

Dawkins at the University of Texas at Austin.
If Thomas  Huxley was called “Darwin’s bulldog” Richard Dawkins has acquired reputation of  “atheism bulldog” since publishing The Selfish Gene (Photo: Wikipedia)

Is TSG dumbed down?

According to the preface, the book was intended for three types of readers – lay persons, experts (who were predicted by Dawkins to use phrases ‘with the exception of’ and ‘ugh’) and the inbetweeners – students. I am probably an expert – I did think ‘with the exception of’ a lot.  Depending on your field of study, you may want to skip the pages on the origin of life or genetic code or population genetics – but if you know and can write about all this (and virtual machines, theory of consciousness, game theory, social insects, caddis flies, naked mole rats) accessibly for the general public, you are probably Dawkins himself.

Is it dated?

Sometimes, especially reading at the end of day while commuting, I found the explanations convoluted. A few of the concepts, such as the idea that most of the genome doesn’t have any function and represents “selfish” or “junk” DNA, are dated too. It is a pity that the author was not allowed to update the book – the clarification comments added to the anniversary edition are often more interesting than the original text – so 35 years after its first publication “The Selfish Gene” is more of a historical document than a state-of-the problem treatise it had been once.

Is TSG worth reading?

Definitely, if you are a student – it will expand your erudition and will give you a fine example of how to write engagingly and avoiding a single math formula about complicated science.  If you are an “expert”, read it if you are interested in philosophy of science and historical books or want to be ready to discuss the selfish gene or a meme at a dinner party.

Have you read TGS? What did you think?

Book information

Title: The Selfish Gene

Author: Richard Dawkins

ISBN-10: 0199291152

ISBN-13: 978-0199291151

4 scientists: How to deal with a bad reference

While filling in a job application, you often have an option “contact the referees after the interview”. Don’t be scared to use it, most of the prospective employers only contact the referees after the interview. If you were shortlisted for an interview, you already have good chances to get the job. After the interview the potential employers tend to rely more on a good in person experience, than on a reference from an unknown person with a potential conflict of interests. Just be honest why you don’t want to ask for a reference from your previous supervisor or PI.

Catalysis Research at Argonne

If only all PIs were so hands-on  (Photo credit: Argonne National Laboratory)

Case 1 – PhD student

A  bad  reference is always a problem, but if  you didn’t get along with your PhD supervisor, it is not the end of the world and your nascent career. I know a PhD student (not his real name), who had a huge row with his supervisor at the end of his postgraduate studies. It was something to do with the authors order on a paper, but the details are not important. What is important,  he was able to get a postdoctoral position. After the interview he was asked about the references and told the truth, without getting into the details – that the supervisor is not happy with him, but it is possible to give references from his second supervisor  and his Master Project advisor. The interviewing PI was happy  to accept his explanation and alternative references. The  former student got the job.

Continue reading

The Tale of Two Lab Management Strategies

Seagull at the boat stop

Seagull  – the king of the pile (Photo credit: waltern)

According to the philosopher of science Thomas Kuhn, experimental science relies more on  scientists’ emulation of each other as opposed to theoretical knowledge; e.g. it’s more like craft, tranferred from person to person through teaching and observing, rather than anything else. Chosen by a group leader, a lab-management strategy is self-sustaining, so I hope after reading this article and starting your own lab you’ll chose the best one. When it comes to solution preparation and lab organisation, there are two main strategies on the opposite ends of the spectrum.

Seagull strategy of lab management

Seagulls live in colonies but they don’t cooperate in finding food; on the contrary they often steal it from each other. Applying the seagull strategy (SGS) to the lab, each person develops their own SGS so that, at least in theory, everyone’s work speed depends on their personal organisation skills – if you don’t think in advance, the experiments go very slowly. On the other hand,  SGS policy  leads to a lot of money and time waste. For example, people buy the same enzymes and reagents repeatedly, use one microliter of reagent while the rest degrades in the freezer for a year or more and it is less active when next needed. If you make too little reagent it runs out quickly, too much – and the buffer made a year ago can precipitate, etc. Therefore the SGS of lab management creates an environment where everybody spends time making the same reagents. And the strategy does not prevent the lab bastard from sneakily using your stuff, unless you change the label (or use other know how).

Commons strategy of lab management

This is the opposite of the seagull – there are communal stocks and reagents. Stock solutions can be prepared in large volumes, saving time for individuals; the reagents are used quickly (if not, there is no point in making a lot of stock!). Plus everybody uses the same stuff, increasing reproducibility of the experiments. I don’t know whether to count incorrect stock made from time to time as an advantage or a disadvantage of this strategy: in the Commons strategy of lab management a lot of experiments can go wrong at the same time, but the cause found very quickly, while you may use your incorrect solution for some time under the seagull strategy wondering what change in the stars is causing this misfortune.

The disadvantages of the Commons strategy stem from no less than imperfect human nature. The Commons strategy sometimes results in the tragedy of the commons, when lab colleagues drain the resource and do nothing to replace it, relying on somebody else to do it. However, this is prevented by establishing a rota and applying peer pressure on colleagues who don’t pull their weight.

Even if you are unlucky to find yourself among the seagulls, you can try to set up a sharing and caring Commons strategy – sometimes just making a communal stock and telling your lab mates what it is will prompt them to join you and support it, especially when newer members join the lab having not being immersed in tradition. If your attempt to live like a human, not a bird, fails, you can always return to the SGS.

Which strategy do you prefer and why?

This is 1.0, 1.1 was published @BiteSizeBio


How To Handle A British Supervisor: A Foreigner’s Guide

The United Kingdom has a long scientific tradition. It is likely that, if you are a scientist, at some stage of your career you will either work in a British university or have a British colleagues, or better, a British supervisor.  It is my hope that this article will help you in understanding how to effectively communicate with them.

First of all, it’s worth remembering that “British” does not equal “English”: if your colleague is Scottish or Welsh, he may get irritated at being called “English”. It’s also helpful to remember that politeness, reserve, and sarcasm are significant elements of British character. Below are a few examples of how this can affect your relationship with a British supervisor.

Casual conversations

The “How are you” part of the greeting is a ritual phrase, which doesn’t have more meaning than “hi”.  It’s inadvisable, in reply, to start detailing your medical history or your complicated relationship with the upstairs neighbour, who flooded your flat yesterday and you didn’t have a night’s sleep because you were busy mopping it up. The correct answer is “fine, thank you and how are you?”.

Irrespective of the Briton gender, safe small talk topics are weather and sport. If you are from Europe, football (NB for Americans: soccer – but don’t ever call it that), rugby and tennis are safer than cricket, the rules of which are impossible to understand for somebody who didn’t play it as a child.

English as a foreign language

It’s better not to start sentences with plain “Do you have…” “Can you do…” “Tell me, when is…” It may not be perceived as straightforward – but rather forceful and rude. “Would you mind telling me, when…” is a safer option.

If your lab seminar slides titles and captions are not corrected during or after the seminar, it’s highly unlikely that this is due to your perfect English, but rather because the native speakers are too polite to tell you about even   glaring mistakes. It’s better to ask somebody to proofread your presentation – British are happy to help, but wouldn’t offer to do something, which may offend by implication.


The British are very polite people: they never show their irritation and discuss other people’s mistakes, preferring to suffer in silence. This is good in some ways, but causes all sorts of misunderstandings. For example, you may suddenly and unexpectedly discover that your PhD thesis is in trouble, or that your contract will not be renewed, at the last moment –  although you thought everything was going fine.

It’s better to have a “designated friend” – if problems come up, the British don’t like telling you their grievances and prefer  to mention them to your “friend’, who will pass them on to you.

Career advice

Career advice (if any) from a British supervisor is very subtle, and you have to judge it by what was omitted, rather than said. For example, “I think you would be a good Teaching Fellow” means that, in your supervisor’s opinion, you would be a lousy postdoc.  Similarly, “I  think you may consider alternative career options”  means  “you are the worst PhD student I’ve ever worked with or heard of”.

A can mean Z

On the other hand, if you did 10 experiments last week and apologise that 2 of them didn’t work, a reply along the lines of “10 is too few, I think you should do 20” is almost certainly the other side of British psyche  – sarcasm, when the meaning of the phrase is completely opposite.

A short phrase guide:

Your graph/first year report is not completely straightforward = incomprehensible

I am not insisting on this, but if I were you = do it like I say

If you are not too busy, when you have time = do it NOW

I am not unhappy with your results = great stuff

I’d be happy to hear your additions to the phrase guide.

Further reading:

Jeremy Paxman, The English: A Portrait of a People

First published @ BiteSizeBio

How to be the lab bastard

We all know them. You might even be one. The Lab Bastard is the one who considers himself (or herself!) superior to all other mere mortals in the lab. He would never degrade his talent by doing communal jobs in the lab, but swans around, absolutely sure that his experiments are most important and his results will be the most groundbreaking.

Above all, The Lab Bastard never misses an opportunity to claw his way to the top and doesn’t mind who he tramples on along the way.

I hope you don’t want to be The Lab Bastard. But in case you do, here are some useful tips:

When starting in a new lab, establish your superior credentials:

1) Never miss an opportunity to say how thing were done much better in your previous lab/your country.

2) Do a bit of namedropping; it always helps to impress the poor no-hopers you work with.

3) Declare equipment, supplies and methods that your colleagues use as outdated and insufficient for your needs. Order a lot of new stuff immediately, or even better, tell a technician do it for you.

Ensure that your talents are not wasted on menial tasks. Put technicians and your other colleagues in their rightful place as servants who are lucky to have a bit part to play in your journey to brilliance:

4) Make a point of never ordering ANYTHING. Ensure that no matter how small the order is, you pass it off to someone else to do it for you.

5) Never do any lab jobs – defrosting the freezer, cleaning the water bath, etc. It distracts you from doing experiments and there is always a backup freezer/another water bath, when they break because of the lack of maintenance.

6) If you finish a communal solution, be happy that there was enough left for you. You either won’t need it for a while, or, if it is widely used, somebody else will have to make it very soon.

7) Feel free to take stuff from other people’s benches. They have plenty of it or are not using it at the moment and you are working so much, you don’t have time to prepare or order this in advance.

Help No-one

8) Never volunteer to help anybody and never share your things, this will diminish your resources in exchange for a hazy possibility that people will pay you back in kind. They never do, you know, because you don’t.

Claim your rightful credit

9) Always ensure that you talk loudest in lab meetings – if you can talk over others, then so much the better. When you are making your razor sharp observations, be sure to keep eye contact with the boss at all times to ensure that your brilliance is noted.

10) A caveat to number 8: There is a time to volunteer to help people, and that is when they are close to publishing. At this point, use all of your skills and influence to secure the opportunity to do a (preferably very small) piece of work for the prospective author, then push like hell to be added as a co-author.

If you’ve got any additional suggestions, please add them in the comments, and I will include them in my forthcoming book, “The Lab Bastard for Dummies”.  Your input will be used, but not acknowledged. But hey, isn’t that what you’d expect?

First published @ BiteSizeBio