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The Selfish Gene, by Richard Dawkins; and The Meme Machine, by Susan Blackmore

Understanding. It drives more of human behavior than is realized. Many of us work hard to achieve it; and when it's shown to be elusive or mistaken, we often redouble our efforts to attain it. When we don't agree with another, its presence or absence can be the thing that leads to a tolerant distance or hostile action. For pro-freedom individuals, understanding is especially crucial. As a fractious minority, we need to be able to understand ourselves, our allies and enemies, and the social institutions that weigh on our efforts to secure greater liberty. As individualists, if we want to try to make sense of the human condition at all, we need an understanding of how we came to be what, and where, we are.

Enter Richard Dawkins. His fifteen-year-old classic The Selfish Gene has aged well (it's currently in a second edition), and remains very much worth reading. Dawkins confides in the first lines of the preface, "This book should be read almost as though it were science fiction. It is designed to appeal to the imagination." Appeal it does, with interesting examples taken from across the amazing range of known life, and crisp prose flecked with dry British wit.

One needn't be a science nerd to comprehend The Selfish Gene; Dawkins begins with a general consideration of Charles Darwin and builds, gradually explaining fundamental genetic and evolutionary concepts over the first four chapters. Thus prepared, the reader then begins to examine the meat of the matter: selfishness and cooperation; parenting; aggression; the battle of the sexes; and of course, memes are all explored over the remaining nine chapters. Dawkins points to relevant research without becoming overly pedantic, and most helpfully, identifies gaps in scientific knowledge. He does all this in a straightforward yet engaging style, and completely without unnecessary jargon.

Dawkins has become one of the nearly-mythic scientists who has a fair amount of celebrity, and as a result much of his work has been popularized. If you've encountered newspaper or magazine articles that purport to clarify or provide an overview of Dawkins' work, it's likely you've gotten an oversimplification -- one that probably has some inaccurate information to boot. Specifically, some seem determined to cast Dawkins as a determinist, or worse -- someone out to suck the hope and purpose out of living. The Selfish Gene may be interpreted in such veins by those who take his metaphors too seriously, or who cannot find a way to commingle their spirituality and science ("spirituality" not confined to Western or other formal religions). For those who approach the book with a desire to gain a more rigorous, scientifically-based understanding of human nature, or to discover for themselves precisely what Dawkins says about "the selfish gene" (hint: the subject isn't as literal as the title suggests), it's much more likely they'll find The Selfish Gene informative and rewarding.

An excellent companion to The Selfish Gene is Susan Blackmore's The Meme Machine. Published in 1999, she expands and explores Dawkins' concept of memes in a provocative, stimulating style. Not quite the classic The Selfish Gene has become, no doubt due in part to a victimizing tone Blackmore occasionally slides into, The Meme Machine offers a focused examination of what has become an overused term. Like Dawkins, Blackmore's prose is lively and easy for a non-scientist to follow.

Blackmore seems more willing to push her ideas than Dawkins did in The Selfish Gene, which may leave some readers questioning the value of the entire book. One needn't accept all her claims to find value; and Blackmore herself acknowledges the speculative nature of many of her ideas. It's hard to imagine a thoughtful reader coming away from The Meme Machine fully accepting all Blackmore's ideas; and it's similarly challenging to imagine that someone genuinely interested in exploring the ways ideas spread won't find it eye-opening.

Understanding both our biology and our world of ideas is crucially important -- especially for those who cherish liberty, as we see it increasingly threatened around the world. The Selfish Gene and The Meme Machine offer an excellent means of furthering one's understanding, and a firm foundation for future explorations of both subjects.

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