Tuesday, April 10, 2012

The Extended Phenotype

I have read most of the science books by Richard Dawkins but I had not plucked up the courage to read The Extended Phenotype: The Long Reach of the Gene which he had stated often as the book that he was most proud of. This is because he has also said that the book is targeted at advanced readers which ruled me out. But now having read evolutionary biology for 5-6 years, I thought that I will take a chance. The preface began on a forbidding note:
The readers for whom I am mainly writing are my professional colleagues, evolutionary biologists, ethologists and sociobiologists, ecologists, and philosophers and humanists interested in evolutionary science, including, of course, graduate and undergraduate students in all these disciplines. Therefore, although this book is in some ways the sequel to my previous book, The Selfish Gene, it assumes that the reader has professional knowledge of evolutionary biology and its technical terms.
I have read The Selfish Gene and enjoyed it. But professional knowledge? Technical terms? This was not looking too good. The next few sentences were more encouraging.
On the other hand it is possible to enjoy a professional book as a spectator, even if not a participant in the profession. Some lay people who read this book in draft have been kind enough, or polite enough, to claim to have liked it. It would give me great satisfaction to believe them, and I have added a glossary of technical terms which I hope may help. I have also tried to make the book as near as possible to being enjoyable to read. The resulting tone may possibly irritate some serious professionals.
This was not an easy read but not too dense, certainly not as disastrous as my doomed attempt to learn some cosmology. But if I had read it 6 years ago, it would have looked like Greek written backwards.Of course there were passages that I found tough going, eg. those dealing with linkage disequilibrium or with segregation distorters. (I am sure you will be rushing out to buy a copy today.) But there were enough passages that I could follow so that I did not lose interest.

If you have come this far in this post, you will be wondering why I struggle with such books instead of reading Tintin comics. (BTW, I do enjoy reading Tintin. 'Billions of bilious blue blistering barnacles in ten thousand thundering typhoons' is what you must be thinking.) In Does He Know A Mother's Heart?, Arun Shourie writes about his son who has cerebral palsy:
My mother-in-law would teach him – from news, to stories, to rhyming games, to poems, to arithmetic. ‘But why arithmetic, Mummy?’ I would remonstrate. ‘Why make him do sums? Why make him learn tables? He is never going to use them.’ ‘But just see his sense of achievement when he gets the answer right,’ she would teach me.
It is fun to learn about things that I didn't know earlier. But the matter has to be in the Goldilocks zone: just right -neither too easy nor too tough. If it is too easy, I will get bored. If it is too tough. I will give up in a daze (even if it is in words of four letters or less).

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