The Extended Phenotype Book Summary - The Extended Phenotype Book explained in key points
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The Extended Phenotype summary

Richard Dawkins

The Long Reach of the Gene

4.6 (68 ratings)
30 mins

Brief summary

'The Extended Phenotype' by Richard Dawkins challenges the traditional idea of genes as the sole basis for genetically determined characteristics, arguing instead that an organism's phenotype is not limited to its physical traits. Dawkins discusses how genes interact with the environment and other organisms to influence behavior and survival.

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    The Extended Phenotype
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    When considering evolution, we should think of genes as well as organisms.

    Ever since Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution was published back in the mid-nineteenth century, his observations have often been summarized with the popular concept of “the survival of the fittest.” When we imagine how this survival takes place, we take a very specific biological perspective on which organisms are fighting for survival.

    When we think of life, we think of the large organisms Darwin wrote about, such as birds, orchids or humans, and we picture these plants and animals as being the selfish ones fighting for their survival.

    So, even though we recognize larger units, such as societies, populations and ecosystems, as well as smaller units such as cells and genes when it comes to biological evolution, we almost always talk about “selfish organisms.” Most evolutionary biologists focus their study on the individual body – so for them it's organisms, not populations or genes, that compete and evolve.

    But an interesting thing happens when we shift our focus away from the individual bodies toward the genes, and we start thinking about “selfish genes” rather than “selfish organisms.”

    Making this shift in perspective is a lot like adjusting the way you look at a Necker cube, which is the name of the typical 3D cube you’ve probably drawn on a piece of paper numerous times. It’s just two overlapping squares, one slightly above the other, with four diagonal lines connecting the corners.

    When you look at a Necker cube, you can see it in two different ways, with either the lower square or the upper square making up the front of the cube. But there’s no one correct way of seeing it – both perspectives are equally valid and accurate.

    And it’s the same for our biological perspective on what’s fighting for survival: both the organism-centric view and the gene-centric view are valid. So, when we shift to the genetic point of view, we’re not looking at things from a single correct perspective. Instead, we’re opening the door to new questions that go beyond, “Why are certain genes useful to an organism?” Now we can ask, “Why are certain genes often grouped together in organisms?”

    In the blinks ahead we’ll further explore these questions and much more.

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    What is The Extended Phenotype about?

    The Extended Phenotype (1982) offers an alternative view on biology and the process of evolution. Breaking with the Darwinian paradigm that puts the individual organism center stage, author Richard Dawkins shifts the focus toward genes as the active agents in natural selection. From this perspective, a world of fascinating insights emerges.

    The Extended Phenotype Review

    The Extended Phenotype (1982) by Richard Dawkins explores the idea that genes not only influence the physical traits of organisms but also extend their influence beyond the boundaries of their bodies. Here's why this book is worth reading:

    • It challenges traditional ideas about evolution by highlighting how genes shape the behavior and environment of organisms through compelling examples and evidence.
    • The book sheds light on the complex relationship between genes and their environment, offering a deeper understanding of how living organisms interact and adapt.
    • Dawkins' clear and thought-provoking explanations make complex scientific concepts accessible and engaging, ensuring that readers won't find the book boring.

    Best quote from The Extended Phenotype

    A gene for A in environment X may well turn out to be a gene for B in environment Y.

    —Richard Dawkins
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    Who should read The Extended Phenotype?

    • Students of biology and genetics
    • Anyone interested in how life on earth evolved
    • Science geeks

    About the Author

    Richard Dawkins is a fellow of the Royal Society and was professor for the Public Understanding of Science at Oxford from 1995 to 2008. He has authored several books and is most renowned for his bestseller The Selfish Gene (1976). Dawkins has received numerous honors and awards, including the 1987 Royal Society of Literature Prize and the 1987 Los Angeles Times Literary Prize.

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    The Extended Phenotype FAQs 

    What is the main message of The Extended Phenotype?

    The main message of The Extended Phenotype is that genes can influence not only an organism's body, but also its environment and other organisms.

    How long does it take to read The Extended Phenotype?

    The reading time for The Extended Phenotype varies, but it typically takes several hours. However, the Blinkist summary can be read in just 15 minutes.

    Is The Extended Phenotype a good book? Is it worth reading?

    The Extended Phenotype is worth reading because it offers insights into the role genes play in shaping the world around us.

    Who is the author of The Extended Phenotype?

    The author of The Extended Phenotype is Richard Dawkins.

    What to read after The Extended Phenotype?

    If you're wondering what to read next after The Extended Phenotype, here are some recommendations we suggest:
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    • The Selfish Gene by Richard Dawkins
    • Outgrowing God by Richard Dawkins
    • The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins
    • Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman! by Richard P. Feynman
    • Atomic Habits by James Clear
    • Get Better at Anything by Scott H. Young
    • The Art of Statistics by David Spiegelhalter
    • The Demon-Haunted World by Carl Sagan
    • The Little Book of Stoicism by Jonas Salzgeber