Review: The Entirely Accurate Encyclopaedia of Evolution by Robert Newman

See That Fossil? That’s Your Mum, That Is.

Rob Newman has written several novels but is still probably best known for his political and scientifically-minded stand-up comedy. His recent show The New Theory of Evolution has mutated into this book, a hybrid of scientific information and comedy about evolutionary biology; its raison-d’etre to criticise what Newman calls the ‘dog-eat-dog’ selfish gene version of evolution as popularised by Richard Dawkins.

Dawkin’s theory states the gene is the most important aspect of an organism, and measures its success solely in terms of replicability in future generations, rendering any apparent cooperative or altruistic behaviour in its host organism an illusion. Newman, however, believes this narrow view of evolution has led to disastrous consequences for our understanding of society and behaviour. If, for example, we can explain human violence by the ‘fact’ that this is simply the cost of having genes that aren’t bothered about their effect on other organisms, then there is little point in trying to change this essential aspect of ourselves. A recurring target for Newman’s criticism is language – in particular that problematic adjective ‘selfish’. Dawkins consistently claims gross misuse of his term. He was not actually saying that genes are driven by selfish motives, it was simply a metaphor. But a telling quote from Dawkins’ work cited by Newman explains that ‘“gene selfishness will usually give rise to selfishness in individual behaviour.”’

Newman is not the first person to challenge Dawkins. Ever since The Selfish Gene was published in 1974, other biologists and philosophers have been queuing up to point out the apparent errors in both the logic and the evidence. Dawkins’ representation of what a gene is – analogous to a bit of information that operates completely independently of other genes, the host organism’s wider genome and the environment – is quite dated. We now know these interactions are crucial to the way that each gene expresses itself, and this new field of ‘epigenetics’ offers a much richer and more nuanced understanding of evolution.

The Encyclopaedia itself is not a linear argument but rather a series of entries about different pieces of research that summarise evidence against Dawkins’ work. To get his points across, Newman tells some very funny stories. My favourite is about a spider who makes replicas of herself out of chewed-up insect husks, and nobody knows why. It seems to be a successful survival strategy, but Newman points out that we cannot attribute selfish motives to this behaviour; perhaps she’s just lonely.

Does Newman succeed? Partly. There is not enough detail either about the theory of evolution itself nor about Dawkins’ book to be able to fully understand Newman’s counter-argument. And there is little point in simply summarising observations of altruistic behaviours as evidence against Dawkins, when The Selfish Gene work specifically sets out to explain altruism. But the book does well at conveying the fact that genetics is not a finished project, it’s very much a work in progress – an important point to balance against how the subject (and much of science) is often taught.

It’s a fun, lively read, and Newman is at his comedic best when angrily ripping into some of the worst cases of Dawkinsitis. And why shouldn’t science be communicated through comedy? Anything that breaks down the barrier around such difficult and complex subject matter deserves to be applauded.

 – Bear of Little Brain

(Originally published in Gutter issue 15)

The Entirely Accurate Encyclopaedia by Robert Newman, Freight Books, RRP £11.99, 167 pp

Subscribe to Gutter magazine and support new writing and review.
Purchase the latest edition of Gutter.