Polls consistently rank Professor Dawkins as among the world’s most influential intellectuals
By Michael Rodgers
On 23 February 1976 a handwritten note on New College letterhead landed on my desk at the OUP, where I was a commissioning editor with an interest in popular science. From Roger Elliott, physicist and OUP Delegate (and later to be chief executive of the OUP), it told me that ‘One of the dons here, Dr C R Dawkins, is writing a popular science book tentatively called ‘The Selfish Gene’ which he describes as in the genre of the ‘Naked Ape’. I have no idea whether he or it is any good but it might be worth looking into. I got the impression that he is looking for a publisher.’
It was just under two weeks later when I started to read draft versions of Richard’s opening chapters and, with a jolt, my life changed. I knew before reaching the bottom of the first page that here was something extraordinary. It was as if the writing had reached out and grabbed me by the lapels. Tension increased and I found myself having to pause at intervals to allow the nervous energy of excitement to dissipate. By the time I had finished I could say that, yes, reading the chapters had been exhilarating, and that, yes, the whole thing had taken a powerful hold over my imagination. But, as an editor, what was really intoxicating was feeling wholly convinced that the book was going to make waves. It was going to sell.
Later that summer I wrote a personal letter to OUP branch managers around the world, wanting to convince them that the book was special. The words I used capture the excitement I felt at the time. ‘This is notsome worthy attempt to try and popularise an area of science. Forget about science, popular or otherwise, and just think of this as a book that is so readable, so gripping, and so fascinating that, cliché or not, you won’t be able to put it down. And I don’t just mean you. I defy you to find anyone in your building – accountants, secretaries, salesmen, packers, editors, the lot – who will not find the book fascinating. How many books can you say that about?’
There was much agonizing over the book’s title. I loved 'The Selfish Gene' from the moment I first saw it in Roger Elliott’s note. But the trouble with having the word gene in the singular, argued some colleagues, is that it implies one mutant, rogue gene amongst a population of normal ones. What about The Selfish Genes, or Our Selfish Genes? Other colleagues thought that we should go for a suggestion from acclaimed Oxford zoologist Desmond Morris, The Gene Machine. In a memo, the method of office communication in those pre-email days, I argued against this: ‘I can see clearly all the advantages but it is simply the wrong title. It does not convey the central message of the book that genes behave as if they were selfish. The Gene Machine is neutral.’ Evolutionary biologist Professor Richard Dawkins presenting the updated version of his work on evolution, The Ancestor’s Tale, with Dr Yan Wong (right) this year
In his 'Appetite for Wonder' (2013), Richard Dawkins revisits the issue of his first book’s title. One suggestion made at the time, he tells us in Appetite, was 'The Immortal Gene'. With hindsight, he writes, perhaps he should have adopted that suggestion. He is wrong! 'The Immortal Gene' is boring and unmemorable; 'The Selfish Gene' is the opposite. It was the right title.
The book was presented to the sales reps at the summer sales conference at the beginning of July. For the second time, the issue of illustration was raised. Would 'The Selfish Gene' be better with pictures? For me, the question revolved around what people get out of reading a popular science book. In many cases a reader has a genuine desire to find out more about a subject. Pictures and diagrams help in these instances. The Selfish Gene was outside this category, or so it had seemed to me when I first read it. It had felt like reading a novel, appealing wholly to the imagination, with no accompanying conscious wish to learn about a new field – though that was happening, delivered in spades. Having illustrations would dilute the impact, I thought, and lessen the intensity of the experience of reading the book.
In the summer of 1976, having decided to pull out all of the stops and publish 'The Selfish Gene' in the autumn, the OUP set 21 October as its publication date. This happened also to be the date chosen to publishThe Oxford Companion to Ships and the Sea: Trafalgar Day, no less. Nearer the time, a major bookshop chain drew attention to the clash, pointing out that it would help both books, each identified as a high profile, star title, if they had separate launch dates. Could the OUP move back publication of 'The Selfish Gene' by a week? It could. The book was published on 28 October.
I left the OUP at the end of 1978, going on to work for other publishing houses, commissioning Richard Dawkins’ next two books, 'The Extended Phenotype' (W H Freeman, 1982) and 'The Blind Watchmaker' (Longman, 1986), eventually returning to Oxford eighteen years later. In preparation for my farewell party towards the end of 2003 my boss had contacted various people, requesting anecdotes to be read out and stuck inside a retirement card. Here, to bring this piece to a close, is the story of a wager, extracted from Richard Charkin for the occasion. Richard and I were editorial colleagues at the OUP in the 1970s.
The first print run of Dawkins’s 'The Selfish Gene' was set at 5,000. I thought we’d be lucky to sell 2,000. Michael was to pay me £1 for every thousand below 5,000 and I was to pay him a pint of beer for every thousand over 5,000. I think I owe him more than he could drink and am holding back payment in the interests of his health and well-being.
Based on the book chapter ‘Falling under the spell of 'The Selfish Gene’, from Publishing and the Advancement of Science: from selfish genes to Galileo’s finger by Michael Rodgers (Imperial College Press, 2014). Now retired from publishing, Michael lives in Oxfordshire and sings in the OUP Choir. He was a pioneer in the field of popular science publishing and the above-noted book is a brilliantly weighted insight into University politics, as well as science, told with relish and laced with humour (Editor note!).
Images © Oxford University Images, Imperial College Press