The Blind Watchmaker

I’ve just finished reading The Blind Watchmaker, by Richard Dawkins (amazon | take2 | site). Dawkins, an outspoken atheist and first class scientist, puts forward in great detail “why the evidence of evolution reveals a universe without design”.

The title of the book stems from a statement made by 18th century theologian William Paley, to the effect that if one were to happen across a watch, one would assume from its complexity that it was designed, that there was a watchmaker responsible. Similarly, from the complexity of life on earth we must assume the existence of a creator. Dawkins parallels the analogy with the idea of natural selection as the blind watchmaker – it is non-random, but there is no purpose to its design, no final desired outcome. Along the way, he pulls apart many misconceptions about the theory of evolution, slowly piecing together a picture that is stunning in its simplicity. All along, he emphasises not only how the illusion of design comes about, but also how it is merely that: an illusion.

Although the book is written for the layman, to use Dawkins’ own expression, you need to have your mental running shoes on. It helps to have some passing familiarity with the ideas of evolution before you start reading, so I would not consider this book to be a primer for evolutionary theory. Rather, it seeks to explain how natural selection, in combination with mutation, is in fact a non-random process that elegantly, inarguably results in the complexity that we incorrectly interpret as evidence for design. To truly appreciate not just the book but the theory, i would go so far as to say one requires more than a passing familiarity with some other scientific fields. Because to me, my experience in physics has taught me that an enormity of complexity can be expressed in the simplest of terms. General relativity and electromagnetic theory are together responsible for an incredible range of phenomena, yet are each expressed in a single equation. To me, a similar sense of compactness, of efficiency, is illustrated by evolution. It just feels right. This is the way the universe works.

Dawkins puts across a number of compelling arguments against rival theories, and indulges in surprising voyages of revelation, all of which i will leave for the reader to discover on their own. But to get an idea of his razor-edged intelligence, here are a few quotes from the man (not all from this book):

Evolution has no long-term goal. There is no long-distance target, no final perfection to serve as a criterion for selection, although human vanity cherishes the absurd notion that our species is the final goal of evolution.

It is raining DNA outside. On the bank of the Oxford canal at the bottom of my garden is a large willow tree, and it is pumping downy seeds into the air… The whole performance, cotton wool, catkins, tree and all, is in aid of one thing and one thing only, the spreading of DNA around the countryside. Not just any DNA, but DNA whose coded characters spell out specific instructions for building willow trees that will shed a new generation of downy seeds. Those fluffy specks are, literally, spreading instructions for making themselves. They are there because their ancestors succeeded in doing the same. It is raining instructions out there; it’s raining programs; it’s raining tree-growing, fluff-spreading, algorithms. That is not a metaphor, it is the plain truth. It couldn’t be any plainer if it were raining floppy discs.

…it seems that it would take less than half a million years to evolve a good camera eye … It’s no wonder ‘the’ eye has evolved at least 40 times independently around the animal kingdom … It is a geological blink.

Darwin made it possible to be an intellectually fulfilled atheist.

I am against religion because it teaches us to be satisfied with not understanding the world.

Richard Dawkins takes the fight to the creationists, and he doesn’t pull any punches. He is a champion of science, of rational, logical thought. I guess I’m just going to have to buy more of his books.

12 Responses to “The Blind Watchmaker”

  1. Dawkins is on The Colbert Report here in the states tonight if anyone is interested. Should be funny.

  2. Did you see the recent interview with him on Salon.com? The guy really has a great mind!

  3. Rev: i am so insanely jealous that you guys have The Daily Show and The Colbert Report.

    Mr. Angry: yeah, I read the Salon interview… excellent. What’s great about Dawkins is he doesn’t feel he has to apologize for being an atheist. My hero.

  4. He’s got a new book called “The God Delusion” where he beats every religion over the head repeatedly with a big fat logic stick. Haven’t read it yet, but will soon.

    Go get them Richard!

  5. beats every religion over the head repeatedly with a big fat logic stick

    well put! Also can’t wait to read it.

  6. Have you read his pamphlet on the evolution of the trilobite? It’s called The Shellfish Gene

  7. Oh, is that the one he wrote in response to the Biblican stance against shellfish as expressed in Leviticus 11:10-12? Remember, clams, oysters, crabs, lobsters and shrimp are abominations unto God.

  8. Sounds like it’s just up my street. As a biologist I have a problem with evolution when it comes to the staggering leaps that many scientists in the past have taken (and in my opinion continue to take) eg. ape to man. Back in the day that was mainly based on looks and anatomy. It’s quite interesting from a genetic point of view to look at the similarities between the species now that genome sequencing is becoming faster and more efficient (don’t get me wrong – I am aware that a large portion of the human genome is not identified with regards to function). My interest is more in micro-evolution. Where often random mutations combine with natural selection in a poetic and timeless dance to allow survival in an ever fluid environment.

    I think I’d enjoy the book – must get hands on it *mutter* *mutter*

    As a further side point I am personally not an atheist (although I have no qualms with people who are) – more of an agnostic really. I think it comes from studying embryology and just watching the microscopic purity of development. Agreed that physics is beautifully simple and clean as a science – and it’s that simplicity that makes it interesting to me.

    But I’ve taken up enough of your time and space – keep up the great blogging. I miss science talk.

  9. I would recommend Dawkins highly. He writes a lot about evolution, and his descriptions are eye-opening. Try The Selfish Gene (about how bodies are just tools for genes to propagate themselves), Climbing Mount Improbable (case studies of natural selection in action), The Extended Phenotype (more on genes) and River Out of Eden (on the path that DNA has taken through time). Also worth a read on the subject of the religion meme and how it propagates are Unweaving the Rainbow and The God Delusion. Eventually, I will own them all.

    And even Dawkins acknowledges that one cannot ultimately disprove the existence of god (scientifically speaking), so i think in that sense you might label him an agnostic. But he believes that the likelihood of the existence of a deity as we understand it is vanishingly improbable. To paraphrase him, everyone today is an atheist regarding Zeus and Thor and Quetzlcoatl, I just go one god further.

  10. I have a hard time taking seriously any scientist with a personal agenda.

  11. if that personal agenda is to convince people that there’s no shame in being smart, moral, clear thinking human beings, i would take them very very seriously indeed.

  12. Hi Moonflake

    I hope that you will see this comment as it is more of a request than a comment on Dawkins.

    I would be very interested in your opinion on Alex the parrot(who died recently) – on which side of the argument you are as far as animal intelligence is concerned.

    And of course I am going to shamelessly plug my own opinion on this: http://www.zzzbot.com/thecages/2007/09/14/alex-the-parrot-avian-intelligence/

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