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.