Book Review: The Blind Watchmaker by Richard Dawkins

Having read The Selfish Gene and The Extended Phenotype, I wanted to carry on reading Dawkins’ earlier works, as I have found him to be a great communicator when it comes to his specialist field of evolutionary biology. Such writing is rare and ought to be highly valued, though I fear that his later writings on religion have done his reputation more harm than good. But even though there is a sprinkling of thoughts on religion here, including in the opening premise, this is a book of science, not one of anti-religion. So let us delight in this master’s work and dive in.

The title of the book, if one weren’t aware already, is derived from William Paley’s work on natural theology, where he infers from his observations of nature that there must have been a grand designer behind it all, namely God. Dawkins’ aim is to rebuff the particular argument that Paley made. In taking this approach, Dawkins does not dismiss Paley as a fool, but in fact pays credit to him. Yet there is also an implicit understanding that Paley’s view is the peak of natural theology when it comes to biological design.

I emphasise biological design for one should be careful not to think of Dawkins’ work applying to a wider scope than is justified. For this remains a book primarily of biology. There is a bit of computer programming, along with some analogies with physics and history, but these are not what The Blind Watchmaker is primarily about. In fact, after the opening, Paley’s views seem to fade somewhat into the background, as Dawkins gets into his evolutionary stride. For while Dawkins states that he plans to counter the inferences Paley makes, the bulk of the book is stated far more positively, giving us insights into evolutionary biology, some of which Dawkins has used before in The Selfish Gene and The Extended Phenotype.

The counter to Paley is done fairly on and with some deftness. The heart of it is to dispel the idea that evolution is random. This can be used a good shibboleth to determine if anyone had reasonably understood evolution: if they insist that evolution is an entirely random process, then you can determine that they do not understand it. Rather, it is a sequential process. The image that came to my mind was a combination lock. If there are 5 cogs, each with 10 settings, then there 100,000 possible combinations. You might then argue (as Paley) that to find the right combination is phenomenally unlikely and therefore there must be another factor at play. But what Dawkins notes is that randomness only applies at any one cog, not on all 5 simultaneously. So have a 1 in 10 chance of getting the first cog right. Once that is in place, then we can look at the 2nd cog. If you work this way, then the probability against ending up at the final answer is substantially reduced from 100,000 to 1 down to 50 to 1. Dawkins makes reference to the fact that he wrote another book, Climbing Mount Improbable, at around the same time as The Blind Watchmaker and recommends it as a companion piece.

There’s a wonderful section on the varieties and evolution of echolocation. One of the reasons it stayed with me is because it coincided with a DVD I was watching at the time (David Attenborough’s ‘The Trials of Life’). From bats to dolphins, we can see a variety of different forms, some of which are better than others. As well as providing a fascinating insight into the natural world, it shows that evolution doesn’t have an end goal (and why the combination lock analogy isn’t perfect) but there are hints here of convergent evolution; an area that isn’t emphasised in this work.

The book takes a bit of a diversion away from biology and into computer programming. This is the one part of the book that hasn’t aged well. In it, Dawkins reveals his devotion to Apple computers and shows the result of a programme he used to create shapes that were randomly generated, but where he imposed conditions on them (to mimic evolutionary selective pressures) and shows how they resemble certain objects, many of them biological. What we get is what, as a maths student, I used to refer to as ‘proof by pretty pictures’. For while it is interesting, it lacks the rigour that would be necessary for a more serious scientific work, and is too far removed from the fieldwork of biological study to be of much use.

By now, Dawkins has moved a long way from his starting point of apparent design and is going through some of the finer points of evolutionary biology. He comes onto the subject of punctuated equilibrium (PE). Foremost in his crosshairs is Stephen Jay Gould, a writer who I must admit I have thus far unduly neglected; a copy of The Panda’s Thumb sits on my living room floor, waiting to be read. Gould was famously an advocate of PE. Dawkins, in his opposition to Gould, does not actually go so far as to deny the theory of PE, but instead wishes to attack the way PE advocates portray other evolutionary biologists. Dawkins comes up with an interesting analogy: that of the Israelites traipsing through the desert for 40 years. I found it interesting as it betrays his curious obsession with matters of a religious nature that were to later consume him. Dawkins states that PE advocates portray non-PE advocates as thinking the Israelites maintained a steady, but deathly slow, speed throughout their 40 year sojourn.

Yes, you did read that last sentence correctly. It all gets very accusative and, to a non biologist like me, rather pointless. To the outside observer it appears like a pointless quibbling over the finer points of language, rather than any fundamental difference in the biology. That said, I am aware how, within christianity, differences between different denominations can appear equally pointless to the casual outside observer. As an example, I might cite the infant baptism as an example where those who advocate it and those who oppose it (I am firmly in the latter camp) use it as a way of expressing their differences over what the nature of baptism is. But I digress…

The last significant section of the book goes into even more obscurantist territory where Dawkins takes on a group known as the “reformed cladists”. It’s not a term this reader was familiar with; I doubt many non-biologists would be. As I finish this review a few weeks on from having finished the book, I struggle to think back. My interest had thoroughly waned and I was more keen ‘to have finished’ the book than I was ‘to finish’ the book, if you understand my meaning.

My conclusion therefore is that what starts as a brilliant piece on evolutionary biology, defending good science against poor theology, gets a bit sidetracked by computer programming and eventually fades into denominational name-calling and put-downs. It’s a terrible shame, because it is really a rather good book. So please do absolutely read it, but if you find yourself putting it down about three-quarters of the way in, I will forgive you if you heave a deep sigh before picking it up again to finish it.

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One response to “Book Review: The Blind Watchmaker by Richard Dawkins

  1. Pingback: What to read in 2015? | The Alethiophile