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Climbing Mount Improbable [Paperback]

Richard Dawkins , Lalla Ward
3.6 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (86 customer reviews)

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Book Description

September 17, 1997 0393316823 978-0393316827

A brilliant book celebrating improbability as the engine that drives life, by the acclaimed author of The Selfish Gene and The Blind Watchmaker.

The human eye is so complex and works so precisely that surely, one might believe, its current shape and function must be the product of design. How could such an intricate object have come about by chance? Tackling this subject—in writing that the New York Times called "a masterpiece"—Richard Dawkins builds a carefully reasoned and lovingly illustrated argument for evolutionary adaptation as the mechanism for life on earth.

The metaphor of Mount Improbable represents the combination of perfection and improbability that is epitomized in the seemingly "designed" complexity of living things. Dawkins skillfully guides the reader on a breathtaking journey through the mountain's passes and up its many peaks to demonstrate that following the improbable path to perfection takes time. Evocative illustrations accompany Dawkins's eloquent descriptions of extraordinary adaptations such as the teeming populations of figs, the intricate silken world of spiders, and the evolution of wings on the bodies of flightless animals. And through it all runs the thread of DNA, the molecule of life, responsible for its own destiny on an unending pilgrimage through time.

Climbing Mount Improbable is a book of great impact and skill, written by the most prominent Darwinian of our age.

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Climbing Mount Improbable + The Blind Watchmaker: Why the Evidence of Evolution Reveals a Universe without Design + The Selfish Gene: 30th Anniversary Edition--with a new Introduction by the Author
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Editorial Reviews Review

How do species evolve? Richard Dawkins, one of the world's most eminent zoologists, likens the process to scaling a huge, Himalaya-size peak, the Mount Improbable of his title. An alpinist does not leap from sea level to the summit; neither does a species utterly change forms overnight, but instead follows a course of "slow, cumulative, one-step-at-a-time, non-random survival of random variants"--a course that Charles Darwin, Dawkins's great hero, called natural selection. Illustrating his arguments with case studies from the natural world, such as the evolution of the eye and the lung, and the coevolution of certain kinds of figs and wasps, Dawkins provides a vigorous, entertaining defense of key Darwinian ideas.

From Publishers Weekly

While an enzyme molecule or an eye might seem supremely improbable in their complexity, they are not accidental, nor need we assume that they are the designed handiwork of a Creator, asserts Oxford biologist Dawkins (The Selfish Gene). This foremost neo-Darwinian exponent explains the dazzling array of living things as the result of natural selection?the slow, cumulative, one-step-at-a-time, non-random survival of chance variants. Both a frontal assault on creationism and an enthralling tour of the natural world, this beautifully illustrated study is based on a set of BBC lectures, imparting a tone at once conversational and magisterial. Dawkins explores how ordered complexity arose by discussing spiders' web-building techniques, the gradual evolution of elephant trunks and of wings (birds, he concludes, evolved from two-legged dinosaurs, not from tree gliders) and the symbiotic relationship between the 900 species of figs and their sole genetic companions, the miniature wasps that pollinate specific fig species. Using "computer biomorphs" (simulated creatures "bred" from a common ancestor), Dawkins demonstrates how varieties of the same plant or animal species can vary in shape because of differences in just a few genes. Author tour.
Copyright 1996 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.

Product Details

  • Paperback: 352 pages
  • Publisher: W. W. Norton & Company (September 17, 1997)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0393316823
  • ISBN-13: 978-0393316827
  • Product Dimensions: 8.2 x 5.5 x 0.9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 14.4 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.6 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (86 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #70,875 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Richard Dawkins taught zoology at the University of California at Berkeley and at Oxford University and is now the Charles Simonyi Professor of the Public Understanding of Science at Oxford, a position he has held since 1995. Among his previous books are The Ancestor's Tale, The Selfish Gene, The Blind Watchmaker, Climbing Mount Improbable, Unweaving the Rainbow, and A Devil's Chaplain. Dawkins lives in Oxford with his wife, the actress and artist Lalla Ward.

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews
58 of 60 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Answering an age-old argument against natural selection December 27, 2001
What Dawkins does is take a whole slew of animal characteristics that have led even natural selection's most strident supporters (including Darwin himself) to throw up their hands and say, "This is too complex - it cannot have evolved naturally." Examples include eyes, lungs, spiderwebs (yes, animal behavior counts), and wings.
Dawkins then goes through these examples and painstakingly shows, step by step, that not only can each of these things be broken down into a series of *very gradual* changes - but also that each change provides an evolutionary advantage over the state that came before it.
In other words, Dawkins shows that it's entirely plausible for, e.g., an eye to evolve because each stage of development enhances the fitness of the organism, yet each individual change (not the creation of the entire eye) is caused by such a small genetic change that it could have occurred randomly.
The book effectively answers what has, historically, been one of the strongest arguments, not against evolution as a mechanism for *some* change in the natural world, but against its power to create the most complex facets of life.
Along the way, Dawkins explains evolutionary theory in simple, understandable language, showing not only its incredible power, but also its limitations: because natural selection is a series of tiny steps, in which each change must improve the animal's survival fitness, organisms can get "stuck" on a path of improvement that ultimately is not as beneficial to them as another path would have been. The book is a powerful tool for understanding how natural selection works.
On a personal note: I read this book early on in high school, and it interested me in biological science in a way no class has done. (And, as an uneducated youngster, I understood it - this is real testament to Dawkins's writing ability.) I highly recommend it.
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52 of 55 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Classic Dawkins November 16, 2004
I've read two of Dawkins' books so far (The Selfish Gene and The Blind Watchmaker), and I'm starting to notice a very prevalent theme in his writing.

Dawkins has two major faults.

His first fault is rambling. His second fault is raving. Let me explain.

Rambling: Dawkins has one point to make. Evolution is NOT the random process creationists will have you think it is, but rather it is a process based on random mutation and NON random selection. Very well. We get it. We got that in The Selfish Gene, we got that in The Blind Watchmaker. We got that in chapter 1. We understand that's what you want to say. The entire book is dedicated to explaining this point. HOWEVER, you don't have to repeat it every 4 paragraphs. Say it once. Say it loud. Say it proud. Stop repeating it 300 times. Dawkins also has a way of sliding into rather odd and unbecoming metaphors, as if trying to explain evolution to an imbecile - the entire book and its title point to such a metaphor (the Improbable Mountain and its peaks).

Raving: Okay. We understand you're trying to make a point. Now what's up with complaining on the (rather idiotic) claims the creationists make. Refute them with one paragraph, and get on with it.

Now, after I got the faults out of the way now it's time to point out the good parts.

Dawkins' knowledge is encyclopedic. Seriously. He goes on and shows examples from every corner of the wildlife kingdom and he does his explaining with style, elegance, and lucidity. He slides from mussels to spiders to bees to humans with ease and grace, explaining how evolution worked its way to solve problems in each and every case and pointing out the similarities between the solutions and how graceful they are.
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69 of 75 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Can This Man Write a Bad Book? May 7, 2001
Though in a broad sense this book covers the same ground as the also-excellent _The Blind Watchmaker_, this one is less stridently argumentative in tone and consequently somewhat more accesible to the non-biologist. It also introduces a new metaphor for the process of evolution towards complexity, the titular Mount Improbable, which I find far superior to either the Blind Watchmaker (derived from and therefore permenantly bound to old Creationist arguments) or the author's much-beloved computer programs. The museum of hypothetical shells is another great addition to the annals of thought-experiment.
Another aspect of this book's greatness is the way in which Mr. Dawkin's love for biology, both in the sense of the study of living things and in the sense of the living things themselves, shows on nearly every page. Where in The Blind Watchmaker he often seemed angry (albeit rightfully so), here he is equally often simply enraptured by the sheer beauty of evolution and the products thereof. It's easy to see that this guy is a true naturalist, and his enthusiasm is infectious.
Now I move along to _Unweaving the Rainbow_ with high hopes and much anticipation.
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17 of 19 people found the following review helpful
Many people find it difficult to understand how complex structures like eyes and wings evolved through random evolution. Dawkins does a thorough job here laying out just how evolution works. He makes it clear that evolution is not random--it is the accumulation of gradual changes, over centuries and millenia. Mutations are random; evolution is not. Dawkins is very good at explaining how each gradual change to a complex structure like an eye or a wing would have been useful enough to the animal possessing it to have contributed to its survival and producing more babies than its rivals. Those babies then become the starting point for the next round of evolution. The key word here is CUMULATIVE.

The book does get tedious in a few spots. I am less fascinated than Dawkins is by the details of the computer programs he uses to simulate certain types of evolution.

"Climbing Mount Improbable" is more or less a sequel to Dawkins' book "The Blind Watchmaker," with additional detail. Although "Climbing Mount Improbable" is good, if you can read only one of the two books, I would suggest "The Blind Watchmaker."

The Blind Watchmaker: Why the Evidence of Evolution Reveals a Universe Without Design
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Most Recent Customer Reviews
4.0 out of 5 stars An Interesting Set of Case Studies
Richard Dawkins' CLIMBING MOUNT IMPROBABLE is more or less a follow-up to his book THE BLIND WATCHMAKER. Read more
Published 4 months ago by Greg Goebel
4.0 out of 5 stars Good book
I don't think this is Dawkins best book. It is directed towards the basic tenet of the title. Dawkins explains very well and to the knowledgeable reader may seem somewhat... Read more
Published 4 months ago by Jim Bartlett
5.0 out of 5 stars Important, well stated
Like The Selfish Gene, this book gets the important thesis stated elegantly in the first few chapters. Read more
Published 6 months ago by Charles J. Dubats
2.0 out of 5 stars a boring book
I bought it for my biology class. I didn't enjoy reading it at all. it was too abstract. recommend it for real biology folks.
Published 9 months ago by heyhey098765
5.0 out of 5 stars Amazing Book
The Fortyfold Path to Enlightenment was one of the greatest things that I've ever read. I never knew that I'd be so interested in spiders and biomorphs.
Published 10 months ago by Aly Rei
5.0 out of 5 stars mike
one of the best books for Richard Dawkins as usual.... it tells you how evolution has made all living things in this world.
Published 12 months ago by mike
5.0 out of 5 stars Great stuff, probably better in bound version
I am a big fan of Dawkins' books and this one doesn't disappoint. Makes me wish I had paid more attention in bio class in school. Read more
Published 13 months ago by MRosenberger
Clinton Richard Dawkins (born 1941) is an English ethologist and evolutionary biologist, as well as an emeritus fellow of New College, Oxford. Read more
Published 14 months ago by Steven H. Propp
Clinton Richard Dawkins (born 1941) is an English ethologist and evolutionary biologist, as well as an emeritus fellow of New College, Oxford. Read more
Published 14 months ago by Steven H. Propp
Clinton Richard Dawkins (born 1941) is an English ethologist and evolutionary biologist, as well as an emeritus fellow of New College, Oxford. Read more
Published 14 months ago by Steven H. Propp
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