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Climbing Mount Improbable
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59 of 61 people found the following review helpful
on December 28, 2001
Format: Paperback
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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70 of 76 people found the following review helpful
on May 7, 2001
Format: Paperback
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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53 of 57 people found the following review helpful
on November 16, 2004
Format: Paperback
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. That's why the rating for this book has gone from a 3 to 4 in my eyes - the range and sheer amount of species that he uses in order to demonstrate his claims.

If only for reading about interesting problems and interesting evolutionary solutions for them - I think you should try the book. If you've already read The Selfish Gene/The Blind Watchmaker and you're looking for more interesting philosophy about evolution, look elsewhere - if you're looking for more fun examples - this is a good book to go for.
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17 of 19 people found the following review helpful
on June 2, 2007
Format: Paperback
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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32 of 39 people found the following review helpful
on April 14, 2000
Format: Paperback
The reviews so far seem to be from Darwinists who like the book and creationists who don't. Count me as a Darwinist who's not too impressed. There's some interesting information here, but Dawkins' writing (and to some extent his thinking) is too sloppy to pull it all together. A good example is the chapter where he claims to demolish the Gaia hypothesis with "watertight" logic--in fact, he doesn't come close (hint: merely citing the obvious fact that animals and their genes act autonomously is not enough--the whole idea is that "Gaia", if such there be, is emergent behavior in a system of just such autonomous agents). And he's given to bouts of name-calling and mockery of what he doesn't understand--he starts by denouncing what sounds like a rather witty and interesting lecture on the literary and symbolic history of figs, apparently on the grounds that once we understand the science behind the fig we don't need all that stuff. And even when he's on relatively solid ground, discussing biology directly, his constant digressions get rather wearying.
Nevertheless, if you're looking for ruminations about the development of the eye or the wing, the ones here are interesting, and there's enough biological detail to make the book moderately worthwhile. But if you're looking for a cogent explanation of, and argument for, natural selection, Dennett's "Darwin's Dangerous Idea" would be a much better choice.
Oh, and a minor point--the typography in the book is quite poor, enough so to be irritating and to add to the general impression of sloppiness.
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8 of 8 people found the following review helpful
on June 21, 1997
Format: Hardcover
This book is amazing in places, but in some it drags and bores the reader. However, in places where it talks about evolution (eyes) it is amazing! This chapter alone is worth reading. Dawkins takes the simple concept of natural selection and shows how it so easily explains even the most difficult 'problems' of evolution. Unfortunately, as in _The Blind Watchmaker_, I felt Dawkins couldn't quite communicate the differences between designed and apparently-designed objects. A simple and brief distinction is made in _Darwin's Dangerous Idea_ by C. Dennett. All in all, a good book
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13 of 15 people found the following review helpful
Format: Paperback
This book is for anyone developing an interest in popular science, and it is especially for anyone who is still lost in the Chicken-and-Egg debate of Creationism Vs Evolution. I picked the book up mainly for the latter reason, as the book promised to look at one of my long-troubling questions: If evolution is a matter of successful mutations adapting to changing environments, how on earth did something as complex as the evolution of the eyeball come about? Surely it is too much to suggest that one day a sightless organism had had a mutant baby that just happened to have a fully functioning eyeball equipped with and connected to a brain capable of registering and interpreting such signals. I thought perhaps the Creationist team had something over the Evolutionists here.

'Climbing Mount Improbable' very convincingly demonstrated to me the Evolutionist's answer to the problem. I was absolutely fascinated as Dawkins explained the process - from something like photosynthetic cells in plants (having some appreciation of light), progressing perhaps to basic light-and-movement detecting fauna (finding, therefore, some slight evasion or hunting advantage), and on and on in small steps up Mount Improbable until we come to the eyeball as we know it today. At this point, my question was essentially satisfied, but I read on intrigued by further insights into the compound eye (as preferred by flies, etc) and even a kind of scanning retina under the 'port-holes' of (from memory) jumping spiders.

But Dawkins threw a whole lot more into the bargain. Perhaps he went on a bit too long about spider webs (and computer generated spider webs!), but I guess he was making a fair point about evolution. Still, I loved learning more about spiders and the similar peculiarities of the insect (as opposed to the spider) kingdom. My only major gripe with the book - as one convinced by evolution, yet agnostic (and not atheistic) about God - was the constant bigotry that Dawkins displays throughout his book. He sees himself very much carrying the flag against Creationists, but often the arguments he directs against them are just as close-minded as he perceives theirs to be. I found it oddly childish when he tried to use logic against some of the creationists least convincing counter-evolutionary arguments.

Still, this problem only surfaces on the odd occasion, and being mostly a discussion on evolution the book is in this context extremely good. Until reading some of Dawkins' books I had only a very rough school-boy's understanding on science, but I have found that I can follow Dawkins' arguments and explanations without any problems, that he thoroughly interests me in the process, and that I am now getting at least a basic education in evolutionary science. This is a very good book.
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15 of 18 people found the following review helpful
on January 19, 1998
Format: Hardcover
DAWKINS IS BACK, and this time it's, well, more of the same, actually. This isn't a criticism, just an acknowledgement that there aren't any radical new ideas here. What we do find here is a new and very readable treatment of evolution by natural selection, a subject Dawkins has written about passionately in his previous popular works The Blind Watchmaker and River Out of Eden. The Mount Improbable of the title is a metaphor Dawkins has used before (notably in his memorable Royal Institution Christmas lectures), and one which neatly counters William Paley's `Blind Watchmaker' argument - as if it still needed countering after the author's earlier onslaughts!
Interestingly this book also expands on theuse of computation as a tool of biology, a theme Dawkins touched on in The Blind Watchmaker (expanded as an appendix to the second edition), although disappointingly this early emphasis peters out after a while. It may sound vulgar, but I got the impression that we were going to be directed to a 'Mount Improbable' web site where we'd find copies of the programs he was discussing!

In balancing rigouragainst readability, the book lies somewhere between River Out of Eden and The Blind Watchmaker, being considerably longer than the former but an easier read than the latter - easier in the sense that Dawkins seems to curb his passion for exhaustive (and, it has to be said, sometimes tedious) expansion on a theme. On the whole the book covers ground already covered in exhaustive detail by Dawkins's earlier works, but because he uses new examples it's easy to be caught up, once again, in the immensity and sheer wonder of what he's saying.

I also thought the book ended rather

(abruptly).

© 1998 Mark Hurst
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9 of 10 people found the following review helpful
on April 4, 2005
Format: Paperback
In this book, Richard Dawkins explains in plain language the theory of natural selection-driven evolution. Dawkins has not proved that natural selection was the only force responsible for the origin and the diversification of life on Earth - no one can - but he has at least argued convincingly that such a notion is not impossible and that it is a simple but versatile theory capable of accounting for many aspects of biology. The most important paragraphs in the book are found on pages 75 and 77, namely, "Darwinism is not a theory of random chance. It is a theory of random mutation plus non-random cumulative natural selection" (page 75), and "It is grindingly, creakingly, crashingly obvious that, if Darwinism were really a theory of chance, it couldn't work. You don't need to be a mathematician or physicist to calculate that an eye or haemoglobin molecule would take from here to infinity to self-assemble by sheer higgledy-piggledy luck. Far from being a difficulty peculiar to Darwinism, the astronomic improbability of eyes and knees, enzymes and elbow joints and the other living wonders is precisely the problem that any theory of life must solve, and that Darwinism uniquely does solve. It solves it by breaking the improbability up into small, manageable parts, smearing out the luck needed..." (page 77). To make it easier to visualize how "small, manageable" evolutionary steps can accumulate to form improbably complex life forms, Dawkins once again uses the "biomorph" computer program first introduced in his earlier book "The Blind Watchmaker". In this program, Dawkins shows that through a non-random selection process (artificial selection in that program, or natural selection in the history of life on Earth), small gradual changes in the shapes of the biomorphs can add up to big changes after a relatively small number of biomorph generations. Critics of this program claim that it is of limited value because it only considers the external shape of whole organisms and the events taking place within the organisms are much more complicated. These critics don't realize that this program could be used to simulate equally well the evolution of the shapes of proteins, photoreceptors, lungs, etc., but Dawkins uses it at the organismic level because that's the level most people are familiar with. The bottom line is that many generations of simple, gradual changes can lead to big changes and novelties, and this is nicely demonstrated by the biomorphs.

The above is the main message of the book, and is presented in a powerfully engaging manner in the first three chapters. Chapters 4 and 5 describe two specific applications of that message, namely how flight and sight could have evolved gradually from scratch. If you believe the Creationists' claim that the eye could not have evolved because "half an eye is useless", please read chapter 5.

The best part of the book is the first five chapters. While the subsequent chapters contain interesting facts and can sometimes be thought-provoking, they explore topics that are somewhat less critical to the central theme of the book, and Dawkins also gets annoyingly wordy in some of these chapters. Had he stopped at the end of chapter 5, I would have given this book five stars.
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14 of 17 people found the following review helpful
on September 25, 2007
Format: Paperback
Climbing Mount Improbable may be treated as the sequel to The Blind Watchmaker but really reads more like a development of those thoughts. In fact Climbing Mount Improbable is an expanded transcript of Dawkins' Growing Up in the Universe, first broadcast in 1991 in five episodes, which was filmed during a series of Royal Institution Christmas Lectures (which have been held in London annually since 1825 first started by Michael Faraday). For those who have seen the series, Climbing Mount Improbable is that whole series plus five years worth of updates (this book was first published in 1996). For those who haven't seen the series, its worth getting because the series compliments this book wonderfully.

Climbing Mount Improbable is a collection of examples of gradual evolution via natural selection with a good load of illustrations and photographs to back it up. In terms of value for money this book is essentially a pinnacle in Dawkins' thoughts on evolutionary biology with the evidence to back it up and so for that reason really does offer a lot more than most books for the price.

Nobody does it better than Dawkins when it comes to presenting biology lessons of a lifetime. The fact that this book is based on the materials for a set of Royal Institution Christmas Lectures says it all about the quality of the information in the pages. If there is a biology book you are going to get then get this at all costs. It's both the foundation and the finishing touch on assembling the facts surrounding living things.

Dawkins covers ten chosen topics. Each topic is about evolutionary biology. The main theme of the book is about the illusion of intelligent design and how natural selection is the right approach to understanding the gradual development of complex organisms from simpler ones. The metaphor of the mountain with many peaks is used throughout the book to describe the process of evolution via natural selection. This mountain is what Dawkins calls Mount Improbable.

Chapter 1 "Facing Mount Rushmore"
This chapter deals with illusions in natural design such as seeing John F. Kennedy in a mountain face and comparisons to actual intelligent designs such as Mount Rushmore. Dawkins then examines mimicry in insects such as ants mimicking beetles and beetles mimicking termites, all explained by natural selection. Dawkins covers several designoid objects such as the pitcher plant and pots made by potter wasps and mason bees. Convergent evolution describes how specific environmental conditions can produce the same evolved characteristics in separate species. Millipedes copulate face to face. The wild cabbage has bred an amazing diversity of cabbage-like plants. The Chihuahua has eventually been bred from the wolf. Dawkins famous blind watchmaker program is then shown to produce a variety of computer generated biomorphs to illustrate how complex organisms form through heredity via natural selection.

Chapter 2 "Silken Fetters"
Dawkins describes in deep detail the evolution of the spider-web before going on to explain adaptive variations and in the web design.

Chapter 3 "The Message From the Mountain"
Dawkins gives a general rundown on how natural selection gradually works including mutation and the error of calling evolution chance. Dawkins gives examples including the evolution of the elephant trunk and the giraffe neck. The topics of macro-mutations and punctuated evolution are covered.

Chapter 4 "Getting Off the Ground"
Dawkins describes the evolution of flight. Magnitude and volume in relation to evolutionary constraints under the laws of physics is extremely interesting. Creatures that glide are illustrated. Dawkins answers why mammals are found in the sea if mammals evolved from fish and then proceeds to give examples of fish that have strange adaptations via natural selection such as the flat-fish.

Chapter 5 "The Forty-fold Path to Enlightenment"
Dawkins describes the evolution of the eye in vast detail. The evolution of the eye is often called impossible by some yet the solution is again found in the gradual process of natural selection. Dawkins then goes on to show how the eye has independently evolved in other species.

Chapter 6 "The Museum of All Shells"
Using just three mathematical variables of the flare, verm and spire Dawkins systematically develops complex shells. Then by adding another dimension of size and change of each possible variable Dawkins surprises the reader with an array of every complex form of life on the planet today. This is a real eye-opener... and an evolved eye at that.

Chapter 7 "Kaleidoscopic Embryos"
If you have ever wondered how those amazing jellyfish look so mechanical Dawkins explains it using the idea of kaleidoscopes and natural selection. This chapter then leads up to another surprise of how body parts evolve into their complexities from less complex designs. This is yet another brain raiser... and an evolved brain at that too.

Chapter 8 "Pollen Grains and Magic Bullets"
Dawkins illustrates and describes the symbiotic relationships between flowers and the insects they need to reproduce them, all developed via natural selection.

Chapter 9 "The Robot Repeater"
All living things are in fact hosts for DNA. DNA for wings is there so that wings can help DNA spread. DNA says copy me to copy me. That's it! This is the meaning of life in a nutshell. Shockingly simple but this is what has been at the heart of all biological questions since humans first asked "why we are the way we are?" using our emergent consciousness.

Chapter 10 "A Garden Inclosed"
Dawkins does the evolution of the fig via natural selection in a way that only very patient readers or professional biologists will appreciate. It's the book's example of tour-de-force natural selection. It is highly complex and requires several readings to even begin to comprehend it.

This book is a world beyond the question of whether evolution is real or not. Not only is this book dealing with the fact of evolution but its business is with the mechanisms of natural selection in all its forms as a real process that is observable, testable and verifiable. For people who are still unsure about evolution this book will not only convince but does so by going into the deep end and presenting what biologists know about this certainty of life.

The style of critical thinking is also something to learn outside of the book's topic. Dawkins writes likes it is the reader who is doing all the work, and they are if they can think through every step of his mountain climb. You will never see life the same way again. Everything, and I mean everything, you see will be subject to analysis. Dawkins has set his standards as high as Everest. You will stand at the summit with a refined critical mind and that is guaranteed.
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