The Blind Watchmaker. Hardcover – January 1, 2008
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WHAT TO EXPECT
The context and tone of this book are conversational in nature, even if the core ideas are derived from an array of scientific inquiry over the last 150 years. Imagine the author sitting in a coffee shop with you during a bad rain storm (so you've got time), hoping to explain why the main tenets of evolution are important and worth understanding, and why many of the opposing theories are lesser theories from a scientific standpoint, and you will understand the purpose of this book.
It's not hard to see why this work is has been deemed a "classic". Dawkins weaves an interesting and detailed account of the basic principles underlying evolution, including dispelling common misunderstandings like the idea that natural selection is a random process (i.e. conflating genetic mutation — random — with natural selection in favor of specific kinds of mutations — not random). No degrees in molecular biology, genetics, or zoology are required to understand the basic principles described in the book, though you may find that afterward you have a desire to find and order books about these topics (I did). There are also some laugh out-loud passages which I did not expect. While he does at various points veer off-course and ramble a bit (who doesn't), the old saw about babies and bathwater clearly applies (and not much bathwater at that).
In short if the average reader approaches with an open mind, you cannot help but end up with a better understanding of evolution than when you started, regardless of whether or not you personally find every argument made compelling (you're not a bad person if you don't, nor virtuous if you do). We need to learn to debate these things without the toxicity applied.
While most of the key mechanisms of evolution are known and their effects observable with modern technology (e.g. reading and comparing the genome of two suspected but not obviously related species) and/or through our robust understanding of molecular biology, there are parts of the theory that remain unproven. More specifically, formal proofs of concept of the origins of the first self-replicating cells. This is not unexpected given the time scales involved and the very incomplete fossil record that we have (unfortunately many kinds of things that we would need to study fossils OF, don't actually fossilize when they die). This is also where the typical "God of the Gaps" arguments made by many intelligent design (or ID) supporters originate. Which for many of them amounts to "you can't show me definitive proof today of how certain kinds of cells came into being 4 billion years ago, ergo this entire theory is flawed / false." Which is, on its face, absurd.
If I believe at all in the value of scientific inquiry and thinking, then I must admit that two things are true:
1) there is by now a literal mountain of empirical evidence — in several related scientific fields, ranging from physics to physiology — that points directly to the cellular machinery of what we call "evolution" at work, over very long time scales, in every kind of living thing. To deny the validity of the core parts of evolution, is about as foolish as an educated person choosing to believe that an entire political party is filled with devil-worshipping baby-eaters, despite there being no wide-scale reports of satanic altars and missing babies that we know of;
2) In a wide array of scientific fields, we have scenarios where some parts of a theory are definitively known and proven and others not yet proven (i.e. proven in the same way science has proven than atoms can be split and tornadoes are formed when certain kinds of frontal boundaries collide with one another under specific conditions), and evolution is one of these fields. Admitting that something is unknown is NOT tantamount to admitting it is invalid! : ) There remain problems unsolved / proofs unmade; that is OK. It means we have work to do.
Imagine this conversation between two people (two scientists if you like, no need to make it a scientist and a minister, for example):
"You say we can see from countless optical telescope (and other) observations and crunching of data according to the laws of physics that have been proven valid many thousands of times over, that there is evidence of an unseen type of mass in the universe, that effects everything from the appearance of distant objects in optical telescopes (gravitational lensing) to how galaxies interact, but because you can't show me a visible proof this source of mass exists, I must conclude your entire interconnected theory of solar systems and galaxies and galaxy clusters, and how they interact, is false." Absurd right? That's what many (not all) ID proponents do with evolution (the lack of visible evidence in our example is the analog to the lack of a proven, molecular definition of the first self-replicating cell and its surrounding conditions).
And that leads me to the last point, which is over the last 20 years or so, molecular biologists, molecular engineers, and evolutionary biologists have been generating ever-more-compelling test results in controlled lab conditions, of self-contained, self-replicating cells arising from nothing but simple organic compounds, elemental catalysts, and different forms of energy. They're not there yet, but one by one the technical hurdles are falling; the cells we're capable of generating today are much more robust than when we started 20 years ago. It would be great, therefore, to see Dawkins or perhaps his favored understudy, either re-write portions of this book to include these developments (a lot has happened n biology and genetics since the 90s, including things like systems theory), or write a new book with the same general scope and audience.
Some of the key concepts that Dawkins puts forward (which I was impressed with) include arguments for non blended, "particulate" inheritance and how this relates to sex. Also, he describes how one sees in sexual selection an unusual positive feedback, leading to such things as apparently inefficient long tails, and this is contrasted with the usual negative feedback that one tends to see in nature. The positive feedback loop results from the linkage between preference genes and the trait genes themselves.
There was a very nice discussion of genes and the environment and how the environment of genes includes other genes both within an individual and in other organisms, and this, in turn, leads to complex types of cooperation, arms races and the famous red queen effect. Finally, I liked the discussion of sensory systems such as vision and bat echolocation and how we can learn from these areas where nature has adapted to such a great degree and how we can see that in this process using less refined systems sometimes is evolutionarily advantageous.
Overall I found this a thoroughly enjoyable read and I would highly recommend it to anybody else. It is a great classic.
Top reviews from other countries
This book is an extended explanation of why the appearance of design in the animal world is an illusion and how organised complexity can emerge from a sequence of cumulative, small changes via natural selection. Of course, most rational folk accept that evolution is as proven as a theory ever gets but it is a fascinating subject and one well worth knowing more about, even if only to counter the feeble attempts of the non-rational to contradict it.
Dawkins has an engaging, affable tone in the book, yet is easy to understand. The section on the development of echo-location in bats is one of the books high points, as is the discussion on why the African widow bird has a seemingly impractically long tail . The Blind Watchmaker is not without its faults, however. An entire chapter devoted to taxonomy seemed to have no relevance to the main narrative and I skim-read the chapter on a computer simulation of biomorphs as it was heavily repetitive and felt a bit tenuous as a model for evolution.
There are some surprising (to me) insights here. I had no idea that so little of the genetic information in our cells was actually used - apparently only about 1%. I did not know that the tripling in the size of the human brain was one of the fastest known evolutionary changes, taking a paltry three million years. Dawkins also skewers some common myths about evolution, pointing out, for example, that the entire theory of evolution would collapse in an instant, were a 500 million year-old fossilised mammalian skull to be discovered, refuting the creationist canard that evolution is an 'unfalsifiable' tautology.
Overall, this is an entertaining and informative read.
Reviewed in the United Kingdom on June 26, 2018