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Climbing Mount Improbable

3.7 out of 5 stars 99 customer reviews
ISBN-13: 978-0393316827
ISBN-10: 0393316823
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Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com 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.

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 352 pages
  • Publisher: W. W. Norton & Company (September 17, 1997)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0393316823
  • ISBN-13: 978-0393316827
  • Product Dimensions: 5.5 x 0.9 x 8.3 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 14.4 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.7 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (99 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #383,245 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

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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By Nir 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.
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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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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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