- 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: 104 customer reviews
- Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #890,869 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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Climbing Mount Improbable
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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 an alternate Paperback edition.
Top customer reviews
He wrote in the first chapter of this 1996 book, "I think that the distinction between accident and design is clear... but this chapter will introduce a third category of objects ... I shall call them 'designoid'... Designoid objects LOOK designed, so much so that some people---probably, alas, most people---think that they ARE designed. These people are wrong." (Pg. 6) He adds, "we firmly... classify the wasp and bee pots as designoid not designed: not shaped by the animal's own creative volition." (Pg. 16-17)
He argues that "What Hoyle and Wickramisinghe miss [in Evolution from Space] is that Darwinism is NOT a theory of random chance. It is a theory of random mutation plus NON-RANDOM cumulative natural selection. Why, I wonder, is it so hard for even sophisticated scientists to grasp this simple point?" (Pg. 75) He adds, "Either your god is capable of designing worlds and doing all the other godlike things, in which case he NEEDS an explanation in his own right. Or he is not, in which case he cannot PROVIDE an explanation. God should be seen by Fred Hoyle as the ultimate Boeing 747." (Pg. 77)
He says, "The ease with which small animals can float suggests that we have only to assume that flying evolved originally in small animals, and the flying peak of Mount Improbable immediately looks less formidable. Very small insects float without wings at all." (Pg. 113) He speculates, "it may turn out to be a general rule that a version of the gene taken from a donor in one part of the animal kingdom can induce eyes to develop in recipients in an exceedingly remote part of the animal kingdom... Were we wrong to think that eyes have developed forty times independently? I don't think so. At least the spirit of the statement that eyes evolve easily and at the drop of a hat remains unscathed." (Pg. 194) Even more speculatively, he proposes, "My tentative conjecture is that an ancestral Scyllarid mutated homoerotically, slipping the developmental sub-routine appropriate to a uropod into a segment where an antenna ought to be, and that the change conferred some benefit. If I am right, it would constitute a rare example of a macro-mutation's being favoured by natural selection..." (Pg. 253)
He suggests, "as far as we know, [life] may have happened on only one planet out of a billion billion planets in the universe... So the sort of lucky event we are looking at COULD be so wildly improbable that the chances of its happening... could be as low as one in a billion billion billion in any one year. If it DID happen on only one planet, anywhere in the universe, that planet has to be our planet---because here we are talking about it. My guess is that life probably isn't all that rare and the origin of life probably wasn't all that improbable." (Pg. 283) He concludes on the note, "Even the most difficult problems can be solved, and even the most precipitous heights can be scaled, if only a slow, gradual, step-by-step pathway can be found. Mount Improbable cannot be assaulted. Gradually, if not always slowly, it must be climbed." (Pg. 326)
Dawkins' book (as well as his earlier 'Blind Watchmaker') are absolutely "MUST READING" for anyone interested in contemporary evolutionary theory.
Writing a review of this book is fraught with danger given the strong emotions that surround the concept of evolution. From reading other reviews, it appears that, not surprisingly, reviewers are somewhat polarized in favor of Dawkins (and evolution) or against Dawkins (and likely against or skeptical of evolution). I am impressed by the fervor of some reviews, and so I think Dawkins was successful in getting his points across. A problem with reading a book like this is that it really is impossible to read it without its implicit argument for evolution, and, while this is obvious, such an overriding argument detracts somewhat from the purpose of the book: to demonstrate that an unguided mechanism (evolution) can produce over many years increasingly complex biological structures.
I argue that an emotional response should be put aside in evaluating the value of the ideas in the book. Dawkins is really just saying that it does not take design or any other sort of divine intervention for an evolutionary process to come up with a wing or an eye. He argues that such biological structures can be, and were, developed over a very long time as a result of evolutionary processes, and presents several examples to support his arguments. These examples are very interesting and presented in a more or less topical fashion. Dawkins cannot necessarily go into more extensive detail since that would require a much longer book - his light treatment of the science may be prompting some of the criticism that the book does not have the depth of more serious science writing.
I think this book is important since it builds a foundation for arguing the science behind evolution. Dawkins cannot necessarily write this book (and his other books) without an implicit opposition to myth-based theories of creation, since to support evolution at all necessarily argues against many of the concepts running through religion. Thus, this book is going to annoy a lot of people. Dawkins ideas are valid nonetheless, and his arguments are sound enough to push back against the various ID and other myth-based creationist theories. He might strengthen his arguments if he did not take jabs at creationists and just stuck to the science, but he has his opinions and I find them amusing.
I recommend this book because it is written by an intelligent evolutionary biologist who presents some fascinating biology in the course of demonstrating that evolution, in fact, works to develop complex structures.
Loaded with detailed information about eyes, sea shells and trees. All good info that will not change the minds of the faithful.
Great insight into the vast complexity of evolving life.
The subject matter was not easy. But many tiny metaphors -- alongside the big Mt. Improbable one -- with repeated explanations, and lots of drawings were very helpful.
When Dawkins dropped the big Mt. Improbable metaphor and started using another main one -- the natural history museum with endless corridors of shells, and with other endless meanderings sometimes jutting out from the main corridors' sides -- the reading got really tough. Tough yes, but Dawkins' stories were always fascinating and made exciting.
The evolution of the eye was a wonderful and believable story, but I'm afraid the last one about the fig was too hopelessly complicated for me to follow.
I was surprised that Dawkins ended his book with the big Mt. Improbable metaphor. He had stopped using it halfway through the book.
Most recent customer reviews
Well worth reading.
Elegant arguments and explanation.
by Richard Dawkins, Norton & Company, New York, 1996, 340 Pages
by Samuel A. Nigro, M.D.Read more