The Blind Watchmaker by Richard Dawkins

I’m always interested in filling in gaps in my knowledge, and evolutionary biology is a big one. For many years I was a believer in creationism, but since abandoning Christianity, I am more open to the idea of evolution (since I’m no longer being simply told what to believe).

I approached this book believing in evolution but doubting the precise mechanism by which it is claimed to work (natural selection). My objection is based on the fact that evolution has never been simulated in a computer. It’s supposed to be an automatic, non-conscious process, and yet we can’t replicate it artificially. Why? Time to learn from the experts.

Well, I didn’t get an answer to my question. I was delighted to read that Dawkins had taken it upon himself to attempt to simulate evolution on his little 64K computer (this was the 1980s, remember). He claims to have created insect-like creatures that he terms “biomorphs.” Unfortunately, he doesn’t explain the argorithms that he used to achieve that. I am left to wonder how much of his results were more akin to faces in the cloud than to actual complexity that gives an organism a definite survival edge. Certainly, Dawkins’s program has never been superceded by a better one that shows the principle of natural selection operating on a bigger scale.

Nevertheless, evolution happens; no question about it. Dawkins provides brilliant and very engaging accounts of the development of the eye and echolocation in bats. He expertly debunks creationist objections, explaining how cumulative selection works – nothing like a tornado blowing through a junkyard and creating a Rolls Royce by random chance.

The book unfortunately begins to falter about halfway through and continues plunging to the finish (at least for the lay reader), as it tackles the finer points of evolutionary theory, delving into obscure areas with the titles punctuationism, Lamarckism and taxonomy. He can be long-winded at times, and needlessly arrogant. I could stand the arrogance if he really was as right as he thinks he is, but when he strays out of his field of expertise into metaphysics, he’s completely inept. He has no concept of time other than as a forward-moving arrow, and so, when he thinks of the idea of God, he can only describe him/it as a highly complex organism needing a creator of its own. You can’t tackle metaphysics without delving into philosophy. Dawkins’s unexamined assumption of “materialism” doesn’t cut it.

In the end, I gained some valuable knowledge about evolution, but my main contention was only reinforced. How can you say natural selection is an unconscious process when the organisms doing the the evolving are conscious?

And what is consciousness? The Blind Watchmaker would have benefitted from a chapter on consciousness, discussing the theories on what it is, specifically whether it is an emergent product of evolution, or a metaphysical precursor to the evolutionary process. For reasons that are too lengthy to go into here, I side with the latter. Unfortunately, one may specialise in evolutionary biology, while knowing little or nothing about psychology and metaphysics. This lays the basis for making hugely wrong conclusions, when diverse fields of enquiry overlap. Nevertheless, The Blind Watchmaker is recommended reading.

One thought on “The Blind Watchmaker by Richard Dawkins

  1. Dawkins’ biomorph program has been replicated many times by others and these are readily available on teh interwebs. Perhaps they hold the answers you seek.

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