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My views on this book will obviously be coloured by the fact that I am a huge Dawkins fan. I've now read most of his books and this one was a must. I found it in a local charity shop. It's the 1996 revision, the original version having been published 10 years before.
In this book, Dawkins tackles the issues surrounding the mechanisms of evolution and the objections from various sources to Darwin and Wallace's world-changing theories on evolution by natural selection. Specifically he addresses the objections by those who refuse to accept that complex organs such as the eye and the ear could possibly have come into existence purely by genetic mutation and natural selection.
The Blind Watchmaker of the title is, in fact, a computer programme written by Dawkins to mimic the effects of gene mutation on the outcome of the structure of a "digital organism". These biomorphs are fascinating and demonstrate the huge changes that can result from quite minor mutations. His comments on the length of time taken to produce these "creatures" is very evocative of the way in which computer power has increased over the years since then.
The majority of the book, though, covers the objections raised by various academics and he deals with each in turn, demonstrating the repercussions of their arguments, taken to their natural conclusions, and how they are each and every one at odds with the real world. Dawkins, being Dawkins, searches in every nook and cranny, overturning every rock in search of some possible justification for the objections raised and in every case demonstrates the falsity of these argument, ranging from the simply mistaken to the down-right absurd, and I'm not just talking about the Creationists.
I enjoyed this book very much and found it very thought-provoking. It is, at 400 pages of fairly small print, a long read; it's not the sort of book you would sit down and read cover to cover. But, read it you should, whatever your beliefs on the validity or otherwise of Evolution.
Review also posted on Goodreads.
I read 'The Blind Watchmaker' by Richard Dawkins after I had read 'The God Delusion'. I have to say that 'The Blind Watchmaker' has to be one of the best books I have ever read. The book is filled with fascinating explanations of nature and descriptions of the many facets of evolution. There are many examples which invite the reader into a fantastic world, based on more fact than 'wishy-washy' theories, although the book is filled with theories aswell and one theory which I found fascinating was the idea that dolphins may have a way of communicating images to one-another via their in built sonor communication system. I would love to find out whether or not dolphins do actually have this capacity - maybe sometime in the near future we will find out. The book is filled with these types of ideas, interwoven with scientific fact and the book is so well written and easy to read. Some books are filled with scientific jargon, which, I myself find difficult to read without looking in a dictionary every five minutes to find out the meaning, but Dawkins explains himself coherently and I find his books very fluid to read. An excellent book and one of my all time favourites.
Way back, oh, about 150 years ago a young man took a trip to the Galapagos islands and spent his time there eyeing up the birds on the beach. Nothing unusual there, you may think. Only this man was Darwin and the birds he was “eyeing up” were a number of species of finches whose main distinguishing features were the sizes and shapes of their beaks. After a while mulling over what he saw, Darwin had a bunch of ideas, decided to write a book and the “Origin of Species” was born. The rest, as they say, is history… Until, that is, Richard Dawkins came along. To give him his full title, Dawkins is the Charles Simonyi Professor of the Public Understanding of Science at Oxford University, but he is probably better known as the author of a number of popular science books on genetics and evolution (perhaps his most famous is “The Selfish Gene”). He has won a number of prizes for his writing, including the Royal Society Literature Award and the Silver Medal of the Zoological Society of London, and a Horizon documentary programme has been made chronicling his ideas. So, why the fuss? Put simply, Dawkins took a look at the state of Darwinian theory in the world today and was dismayed at what he saw. Darwin’s ideas have been distorted, misrepresented and misunderstood to such an extent that what most people nowadays tend to think of as Darwinian theory is nothing of the kind. Dawkins decided to write a book that would set the record straight and educate a new generation of both general readers and scientific minds. Dawkins approaches the problem in a systematic manner. The book begins by explaining what Darwinian theory actually is – the accumulation of slight genetic changes over many generations and the mechanism of natural selection which ensures that only those changes that are advantageous survive. He then delves deeper to explain how this system works at the genetic level by looking at DNA and
the way in which it is handed down through successive generations. This leads to a section where Dawkins postulates a theory on how DNA itself may originally have arisen in the early years of our planet. Once Darwinian theory has been sufficiently explained, Dawkins turns his attention to the other theories of how life on Earth appeared and deconstructs them one by one in an attempt to show that Darwinism is the only logical theory that manages to explain the creatures and plants we see around us today. He dispels the false beliefs that many people have about what Darwinism is and is not, and shows how alternative theories of evolution such as Lamarckism, mutationism and even creationism can only be false – or, at best, incomplete. Perhaps Dawkins’ biggest complaint in the book is the belief many people still hold in creationism, or the idea that some divine being spirited the whole animal and plant kingdom into being in the flash of an eye. He feels that such ideas are nothing more than superstitious mumbo-jumbo and is appalled that the church in America has managed to ban the teaching of Darwinism and evolution in schools in some states because of its “blasphemous” nature. Dawkins’ scorn can be heard most clearly when he reminds the reader that “the Genesis story is just the one that happened to have been adopted by one particular tribe of Middle Eastern herders. It has no more special status that the belief of a particular West African tribe that the world was created from the excrement of ants.” However, rather that just dismiss the theory of creationism, Dawkins is willing to pretend that it is a legitimate scientific theory and submits it to the same fair and impartial criteria that he uses to judge the other theories put forward in the book. He appears open-minded and provides quotations from Bishops and other backers of creationism in an attempt to play devil’s advocate. Such an appr
oach only serves to strengthen Dawkins’ case and in the end the reader is easily swayed to his point of view. This level of impartiality is maintained throughout the book. Although it is always clear on which side of the fence Dawkins’ own personal convictions lie, he is nevertheless willing to conduct a fair and balanced argument that will enable the reader to make up his or her own mind. Indeed, Dawkins often points out the flaws in his own arguments before the reader has even realised there is a flaw to be found – although he always has a clever answer to explain that the flaw isn’t really a flaw at all. The examples used in the book are all very interesting and Dawkins tries to vary them as much as possible. The one example to which he continues to return is the example of the eye – how could such a complex organ arise through the random mutations of evolution? Whenever a new theory is put forwards the example of the eye is used to test it – if the theory can explain how an eye came to be, it is classed as a good theory; if it is unable to explain, it is a bad theory. The evolution of sonar in bats is the central theme of another chapter, as is the tail feathers of tropical birds, species of “warrior” ants, voles, dolphins and many others. In another chapter, Dawkins tries to offer an explanation of how DNA came into being in the first place. Instead of rewriting the well known “primordial soup” example that has been discussed in any number of other books, he champions a controversial theory that DNA arose as the by-product of certain types of inanimate structures (for example, clay on river beds). Although he does not claim that this is the one true theory, Dawkins says that it is interesting and worthy of further investigation by evolutionary scientists. By introducing such a new idea into the book, the author encourages the reader to think in new ways and, for me, this was
one of the most interesting chapters. Another interesting section of the book is when Dawkins describes the “biomorphs” that he created on his home computer. When looking into the ways in which creatures evolve, he decided to write a simple computer program to create a tree diagram with nine “genes”, which dictated how the diagram should grow new branches. The first time he actually ran the program, Dawkins was astonished to find that the shapes he was able to create were very similar to the shapes of insects in the real world. By acting as a human version of natural selection, he was able to decide which biomorphs would survive to create a new generation and so shape the “evolution” of an imaginary species. The program has now been developed a stage further and in an appendix he writes that it is available for PC and Apple Mac. If there was one criticism I had to make about the book, it would be that it is sometimes aimed a little too much at others in the scientific community. That is not to say that it is difficult to read – the writing style is simple and the language used can be easily understood even by a total non-scientist such as myself. What I mean is that Dawkins uses the book to address a number of issues that are currently being contested in the field of evolutionary genetics. One chapter, for example, concentrates solely on discussing “punctuationism” – a theory stating that evolution occurs in rapid spurts between long periods of stasis. Although the discussion is relevant to the book, Dawkins spends most of the chapter pointing out why his theory is right and those of his contemporaries are flawed, if not wrong entirely. There is a general impression that he is letting off steam, and that the arguments he is advancing would be better off in a journal devoted to evolution where they could be read by the scientific community at large. At least Dawkins is willing to admit th
at “…some of these arguments, however hotly they rage today, will seem terribly dated in decades to come”. On the whole, though, this is a very interesting book and one I would recommend to anyone with a passing interest in evolution or science in general. Dawkins makes the point that Darwinism suffers from a fate worse than other branches of science. Just because we don’t know much about or don’t understand Einstein’s theories of general and special relativity, it doesn’t mean that we disagree with them or dismiss them out of hand. Yet, many people who do not know very much about Darwinism are willing to dismiss it as nonsense and support a supernatural belief that life was created by some divine being. My advice to someone like that would be to read this book from cover to cover and then come back and see if they still held the same beliefs. I am willing to bet that they will have changed their mind.
Richard Dawkins is possibly the greatest writer on evolution. He writes with an evangelical fervour that is infectious, and yet he takes his time to explain his concepts thoroughly. This book is 15 years old, and most of its contents are accepted theory today. When it was written there was not such general acceptance and the book makes a better read because of it. Modern books on the subject will take many issues as fact and will gloss over their justifaction. In The Blind Watchmaker, Dawkins is at pains to explain thoroughly and slowly, in order to make sure that every one of his readers grasps a concept before he moves on. For some, it might be a bit basic and repetitive, especially where he returns to an argument repeatedly in order to drive home the point. But sometimes it is important to remind yourself why these theories are now accepted - it can be dangerous to take things for granted. If you accept evolution but sometimes find yourself wondering quite how it started, and how we ended up with such complication lifeforms on earth, this book is a must.
I first saw this book advertised inside another Penguin 'popular science' book, but forgot about it after a while as I was busy working for college and didn't have much time to read. Then, while I was researching maths software for my course, I stumbled across it again, this time on a website that created an evolution-related software program with the same name. I followed the link on the website which lead me to a description of Richard Dawkins' book and I decided that I just HAD to read it. Having studied biology for a while, I was highly interested in genetics and evolution but didn't particularly enjoy reading through dry textbooks. This book was exactly what I'd been looking for - it explains exactly how it was and still is possible, through numerous tiny steps, for life to have evolved to what we see today: A pool of life-forms adapted to just abut any niche there is in nature, and then some. Using a computer program he wrote himself (That's what the 'Blind Watchmaker' software is based on), Dawkins shows how, through many steps and mutations, it is possible to evolve intricate, beautiful creatures in his computer from a life-form that is based on a simple line, with 9 genes responsible for features like the amount of branchings, length of the lines etc. He also addresses some controversial theories about the origin of life, explains the goings-on during cell replication and where exactly critics of Darwin's theory on the 'Origin of Species' went wrong. This is where the 'Blind Watchmaker' comes into the game. The eighteenth-century theologigian William Paley once reasoned that life, just like the intricate workings of a watch, couldn't possibly have come into being without the help of some 'higher entity', like God. He explained this by comparing the intricate construction of the human eye (a popular example among critics of Darwin's theory)to a wat
ch, claiming that a 'Blind Watchmaker' like the blind forces of nature couldn't possibly come up with something as clever and detailed as the human eye. Dawkins, in a gripping, witty and breath-taking journey through the amazing depths of life on earth, smashes this argument so convincingly that even the most religious of people will be giving doubts about 'their version' of the story. He argues that, even though the FORCES of nature are indeed 'blind', NATURAL SELECTION is the exact opposite. Using beautiful and intersting examples, like the sonar mechanism bats use to navigate, Dawkins goes on to take the reader on a journey through the wonders of life and explains complicated phenomena in a language that reads like a novel and yet manages to make everything very clear and understandable. The only downside to this book is that it has been written fifteen years ago, which means that a lot of ideas and theories that Dawkins speculated about (in particular about life on other planets) have been either confirmed or trashed in the meantime. Still this book is essential for anyone who is interested in where we come from and also for people who want to explore the variety of life-forms on this planet. I'd strongly advise to take a break in the middle of the book and read the short up-to-date book 'The Fifth Miracle' (Paul Davies, £5-99, 1998 Penguin Press) which focuses on the question of how and where exactly life actually came to be, including more recent discoveries like the fossils of single-celled life forms found in a meteorite from Mars. 'The Blind Watchmaker', on its own or in combination with 'The Fifth Miracle', makes a thrilling, speculative and yet satisfying read for anyone who either has a background in natural science or simply wants to expand his knowledge beyond college science lessons - and the greatest thing is that you don't NEED to know anything
about science in order to understand it! BRILLIANT! :)
Evolution explained in a gripping, novel-style way. Written in 1986, a lot of Dawkins' theories turned out to be accepted as scientific truth now.