Book Review: The Blind Watchmaker

The Blind Watchmaker: Why the Evidence of Evolution Reveals a Universe without Design by Richard Dawkins

In my review of Dawkins’ The Selfish Gene, I made the point that it was something like “game theory as applied to biology” as it contained concepts like the regular and iterated Prisoner’s Dilemma as well as evolutionary stable strategies. For The Blind Watchmaker, the relevant allied science is engineering, for it contains comparisons between bats and radar engineers, arms races between predator and prey, the application of positive feedback in evolution, computational simulations, and other things.

After beginning with an exposition on probability and large numbers, Dawkins addresses William Paley’s book Natural Theology where Paley made the most famous declaration of the watchmaker analogy: If you are walking along the beach and stumble upon the watch, with its intricate gears and fine craftsmanship, you wouldn’t think that it naturally arose from the sand and surf. Design implies a designer, or so the argument goes. Dawkins doesn’t try to dismiss Paley’s awe at the wonder of the design in the natural world, but drives home to the reader that Paley didn’t go far enough! To truly appreciate Paley’s argument and so understand why evolution is such a marvelous mechanism for design when it fulfills that criteria, we need to acknowledge just how incredible are some of the structures found in animals. This brings him to the aforesaid comparison between anatomical features of bats and solutions devised by human radio and sonar engineers many millions of years after evolution had led to similar answers.

The remainder of the book is an exposition on how selection acting on mutations can lead to intricate design, where small changes in each generation that provide differential survival advantage integrated over many hundreds or thousands of generations gives you wonderful things like eyes and bat ears. Dawkins uses the aid of computer analogies, namely the Weasel program (evolution is not just random happenstance!) and his famous biomorphs (we can generate pictograms with very simple evolutionary programs with user selection) to drive this point home.

Some of Dawkins' biomorphs

Some of Dawkins’ biomorphs

There’s a chapter on punctuated equilibrium as espoused by Eldredge and Gould in which Dawkins argues that the theory is an interesting addition to the Darwinian canon but in no way is a devastating blow to orthodox thought that the media and some of Gould’s writings make it out to be. In the last chapter, Dawkins does some interesting conceptual criticism of a few supposed alternatives to Darwinian evolution: Lamarckism, mutationism, and creationism and shows how they are not just contrary to the facts, but as theories they simply don’t have the explanatory chops to replace Darwinism.

With the gene-centric view of evolutionary established and defended and the mechanism by which evolution produces intricate design explicated, I will next move on to the question of what evidence there is for evolution in Dawkins’ 2009 The Greatest Show on Earth, and I’ll follow that with his 2004 The Ancestor’s Tale.

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