Thursday, 2 October 2008

Book review: The Blind Watchmaker

I saw the documentary Dawkins made to accompany the book a couple of months ago and given his persistent works in the field of promotion of evolutionary thought, I had a good idea of what to expect from this book - it was how we could account for design as seen in all life as we know it today. Richard Dawkins is a great writer of popular science, his style is engaging, informative and persuasive. Rather than just presenting a body of text, he uses a narrative to keep the reader engaged. He does, however, often go on tangents leaving me to wonder at times exactly what the original point he was trying to make was. But even in those long tangents he manages to bring it back on point so eloquently, now with a platform on which to ram that point home.

Content-wise, the book seemed to cover the processes behind natural selection quite well. It was able to answer many objectionable points that are made against the theory. He gave examples of good and bad design in nature, being very illustrative of the constraints and functionality that exists in neo-Darwinian theory. His use of biomorphs was a very novel way of drawing an analogy between emergent complexity and information systems; for me personally to have a comparison between biology and computer science made it a lot easier for me to understand the function. It also gave me a lot of programming ideas, but that's besides the point.

One criticism to make would be on his treatment of abiogenesis. While he was able to address and pinpoint the intersection of the known and unknown, his way of selling the concept could be misleading. Without proper understanding of the concept, one might have thought Dawkins was selling the idea that the origin of life was simply a chance event. Indeed, former atheist-turned-deist Antony Flew has complained that his understanding of abiogenesis as instructed by Dawkins amounted to a chance event. This is not the case, and while we don't know the exact origin of life, there's no reason to assume it was just a stroke of luck; rather it was a chain of events. That chain is currently unknown, but as Dawkins quite rightly points out, not knowing the origin of life doesn't diminish evolutionary theory as it's a matter for biochemistry.

Obviously with me the book was preaching to the converted, I'm already a staunch supporter of evolution and a materialist worldview. His emphasis on the constraints was good to see, so many seem to misunderstand evolutionary theory because they don't recognise that mutation can only build on what's already there. The book is now 20 years old, yet as a basic guide to evolution it still stands the test of time. While his atheism may get in the way for some, the narrative alone makes this book a convincing prose for Darwinian selection.

next book: Bill Bryson - A Short History of Nearly Everything

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