Monday, 29 September 2008

The Blind Watchmaker by Richard Dawkins

Lowdown: Origin of Species done better.
If we were to ignore The God Delusion for a minute and focus on his popular science books we will find Richard Dawkins' second most famous book after The Selfish Gene is The Blind Watchmaker (TBW). TBW is a book with a purpose, and the purpose is to inform its readers what the theory of evolution is and how it works. Being that over the last year or two Dawkins has established himself as my favorite author by far, I cherished TBW and kept it safe until an occasion worthy enough comes up for me to read it (a practice that makes sense, sort of, when you consider that I have been reading Dawkins books much faster than he has been producing new ones). An occasion deemed worthy did come up lately when we flew away for a month's holiday and the choice of a book to share my travels with came up, and despite TBW not being your average travel companion - after all, this is a book that requires its reader to turn his/her mind on - I decided to take it along. You see, complexity has stopped scaring me a long time ago when it comes to Dawkins' books as by now it has become clear Dawkins is second to none in his ability to explain complex ideas in not only a simple manner but an entertaining manner, too. And I will say it hear and now: I wasn't disappointed with my choice, not in the least; in fact, I could hardly think of a better companion to spend almost a week of my life with in the closed confinement of a toilet while suffering from travelers' diarrhea. I hope Dawkins would forgive me, but the thought provoking discussions presented by TBW managed to almost make my toilet adventures a pleasant experience.
What else can I say about a book that starts off with words as immortal as "We animals"?
In a manner that typifies Dawkins' book writing, TBW starts by defining the problem that the theory of evolution by natural selection sets out to explain. Most of us understand it intuitively but, at speaking for myself I never sat down to ponder why there was a need to come up with this theory in the first place; thus I have found Dawkins' approach to be very constructive. The problem, says Dawkins, is that of complexity: the universe may be astonishingly large, but so far the most complex things in this universe as we know it are us living beings. Each of our cells is one super complicated factories, yet we have cells by the billion; how did that come to be?
Then Dawkins sets out to take us on a journey explaining, to a very detailed level, how adaptive evolution by natural selection over extremely long periods of time is not only a methodology that can explain how such a level of complexity came to be, but is probably the only way in which such complexity could have come about. Dawkins makes his points by examining the evidence we have at our disposal, such as fossils, genes, and examples for super complex adaptations such as the eye or bats' sonar like navigation. In order to demonstrate the power of adaptive evolution Dawkins utilizes computer simulations that deliver demonstrate as clear as possible just how powerful a mechanism it is. More interestingly, though, he plays a philosopher's trick and demonstrates how the idea of evolution can be arrived at as the one and only solution by doing nothing more than sitting on the sofa and thinking. No stone is left untouched by Dawkins, including stones Dawkins admits to have preferred leaving alone, as he explains not only core evolution but also stuff around its periphery such as the science and folklore behind taxonomy. Last, but not least, Dawkins compares evolution by natural selection to other competing theories, including the most popular one - the designer/creator - to demonstrate how weak these theories are and how they simply fail to explain even the most basic aspects of the complexity in our world.
Amongst others, there are two types of people I truly warm up to in this world. First there is the type that made some huge discoveries of a caliber that really changed the way this world of ours thinks of itself - people like Newton, who unweaved the rainbow (to quote from another Dawkins book) or Einstein. Charles Darwin belongs to this distinguished club and he got his ticket through the publication of The Origin of Species, a book I have read a few years ago. Read but didn't really finish, because it was hard to read, often very boring, and very unfocused. Luckily, there is the second type of people, the type that sets out to explain to the masses and to dumb people like yours truly what those sophisticated ideas are and how they imply on us. This club includes among its distinguished members people like Carl Sagan as well as Richard Dawkins with his own own selection of masterpieces. True, TBW is a rather long and often demanding book, but when it comes to explaining evolution by natural selection I find it hard to imagine an explanation that does half as good a job as TBW does. It is truly inspirational; the best compliment I can give it is that just like with its predecessor, The Selfish Gene, it ceases to become a book explaining evolution and turns to be a book on the true meaning of life.
Now there are many books out there that pretend to be dealing with the meaning of life. The one "slight" advantage TBW has over the vast majority of them is that it deals with the real thing: it is a discussion supported by hard facts and science that, for a change, can explain things and can also be used to as the basis for further delving into things. There are not that many books out there that can boast similar pedigree.
Best scene: TBW was written during the eighties, and at the time it was accompanied by a TV documentary bearing the same title. The documentary can be easily found on the web, presenting some of the book's key ideas. The highlight for me, however, was seeing a youngish Dawkins running around in short eighties style shorts.
Overall: For a book about which I have held such high expectations I can definitely say that I wasn't disappointed in the least but actually often surprised by how good it was. A rating of 4.5 out of 5 actually ill favors TBW as books are rarely as informative, eye opening and entertaining.


Uri said...

Asimov is also very good at this (Asimov is good at everything).

And Clarke is also supposed to be good. Asimov used to say Clarke was the second best science writer in the world.

Moshe Reuveni said...

Re Asimov, I don't think you can come up with a statement with which I would agree more. As for Clarke, I can't say I ever read any of his popular science books to be able to make the call.

Re Asimov and Clarke, I seem to remember a slightly different story (but given the time gone by I could easily be wrong). I remember Asimov saying how he shared a cab ride with Clarke, during which they have agreed that Clarke is the best science fiction writer and Asimov is number two, but also agreed that Asimov is the best popular science writer and Clarke is number two.
In my opinion Dawkins gives Asimov some very tough competition (my way of saying he's better), but then again Dawkins focuses on one subject only and wrote less than 20 books; Asimov goes all over the place with several hundreds of books and manages to do a good job with everything I have encountered so far (including, surprisingly, his book on the bible).
I really regret not being able to meet Asimov in person to tell him how much I owe him.

On a last note, Dawkins tends to occasionally quote from Asimov; if memory serves me right, he did so in Blind Watchmaker, too.

Uri said...

You do remember correctly. How is your version different than mine?

Moshe Reuveni said...

No contradictions, it's just an extended version and I didn't know whether the extensions are a figment of my imagination or not.