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A New Entry In Evolution Controversy

The Blind Watchmaker. Richard Dawkins. W.W. Norton and Company, New York, 1986. 332 pp., illus. $18.95. Well-informed, imaginative and stylistically pleasing introductions to evolution and the theory of natural selection have hitherto been the special preserve of Stephen J. Gould. Hitherto—but not hereafter. Richard Dawkins' The Blind Watchmaker bids fair to become at least as influential a guide to controversies in evolutionary theory as the best of Gould's wonderful books. This is probab

By | January 12, 1987

The Blind Watchmaker. Richard Dawkins. W.W. Norton and Company, New York, 1986. 332 pp., illus. $18.95.

Well-informed, imaginative and stylistically pleasing introductions to evolution and the theory of natural selection have hitherto been the special preserve of Stephen J. Gould. Hitherto—but not hereafter. Richard Dawkins' The Blind Watchmaker bids fair to become at least as influential a guide to controversies in evolutionary theory as the best of Gould's wonderful books. This is probably a good thing for the public's understanding of the subject, for on several of these controversies, Dawkins' views are quite different from Gould's. This book will improve the balance in non-specialists' perceptions of the issues.

But controverting the views of other evolutionary biologists is not Dawkins' aim at all. Instead, he wants to expound the theory of natural selection, and to show that it, and it alone, can explain the most puzzling facts about the incredibly sophisticated engineering feats that the organization of living things reveals. His aim is to show that only Darwinian theory can account for the very facts of optimum design and apparently intentional construction that have long provided the most satisfying argument for the existence of God. In this aim Dawkins has been entirely successful.

Dawkins begins by setting up the case for conscious design and an omnipotent designer through an example, detailing the magnificent system of echo-location employed by bats. It embodies a set of components that would do credit to the best contemporary defense technology: an unjammable pulsed Doppler send/receive frequency modulation device reflecting every nuance of the most sophisticated airborne radars. How could such complexity and well-suitedness to the bat's needs have arisen by chance?

Yet another rehearsal of the synthetic theory of natural selection will provide a scientifically adequate answer to this question, but not a psychologically satisfying one. To do this requires striking examples, novel models and analogies, a feel for what is difficult to grasp in the theory, and an approach that holds the reader's attention as it cumulates from the details of molecular biology and genetics through the strategy and tactics of competition, to their effects on adaptation, and finally to the point where the reader is convinced that only Darwinian theory can explain the wonderful design everywhere manifest in nature. And all this Dawkins does.

Once he is finished with his main task, Dawkins devotes an entire chapter to punctuated equilibrium. He shows that despite Gould's claims, the process of evolution this theory envisions is not merely consistent with the synthetic theory of natural selection but that it is just a part of an "inhouse" dispute over whether evolution, which is always gradual, is also constant through geological epochs. Dawkins writes that the only reason he deals with the subject at the length of the chapter is that punctuated equilibrium "has been sold—oversold by some journalists—as if it were radically opposed to the views of Darwin."

Even for those who do not require an education in evolution from the ground up this book holds much of value. Non-evolutionary biologists will profit from Dawkins' discussion of the origins and probabilities of life's beginnings. Non-evolutionary biologists will also learn much from his exposition of alternative views in taxonomy, a subdiscipline wracked by violent controversies largely inaccessible to outsiders. Dawkins makes sense of this subject and shows its importance far better than anyone has done before.

There is so much here for evolutionary biologists and other scientists to profit from that biologists could not do better than to pass this book among all their colleagues in all the disciplines. It can only have a beneficial effect. As for the proponents of special creation, alas it is doubtful that any work, no matter how well crafted, could really dampen their ardor for an omnipotent and far-sighted watchmaker. Their convictions are not ultimately based on any argument.

Rosenberg is professor of philosophy at the University of California, Riverside, 92521.

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