“The Blind Watchmaker” by Richard Dawkins – Some Thoughts

The_Blind_Watchmaker_(first_edition)

This is the second time I read “The Blind Watchmaker“. An excellent book and in my opinion a must-read for everyone.

Written in plain English, with no heavy terminology, the book is filled with brilliant counterarguments against the ones put forth by creationists, to help us decide once and for all: “Are we designed?” (Spoiler: no).

Mentioning genetic algorithms was a huge plus!

Yesterday night I started reading chapter 3, which presents an excellent argument that I’d like to repeat here. The usual arguments against evolution revolve around complexity and chance. Something along the lines of “Living things are extremely complex, so they couldn’t have been created by chance”. In order to address this argument one must differentiate between types of chance and that’s what this argument does:

Ask yourself two questions:

  1. Can something that is not a human eye transform into a human eye by chance?
  2. Can X transform into a human eye by chance, given that X is something very similar to a human eye?

The answer to the first question is by all means, “no”.

The answer to the second one must be a strict “yes”. If you did not answer yes to the second question then you have chosen a wrong X, a very distant from a human eye. Find another one, halfway between your X and the human eye and ask yourself again. Do this for as many times as it takes until the answer is positive. Then you will have a good understanding of the role that chance plays in the process of evolution. Evolution needs just as little luck as that to work!

You can then ask yourself the same question for X itself: Find another X (let’s call it X’) that could have been transformed to an X by chance. Repeat the process many times until you reach an X that is not at all a human eye. Then the process of evolving an eye from no eye at all breaks down into a series of events, that each of them has a relatively high probability of taking place spontaneously.

Even though the concept of very small changes is crucial in order to even begin understanding evolution, this is by far the best way to put it, with no technical terms at all but still completely accurate.

Dawkins has a unique way of describing complex things with simple words. The Blind Watchmaker is no exception. This elegant way of approaching complex problems has been a great influence for me.

I was first exposed to Dawkins as a student, when a math (!) teacher suggested me another book of his – the “Selfish Gene” (that, and the equally excellent “Brief History of Time”).

Upon reading the Selfish Gene, I took two major decisions: first, that I wanted to be a scientist, and second, that no matter how advanced, the things I know I must be able to explain effortlessly to a 5-year-old.

I also began developing a “bullshit detector” after reading the Selfish Gene. If the deepest of mysteries can be handled with such elegance, it becomes obvious that those who express their ideas in convoluted ways and abuse technical terminology are most likely putting conscious effort into misleading and deceiving others.

A few years later, a lovely scientist gave me the “Blind Watchmaker”, as a birthday gift. Even though the book is about a different subject, I felt like reading a sequel to the Selfish Gene. It’s not the content that fascinates me, but the way it’s being treated. Both books cultivated inside me a love for science and reason, and my bullshit detector grew ten-fold with the Watchmaker.

I wonder why!

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