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The Blind Watchmaker – Richard Dawkins ****

This is a superb answer to the old statement by Paley that (to paraphrase) he isn’t surprised when he finds a stone on the beach, but if he finds a watch on the beach then he reasonably deduces the existence of a watchmaker, because simple natural processes aren’t going to knock naturally available components into a functioning watch. That being the case, the argument goes, our own existence proves that there is a creator.
As Dawkins shows, this simply isn’t true. The assumption can only be made in ignorance of the sheer timescale available to evolutionary forces, and that small changes that do occur naturally can, over many generations, result in the development of something complex, provided those changes are advantageous.
Dawkins also superbly demolishes the “a partial eye is no use” argument that says we would never end up with eyes because all the intermediate steps don’t have value. It’s simply not true. There are plenty of creatures out there with almost every intermediate stage of eye. For that matter, if the eye was truly designed it has some very strange design faults, that seem natural in an evolutionary development, but not otherwise.
This is such an important book that it’s surprising in doesn’t have the full five stars – unfortunately, while the arguments are superb, there are some aspects of Dawkins himself that come through that make it a less than perfect book. Firstly there’s the aggressive style. At one point he moans about how the media, at every opportunity, lay into neo-Darwinists like him if there’s any sign of dissent. Can’t he see this is because they write the most unprofessional books? A cosmologist might write a book that challenges someone’s religious beliefs, but he would do so in a purely scientific fashion. The biologists (and Dawkins isn’t the worst) seem to delight in upsetting others by not just putting forward the facts but openly attacking religious beliefs in what is supposed to be a scientific book. They also attack each other – now all scientists do this, but other disciplines have less of a tendency to go for the jugular in such an unpleasant way.
The other problem is Dawkins’ writing style is a little old fashioned and pompous (you just know even before he does it that he is going to refer to pop music as ‘popular music’, including those quote marks. Some of the chapters are skip-makingly tedious, while others are a delight to read – he really would have done better with a co-author. Even so, this doesn’t take away the significance of the message – it’s just a shame that the way it’s done will put off those who could benefit most from it.
Review by Brian Clegg


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