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The problem of life's complexity
am 27. November 2006
Next to The Selfish Gene, this is probably Dawkins' most impressive and worthwhile book. Darwin's idea of evolution by natural selection remains under fire from those determined to find a ghost responsible for human beings and the rest of life. Dawkins answers the obstructionists with clear logic and good science. He directly addresses the big compound question of who we are and whence we came. It's a daunting task, not only because of the tenacity of resistance to the answer. Dawkins asks readers to open their minds to envision vast stretches of time and conceive of the collection of minute changes that must have occurred to arrive here from such remote beginnings. His writing ability gently leads readers along the many steps necessary to come to an understanding of how life works.
His choice of Paley's 1802 publication "Natural Theology" to outline the roots of obstructionist attitudes is excellent. Although he wasn't challenging Darwin [who wasn't born yet!], Paley's logic and arguments are still used by those who resist being toppled from their divine pedestal. Dawkins begins his presentation by explaining "the watchmaker" is nature's blind forces of physics acting in an environment that could give rise to life. He spends time addressing the issue of complexity, its meaning and its application to the forces of life in contrast to inert matter such as rock.
Dawkins follows this analysis with examples of "design" [or lack of it] in nature compared with design by humans. From bats through bears to Boeings, Dawkins lucidly explains the differences between nature's "decisions" and those of engineers. Evolution, no matter how illogical it seems to the human witness, doesn't foresee the result of changes. Our brief existence demands answers within our lifetimes. Dawkins posits that we need patience, that nature works too slowly [with some exceptions - see Jonathan Weiner's The Beak of the Finch for an update] to provide quick, simple answers to how life works.
His chapter Accumulating Small Change addresses the issue of change in a novel fashion. It also counters the frequently raised challenge that "statistically, life can't evolve through random change". Here, Dawkins introduces a computer program which takes us through the evolutionary process in accelerated steps. He shows that while life is constantly changing, these changes occur within certain constraints. "Randomness" is hemmed in by such limits as weather, antecedents and valid physical structure. Giant pterodactyls and miniature bats appear vastly different to us, but their fundamental structures are nearly identical. Evolution, then, relies on tiny steps of cumulative selection. Little changes tested in life's cauldron. The survivors ultimately become polar bears, flatworms, kangaroos, us.
After a wonderful chapter, "Puncturing punctuationism" demolishing Stephen Gould's iconoclastic attempt to erode Darwin's thesis, Dawkins moves on to examine other, competitive ideas of how evolution operates. Since many of the ideas discussed in "Doomed Rivals" have been utilized by the obstructionists attempting to counter Darwin, this conclusion is one of the most valuable sections of the book. Starting with the premise that no-one conscious of life can deny evolution, he goes on to examine how various thinkers have addressed its mechanism. Lamarck, who understood life changed through time, still inspires adherents. It's an easier system to understand than Darwin's natural selection. Its premise of acquired characteristics remains wrong, however, no matter what new versions of the idea are forwarded. Dawkins carefully examines the ancient and modern proposals on acquired characteristics, respectfully disposing of them as good common sense, but bad science.
This book is vital to those wishing to develop a feeling for understanding our place in the universe. Our society is so imbued with the concept of divine origins that we've found it too easy to override the life around us. Dawkins book realigns humanity with the rest of life on this planet. If we read and understand him, perhaps we'll regain the respect for our surroundings we lost when we first conceived of gods. If we aren't the result of a spirit's whim, then perhaps we can address the future more realistically. Read this book and see for yourself. [stephen a. haines - Ottawa, Canada]