The Blind Watchmaker Review

This is a book about evolution, but not as much about the evolution/creationism conflict as one might expect. I kind of like that. I’ve read quite a few articles and books by scientists directly debating and debunking creationism, and absolutely there’s a place for that, but what’s pleasing about this book by Dawkins is that it’s more of a positive explanation and defense and appreciation of evolution, than an attack on creationism. It’s a celebration of science rather than an attack on anti-science.

Creationism is addressed explicitly here and there in passing, and of course much of what’s said in favor of evolution implicitly counters creationism, but the refutation of creationism is mostly a byproduct of the discussion of evolution, not its primary purpose. (Just as he implicitly and explicitly distinguishes his position from Lamarckism, certain interpretations of punctuated equilibrium, and other positions in the course of his discussion.) This isn’t a book filled with quotations from creationists followed by the author’s responses.

The tone of “The Blind Watchmaker” is consistently controlled and respectful. I know that’s the opposite of the reputation Dawkins has in certain circles, but I think that reputation has not been earned.

Dawkins is one of a handful of prominent authors who are are most often criticized for being too harsh and disrespectful toward religious believers, including by some who are in some sense their allies (atheists, agnostics, scientists who accept evolution, etc.). As Dawkins notes in other writings of his however, this assessment depends upon an extreme and indefensible standard for what is and isn’t “respectful.” By the implied standard so many people seem to be using, it is probably impossible to state that someone has a religious belief that is untrue without disrespecting that person.

You’d think you’d have to say “There is no God, you idiot,” or “You have no right to disbelieve evolution,” or something like that for it to be disrespectful, but no. “There is no God,” or “Evolution is overwhelmingly supported by the available evidence” are enough in many people’s minds to constitute a vicious, antagonistic suppression of religious faith.

The folks who insist that it’s not the substance of Dawkins’s writings that is offensive, but the aggressive, strident, dogmatic tone and style, and who say things like “I don’t have a problem with Dawkins and his ilk being atheists or whatever they want to be, but what I do have a problem with is their expressing their atheism in a way that’s so disrespectful of believers” generally fall into one of several categories.

Some of them are being disingenuous and certainly do have a problem with anyone being an atheist, or even with anyone not believing specifically in their religion.

Others are willing to accept disbelief as long as it’s never expressed, as long as non-believers “keep it to themselves.”

Still others acknowledge that some ways of expressing such disbelief maybe avoid being disrespectful, but only if it’s a nebulous kind of relativist expression, such as “I personally don’t believe there’s a God, but I’m just saying what’s true for me. It’s just as true for other people that there is a God, and all these beliefs are equally valid.”

But where does that leave Dawkins? He states things that contradict (some) people’s religious beliefs. He provides evidence and rational arguments in support of these statements. He criticizes people on the other side of these issues who happen to argue dishonestly or otherwise behave inappropriately (threaten violence, etc.)

Does he do these things “disrespectfully”? Well, if doing them at all is disrespectful (which I contend is the implicit position of many if not most of his critics), then yes. Otherwise no.

He’s frank. He doesn’t pretend that “this is an area where reasonable people can disagree” if he doesn’t believe that. He doesn’t qualify things with a lot of “maybes” that don’t need it. He doesn’t come across as some kind of relativist or post-modernist insisting that everyone has their own truth. (No more than he, or most people, would when talking about the tooth fairy.) He just states his case in a straightforward, non-insulting, non-personal, logical manner.

Were he writing in favor of some new theory of quantum mechanics, or writing against the ether, or writing against the designated hitter rule, it’s hard to believe anyone would find his tone abusive. It’s only because it’s religion, because it’s something that is so emotionally powerful a set of beliefs for so many people, that imaginary disrespect is read into what he writes.

Moving on, one of the things I’m glad he addresses in this book is the creationist canard about evolution being a matter of “chance.” He points out – though he doesn’t use the term – that this constitutes a commission of the fallacy of “false dilemma.”

The creationist argument basically is that there are only two possibilities: Either the order in the universe was put there by a purposeful agent, or it’s just random chance. The latter, creationists contend, is for all intents and purposes impossible. To arrive at this conclusion they consider all possible ways the universe could be (every imaginable set of causal laws, every imaginable type and amount of matter, energy and whatever else, every imaginable position each and every bit of such matter and energy could be in at a given time, etc.), declare them all equally likely in the absence of a supernatural being creating one of them intentionally, consider how many such universes would be orderly and have intelligent life, and note that dividing the latter number by the former results in a fraction so infinitesimal as to be safely disregarded.

And the fallacy, as Dawkins points out, is precisely this assumption that if there is no supernatural being manipulating things to be a certain way, then all possibilities have the identical likelihood.

That’s the false dilemma: “God” or “everything’s equally likely.” But evolution by natural selection is not a subset of the latter. It’s not “chance”; it’s an alternative to chance. It explains the order evident in such things as the existence of intelligent life via a non-chance mechanism.

Though it’s a crucial point, if anything Dawkins belabors it. I am not nearly as enamored as he with his computer program that acts analogously to natural selection. He treats as remarkable the nature and variety of non-chance outcomes it generates, whereas I found it only mildly interesting.

Dawkins also has a nice discussion of the creationist insistence that complex structures such as an eye could not have evolved because the necessary transition stages would have provided no reproductive advantage (if not been disadvantageous). But in fact for any such existent complex structure one can point to, there most certainly are advantages to the transition stages (e.g., a tiny flap of skin that constitutes only the smallest fraction of a wing might still enable an animal jumping from a branch to glide an extra inch or two, resulting in its being caught by a predator very slightly less often).

No doubt there are also imaginable complex structures for which there is no such evolutionary path through advantageous transitional stages. And that’s why those are precisely the ones that don’t exist. It may well be much to our reproductive advantage to be born with fully functional jet packs on our back, but there was no path of natural selection to bring that about, so we don’t have them.

But I’m making it sound too much like this is an anti-creationism book. As I noted above, it’s actually much more of a positive celebration of science in general and evolutionary theory in particular. Like Carl Sagan, Dawkins loves this stuff. He wants to share with the reader the wonder of it all, the excitement and satisfaction of studying nature, theorizing, gathering evidence, debating with one’s colleagues.

You don’t manifest awe and respect and appreciation for nature and space and your fellow man by saying “Well, I just can’t imagine how anything as complex as all this could have come about except that there was a bigger, stronger guy than us who created it all by magic out of nothing” and leaving it at that. You do so by opening your mind and seeking the truth about it with all the rational tools at your disposal.

I’m not going to say that a hundred percent of the book is readily understandable to a lay person. But it’s pretty darn good in that regard. It’s not remotely like, say, “A Brief History of Time” by Stephen Hawking, which I contend about 1% of non-scientists understood as well as they claimed to. Dawkins is a fine “popularizer.” A reasonably intelligent person with only a minimal science background should be able to follow almost everything in this book.

I like the fact that when Dawkins addresses an area of unsettled science, he uses an appropriately qualified and speculative tone. He talks about this being more likely than that, or this being one plausible way this could have happened, or this set of evidence constituting a problem for this particular theory that it may or may not be able to overcome. (As I noted above, he appropriately does not adopt that tone when discussing something that is settled science, mostly notably evolution by natural selection. He does not make believe there is room for reasonable disagreement where there isn’t just to make certain people feel better.)

I have to think in some of those speculative areas, people well versed in the relevant sciences could make a good case against some of what he says. Especially with the benefit of hindsight and another decade or two of evidence since this book first came out. That’s not to his discredit; it’s the nature of science.

A very interesting, valuable, well-written book. Recommended.