Sunday, August 5, 2007

The Blind Watchmaker, by Richard Dawkins

Richard Dawkins is my new hero. In The Blind Watchmaker he has outlined, in detail, the many aspects of evolution, and in particular "natural selection", so that it is no longer a foggy theory but instead the only answer to our existence that covers the bases and makes sense.

Dawkins is not confrontational or strident, but nevertheless committed to his position. He is careful, as all scientists should be, not to claim anything that has not been substantiated, and when that substantiation is incomplete he says so. Thus, one can believe that if he were presented with evidence of an entirely different version of the beginnings of life on earth, and if that evidence were compelling, he would be open to looking at it and even moving to that position.

However, he has, in this book, exhausted all current theories and concluded that what is now called "neo-Darwinism" is the answer, and the only one that fits all known facts.

I always thought I understood Darwin, but Dawkins provides the details I didn't even know I was missing, and which many people have misunderstood from the first day The Origin of Species was published. Those misunderstandings have led to many attacks on natural selection that turn out to be simply grounded in ignorance.

Not only does this book explain, to my satisfaction (it is not written for fellow scientists, although many would benefit from reading it), the workings of natural selection, but it also calls into question, peripherally, the reliance many of us have on some kind of mystical existence in the universe. For example, I long held a sense that "fate" governed my life. I was "meant" to meet this person or to get lost in this location.

I no longer feel that way. Facing life as a truly free event, in which nothing is guaranteed other than that the laws of physics and biology will be followed, has opened my eyes, taken me to a different place. It isn't a dark and lonely place but rather the opposite.

I can't help but wonder about the obsession with some kind of higher being, particularly in this country but really in our entire world. Is it because of the promise of an afterlife? I know that's part of the reason people will want to "believe". But why DO they believe? It isn't Dawkins' job here to answer questions like this but it raised them for me, and I am glad others are seeking the answers (Sam Harris, for example).

Interestingly, from what I've read, Darwin believed in a god. One that began it all - I think he may have had some trouble working up the very first life form in his head - but he did not believe that this "creator" had any part in people's or other animals' lives afterwards. To hold a view like this at a time like that was unthinkable, of course. As it still is today. Whatever your position on the origins of life on earth, you'd do well to read this book.

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