Father Time's Footsteps.

The Blind Watchmaker by Richard Dawkins

 Reviewed by DON FORSDYKE 

Whig Standard Magazine  March 21st 1987 p. 22



Richard Dawkins has a talent for picking titles which both catch the eye and encapsulate the essence of his message. A previous work, The Selfish Gene (1976), appeared a year before molecular biologists discovered, to their surprise, that the sequence of most animal and plant genes is interrupted by other "selfish" sequences of genetic material (DNA). These have to be edited out before the true genes can be read.

Now we have The Blind Watchmaker. Why watchmaker? Why blind? The title is inspired by the 1802 treatise of the theologian William Paley entitled Nature Theology - of Evidences of the Existence and Attributes of the Diety Collected from the Appearances of Nature. Suppose one were wandering across a heath on some remote island and one stubbed one's toe. One looks down and sees a stone. Just a stone. One thinks little of it. But suppose one looked down and saw a watch. One would recognize this as an entirely different category of object. If there is a watch, then there must have existed, at some place, at some time, a maker of that watch. No such similar conclusion seems necessary when noticing a stone upon the ground. A watch appears complex. A stone appears simple. One can conjure up plausible scenarios as to how natural forces led to the formation of the stone. It was, until Darwin's theory of evolution (1859), much more difficult to understand how organisms with organs as complex and beautiful as the eye, could have come into existence. It is still difficult to understand. The purpose of Dawkin's book is to facilitate this understanding by making Darwin's message intelligible to a wide audience.

The blind forces of evolution acting over four billion years constitute the blind watchmaker. Most of us have a natural awe and wonder at the complexity of the living world around us. This is exploited by Paley in his "argument from design" for the existence of a Divine Watchmaker. The counterargument requires an act of imagination (supported by much evidence), that complexity arose out of disorder through the mechanisms which Darwin described.

If theologians attempt to advance their cause by trespassing on the domain of the scientist, then they must expect that the Darwins and Dawkins of the world will stand in opposition. Theologians may find that they have taken on more than they expected. The neo-Darwinist ideas which Dawkins lucidly relates reflect on the plausibility of a variety of theological arguments.

For example, most of us are inspired by saintly acts of altruism. Deeply religious figures such as Mother Theresa and Albert Schweitzer are role-models for the faithful. Until the 1960s such acts of altruism were difficult to understand in Darwinian terms. The doctrines of "struggle for existence" and "survival of the fittest" indicated that you and I are here because our ancestors looked after their own self-interest. Because of this they survived to produce many offspring, who eventually produced you and me. We should therefore have genes which, through complex sets of interactions in our brains, tend to make us act in our own, usually narrowly defined, self-interest. Acts of self-sacrifice would then seem to be non-genetic, of cultural or divine inspiration. A major purpose of cultural and theological teaching would be to pursuade us to act against our own genetic apparent self-interest.

However, since the 1960s a growing number of neo-Darwinists have come to believe that the basic unit which the forces of evolution select is the gene. We are merely the "survival machines" which genes "build" to ensure their own perpetuation. Genes which build the best survival machines will themselves survive to build more identical survival machines. From the vantage point of the selfish gene it makes just as much sense to perpetuate you as to perpetuate your relatives which contain the identical gene. Indeed, this can be quantified. It can be shown that, from the vantage point of the gene, if your demise ensures the survival of more than two of your brothers or sisters, then the gene wins out. Genes for altruistic behaviour can be self-perpetuating. Throughout most of evolutionary time, individuals have lived in close-knit family groups and there have been strong selective pressures for the survival of sets of genes which predetermine non-selfish, altruistic, behaviour. This does not mean that altruism is not the result of divine inspiration acting upon the free-will of man. However, altruism can also be characterized as a possible outcome of a struggle between genes for altruism and genes for short-sighted self-interest, with cultural, social and religious forces perhaps affecting the balance.

So, if theologians intrude into the domain of science to buttress their teachings, they must expect to meet with opposition. There are still natural phenomena which science in unable to explain and "arguments from design" may be with us for some years. This is sad because there are many theological arguments which do not contest the insights of science. Theologians may also provoke scientists, euphoric with the explanatory powers of neo-Darwinism, to intrude into the domain of theology. Dawkins appears to fall into this trap since he boldly asserts the conviction "that our own existence once presented the greatest of all mysteries, but that it is a mystery no longer because it is solved." Neo-Darwinism, he believes, presents an "elegant and beautiful solution to this deepest of problems."

Perhaps a theologian should write a book pointing out that a Divine Watchmaker who had plenty of time and knew that watches would self-assemble if he/she just provided the raw materials, would chose to  build watches in just that way. Neo-Darwinians can describe the self-assembly process as it probably occurred over a period of four billion years, but it takes more imagination that this reviewer possesses to see how this explains "the greatest of all mysteries."  

Don Forsdyke is a molecular biologist researching leukaemia and AIDS in the Department of Biochemistry, Queen's University.

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