Richard Dawkins on Evolution

The Press, December 14, 1996

Denis Dutton

Climbing Mount Improbable, by Richard Dawkins. 308 pages. Viking Penguin, $49.95.

Sometime Cantabrian Samuel Butler once remarked, “A hen is only an egg’s way of making another egg.” Richard Dawkins might find some truth in this joke, updating it to read, “Hens, roosters and eggs are only ways that chicken DNA has of making more chicken DNA.”

Richard Dawkins
The Professor of Public Understanding of Science at Oxford argues that evolution is driven by “Duplicate me!” programmes, sets of DNA instructions that manufacture the millions of living species that populate the ecosphere. Dawkins shows how the evolution of natural, genetic formulae can account not only for simple life forms, but for the most astonishing adaptations, such as the leafy sea dragon, a sea-horse that looks for all the world, most notably to predators, like a clump of kelp, or the beetles that cohabit with the ants they’ve evolved almost exactly to resemble.

Dawkins is known for his achievements in creating computer programmes that analogise in revealing ways the mechanisms of natural selection. Here he extends that work, applying it to the evolution of spiders’ webs and sea shells.

The metaphor of the title has us standing before vast mountains of life history wondering how we — or life itself — could ever possibly have scaled their sheer, vertical faces. The rubble at our feet are viruses and other simple organisms, while the pinnacles represent organisms of unimaginable complexity, elephants or human beings, along with their individual parts, such as the eye. How you climb from bacteria to the summits of evolution poses an intellectual challenge for which Dawkins offers advice: look around to the other side of the mountains to see how over eons of time the gradualist selection for slightly advantageous adaptations can get us, by way of gentle hills and gradual inclines, to the peaks.

The eye, that standard example of God’s intelligent handiwork for anti-Darwin creationists, is shown to have evolved separately at least forty times on the slopes of the far side of Mount Improbable. And so it is with other adaptations which seem so far-fetched. In billions of years of geological time, the statistically improbable becomes biologically likely.

Dawkins finishes with a sketch of the astounding coevolution of fig trees and fig wasps — each fig an enclosed flower garden tended according to its kind by a specialised species of wasp — leaving the reader with a glimpse of the staggering complexity of evolved life. It’s a sublime view.

When asked about characteristics he attributed to God on the evidence of biology, J.B.S. Haldane responded that the only thing he could figure was that the Almighty has an inordinate love of beetles. Old Testament fantasies of the Lord designing the quarter-million species of beetle, those figs wasps, whooping-cough virus, and every other life-form, helpful or deadly, strike me as not only sillier, but far less interesting that the naturalistic account of Darwin and his modern bulldog, Richard Dawkins. For entertainment value, evolutionary science has it all over biblical fiction.

In the no-nothing circles of recent academic postmodernism, it is something said that the European Enlightenment that began in the 17th century is petering out. Reading this hard-headed, deeply exciting book suggests that, to the contrary, the Enlightenment is just getting started.