Byzantine Reality

Searching for Byzantine failures in the world around us

The Blind Watchmaker

While growing up I quickly became familiar with Paley’s watchmaker analogy: namely that the complexity of life implies the existence of God. I’ve been hearing it especially more lately, so when I stumbled upon Richard Dawkins’ book, The Blind Watchmaker, I knew I had to pick it up and give it a read. It’s summarized perfectly by the book’s tag-line:

The Blind Watchmaker: Why the evidence of evolution reveals a universe without design

This book takes us on a whirlwind tour of natural selection and evolution, including what it can do, what it can’t do, a number of truly amazing examples of adaptations that have shown up, and how we think they work. The two examples that really stood out for me as being particularly amazing are echolocation (which I’ve obviously heard of but there’s a lot of wonderful subtleties) and my current favorite, electrolocation(think the same as echolocation but performed by many sea creatures using electricity as a sensing mechanism instead of sound).

The entire book is written in a very compelling way and addresses lots of obvious questions (and many not so obvious ones as well). It’s actually a very interesting counterpart to George C. Williams’ Adaptation and Natural Selection. They both cover evolution but are aimed at very different audiences. The Blind Watchmaker has the benefit of being a more recent and up-to-date book, having many more detailed examples to fall on to make the extremely solid case for natural selection, and is aimed at the lay-person (me and likely you as well). Conversely, Adaptation and Natural Selection is a classic text aimed at experts or soon-to-be experts in the field, so it’s a great choice for anthropologists.

It’s also fairly surprising for me to have stumbled upon the latter book in the first place, since I’m a computer scientist and not an anthropologist, but I took a graduate seminar in anthropology and the topic specifically arose of how Adaptation and Natural Selection applies today. The consensus on that question turned out to be that since a lot of old topics / battles that were fought when this book came out have returned, the book is still relevant and useful. Since it is aimed at anthropologists, it is heavy on technical terms and assumes you know them all when you show up, so if you’re not an anthropologist, have read books on evolution / natural selection and just want me, and don’t mind keeping Google at the ready, I’d say to pick it up.

The examples are cool, but for the everyday person, The Blind Watchmaker is a lot more readable and you’ll get a lot more out of it since Dawkins does an amazing job of keeping the topics and examples varied and informative. Furthermore, Adaptation really assumes that you buy evolution before you start reading the book and focuses on a very different argument, the existence of individual-level adaptations and arguments for group-level adaptations (which he opposes in a convincing manner). This is nice but again, likely should be read after The Blind Watchmaker or The Selfish Gene. Either way, you should definitely pick The Blind Watchmaker up, as the case Dawkins makes is solid, describes evolution in a very accessible manner, and covers the various divisions in thought in that community in a good amount of detail.