Tuesday, 15 February 2011

The Blind Watchmaker

by Richard Dawkins

The book that describes the biomorphs. It is much more than that, it aims to explain how a complex world can arise from blind chance and natural selection with no need for an 'Intelligent Designer'. I think that this is an excellent book, whether or not you believe in evolution it explains concepts that are key in several areas. A prime example is complexity and how it can arise from simplicity in small steps. The relationship with probability is explored too -together with some estimates of how likely some out comes, ssuch as life in the universe, are.

Dawkins is a good writer with a clear style who uses good examples to illustrate his points. From bats, to crocodiles; from ants to eyes; he takes examples from across the natural world. Consider the eye, one of the claims of intelligent design is that something as complex as an eye couldn't have arisen from natural selection and an 'incomplete' eye is no good. This is patent rubbish, at some point in evolutionary history there were no eyes and then the ability to tell light from dark evolved -that's a useful thing to have, if you're a worm you don't really need any more than that. In addition there are eyes at different stages of completeness within nature -the nautilus has an eye like ours, but with no lens; our eye is wired up backwards - that of the octopus is wired forwards; the point is that you don't need a perfect eye, just one that is good enough and better than your competitors.

Which reminds me  of the joke about the wildlife film makers who are watching a cheetah when it spots them and puts the team at the head of the menu. As it charges towards them , the sound recordist starts swapping his boots for trainers, when the camera man points out that he still won't be able to out run a cheetah simply because he's wearing Reeboks. 'Mate' replies the recordist, 'I don't have to run fatster than the cheetah -I just have to run faster than you'.

There is lots of other good stuff in here, genetic algorithms, cooperating genes, discussions around Lamarkism and Punctured Equilibrium, genetic explosions and spirals, the tail of the peacock and convergent evolution. All in all very highly recommended.

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