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Have questions about life? Try natural selection
on 16 June 2005
Of the many fine books Dawkins has given us, this one stands out as possibly the best. Although the importance of The Selfish Gene still transcends it, Climbing Mount Improbable has unique value. Dawkins has an exceptional ability to explain the immense spectrum of life's complexities. He demonstrates that skill admirably here in a volume that's proven timeless. Having bought this book when first published, it was particularly delightful to pick it up again and discover it's lost nothing since then.
He begins this collection of essays with a new label: the "designoid". Designoids are those elements in life that seem designed; beyond the caprice of the apparent random natural forces. Dawkins quickly points out that evolution is not "random" nor are any of the complex aspects of living things the result of a designer. Dawkins uses the title of this review, attributed to Henry Bennet-Clark, as the basis for the rest of the book. Natural selection can, and does, explain it all.
Using the theme of climbing a mountain, Dawkins shows the true path to the peak is by means of gentle slopes, not attempting a great leap. Too many people accept the steep precipice of divine origins as the explanation of complex phenomena in life. Dawkins explains how gradual steps are required for life to manifest spider webs, wings, and the Christian obstructionist's favourite, the eye. Each of these wonders is examined critically with the best scientific logic, explaining its development with clarity and wit. He frequently reminds us that such complex organs as the elephant's trunk have progressed through numerous stages, each of which was successful within its own environment. As environments changed, the trunk responded with new adaptations. Modern animals, such as the tapir, elephant shrew, proboscis monkey or seals, all exhibit nasal trunks that likely represent the stages the elephant's ancestors passed through to produce today's
Computer models have become a favourite analytical tool for tracking likely paths in evolution. Dawkins has written his own and applauds others' successful efforts. The computer has the capacity to accelerate the likely steps life has taken in producing designoids. He's careful to warn us that mathematical models don't duplicate life's processes, but simply provide situations that could have happened under certain conditions. Even with that caution in mind, his relation of the study of possible evolutionary paths of the eye is one of the most captivating accounts in biology. It's not even his own work. Two Swedish researchers programmed the most pessimistic conditions for the evolution of a workable eye and deduced it would take less than half a million years.
The essay "A Garden Enclosed" might have brought a tear to the eye of E.O. Wilson, biology's greatest exponent of biodiversity. Dawkins takes us through the life cycles of the figs and their wasp pollinators. The beauty of this essay is almost staggering both in his superb presentation and in the implications it raises. Wasps inhabit the interior of figs, drawing on them for nourishment and residence, but pollinating them with almost human dedication. Dawkins' description of the complex interaction between plant and insect raises again the issue of how little we know about life's interactions. And how much we're intruding on them in our ignorance.
Dawkins has never hidden his advocacy role in describing how evolution works and how poorly our culture understands what's going on around us. More than simply anticipating obstructionists such as Michael Behe in Darwin's Black Box, Dawkins aims his criticism at all who adhere to the Judeo-Christian assertion that humanity has some divine mandate to exercise "dominion over the earth". Clearly, that belief will be the undoing of the species and perhaps life itself if it isn't shed and a better understanding of the interaction of life attained. The best place to start attaining that understanding starts with this book. Buy it, loan it, give it to those who need to learn what life's all about - our children. [stephen a. haines - Ottawa, Canada]