on 27 April 2009
Climbing Mount Improbable is probably my favourite of Richard Dawkins' pieces on natural selection. This book stands as a testament to the absolute wonder of the natural world around us, taking the reader through several examples of the most inexplicable constructs of nature Professor Dawkins not only unveils the amazing complexity behind each, but reveals how that complexity could easily have come about by natural selection.
From the eye of a bird to the web of a spider Dawkins reveals intricacies you would never have known, from the mating rituals of some species of spiders where fly's are wrapped in webbed parcels as a gift to the female, to the amazing mimicking powers of some species of beetles to look like ants, Dawkins takes the reader on a journey with immense clarity.
The book can be heavy going sometimes, particularly when even Dawkins gift of writing cannot mask the sheer complexity of some of the pieces about the geometry of shells, for instance. That aside this book will show the reader just how amazing the natural world really is, and specifically how there was no need for a creator to instigate any of it.
Dawkins has done it again, that is, written a book on neo-Darwinism with great style and conviction, if little humor. His prose is truly exquisite and the details are wonderful.
The trouble is, with the exception of a new analogy - the evolved organism that emerges atop Mount Improbable after a series of unpredicatable adaptations - he has said almost all of it before. I liked his descriptions very much of vulture flight and other awe-inspiring natural adaptations, but they were the only items that were truly new to me. Indeed, his Mount Improbable analogy is not as good as the traditional depiction of the tree of life. Better to stick to his earlier classics.
on 11 October 2011
Dawkins is back, and this time it's, well, more of the same, actually. This isn't a criticism, just an acknowledgement that there aren't any radical new ideas here. What we do find here is a new and very readable treatment of evolution by natural selection, a subject Dawkins has written about passionately in his previous popular works The Blind Watchmaker and River Out Of Eden: A Darwinian View of Life (Science Masters). The Mount Improbable of the title is a metaphor Dawkins has used before (notably in his memorable Royal Institution Christmas lectures), and one which neatly counters William Paley's 'Blind Watchmaker' argument - as if it still needed countering after the author's earlier onslaughts!
Interestingly this book also expands on the use of computation as a tool of biology, a theme Dawkins touched on in The Blind Watchmaker (expanded as an appendix to the second edition), although disappointingly this early emphasis peters out after a while. It may sound vulgar, but I got the impression that we were going to be directed to a 'Mount Improbable' web site where we'd find copies of the programs he was discussing!
In balancing rigour against readability, the book lies somewhere between River Out of Eden and The Blind Watchmaker, being considerably longer than the former but an easier read than the latter - easier in the sense that Dawkins seems to curb his passion for exhaustive (and, it has to be said, sometimes tedious) expansion on a theme. On the whole the book covers ground already covered in exhaustive detail by Dawkins's earlier works, but because he uses new examples it's easy to be caught up, once again, in the immensity and sheer wonder of what he's saying.
I also thought the book ended rather
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]
on 27 September 2003
With all respect to Prof. Dawkins, this reads like either an early draft of the Blind Watchmaker or a later revision of it. It seems to me that Dawkins came up with the - admittedly brilliant - metaphor of Mount Improbable, and rather than losing it to the obscurity of his notebooks, decided to reinterpret everything he has written up to that point through it. Which is fine, for those who are unfamiliar with his works, but those who are not can expect to find little more than further examples which support the grand theories he, and many neo-Darwinists, are well known for. Climbing Mount Improbable is really a collection of fascinating Zoological tales (such as species mimicry, interactive symbiosis, and a wonderful insight into spider web building) which leave the reader amazed at the intricacies of the natural world, but seeing as evolution as explanation seems understated and undeveloped, the possibility of theistic creation as explanation still remains and the subject matter does not really hang together with the title of the book. The book, to put it in another way, comes across as an anthology of essays, and does not do what it sets out to do: that is, illustrate with examples the irrefutability of evolution through natural selection, natural selection which pressures living beings, inch by inch and generation by generation, up the sloped surface of Mount Improbable.
If you have read his better known books, and like myself find Dawkins style of writing infectious for its clarity and poetic colour, then this could be considered as a summary of all that he has written before, which is thus well worth reading for its consequent accessibility and for the the extra, incredibly fascinating insights into the depths of the natural world it provides. If you have not read Dawkins before, then I suggest you start with his more substantial works: which will not only leave your stunned at the wonder of the world we inhabit, but, unlike this book, will explain where you, the world, and everything that craweth upon it, came from.
on 23 June 2000
Those who refuse to believe in evolution hold up examples such as the eye or the flight of birds - peaks of Mount Improbable - and ask how they could possibly have evolved. Dawkins goes a long way towards explaining just how these things could have happened, over a shorter time period than might be expected. He always bears his audience in mind and so the arguments are very easy to follow. And there are some facts presented which are even more surprising than those he sets out to prove. Who would have thought that figs represented one of the peaks?
on 20 September 2011
Dawkins likens Darwin's theory of evolution to a gradual ascent of a dizzying peak via a gently sloping path. A reasonable job is made of this and real life examples are presented to support some assertions.
However, the metaphor is not new. Much space and weight is given to the author's own computer programs. The programs produce human recognisable structures, and rely on, erm, human intervention. Some ideas are speculative with no supporting examples. That's fine, but it would be helpful if it were indicated clearly so the reader doesn't worry about whether they need to be checked. A false dichotomy appears at least once. The book is apparently about evidence for a scientific theory but religious people are subtly mocked throughout. Probably the intention is to address common misconceptions and explain counter evidence, but it seems aggressive.
Overall I found the writing style self-indulgent, opinionated and rather unscientific in places. The book still gets 4 stars for some of the truly remarkable features of nature it introduces and explains.
on 25 February 2013
The kindle version has been lazily and shoddily produced. This book has many diagrams and pictures: few of them, however, are even close to the text where they are referred to, and many are not there at all. The text is riddled with errors, most of which whilst not preventing the text from being intelligible, are distracting, irritating and clearly unnecessary (e.g. "Is and os" instead of "1's and 0's", symbols like * appearing for no reason, and spaces missing). Badly produced, and more expensive than the paperback.
on 2 July 2009
I have read and loved all of Dawkin's books but what sets Climbing Mount Improbable apart is that it is a scientist sharing his sheer joy about his subject to an audience already persuaded by his arguments from earlier works. I like Dawkin's when he is grumpy but maybe even more when he's bursting with enthusiasm.
on 15 September 2003
I've read a number of Dawkins' books as I find his books such a stimulating read given its subject matter and his writing style. Of those I've read (Blind Watchmaker, River out of Eden, Unweaving the Rainbow, and Climbing Mt Improbable), I found this the best. Indeed, I would actually say it was 'exciting' to read as it uncovers details in nature that I would never have thought existed, yet beautifully suggests how all can be explained by Darwin's simple gradual mechanism of random change and non-random (but still natural) selection.
Excellent book. Give it to anyone that doubts evolution.