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Climbing Mount Improbable (Penguin science) Paperback – 27 Feb 1997
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Few scientific theories have been as influential or controversial in the past few centuries as Darwin's thoughts on natural selection; even now, laymen and scientists find fault with Darwin's argument. Richard Dawkins, the chair of the communication of science at Oxford University, has delivered a well-researched book supporting and supplementing Darwin's theories. Although not a work of Darwinian proportions, Climbing Mount Improbable is an advancement of those theories for scientists and general readers alike. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
Mount Improbable is Dawkins s metaphor for natural selection: its peaks standing for evolution s most complex achievements . . . a perfect, elegant riposte to a great deal of fuzzy thinking."
Dazzling, --David Attenborough
Mount Improbable is Dawkins's metaphor for natural selection: its peaks standing for evolution's most complex achievements . . . a perfect, elegant riposte to a great deal of fuzzy thinking. --This text refers to an alternate Paperback edition.
Top customer reviews
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.
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.
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
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]