Home > Uncategorized > Book Review: The Blind Watchmaker (Creation and Evolution, Part 3)

Book Review: The Blind Watchmaker (Creation and Evolution, Part 3)

I enjoyed this book more than I thought I would, though I did think the earlier chapters were much more interesting than the later ones. Dawkins is a talented and vivid writer. Like most good science writers, he is especially good at finding analogies that give a clear picture of a complicated idea. He gave me a better understanding of how biologists understand evolution.

Let me begin with a note on the word “evolution” itself. As I noted in my first post, a certain amount of equivocation goes on in regards to this word. Sometimes it is used to describe the process by which living things have changed into other living things, and to the descent of all life from a common ancestor through a gradual and long process. Sometimes it refers to this, but also includes within it the notion that the main guiding force in this process has been natural selection. This latter definition was the one I gave in my first post, though now I’m thinking it would be better to give this the label of “Darwinism.” This is how I will be using the words from now on. I’m not sure if Dawkins himself commits any equivocation linguistically in the book–it usually seems like he uses the word “evolution” in the more general sense. But I think he is guilty of allowing the conflation to shape his own thinking about the matter, viewing the evidence for evolution in the general sense to serve as evidence for Darwinism. This, I think, is a consequence of his materialism. More on this later.

So let us turn to the book itself. The Blind Watchmaker is basically a defense of Darwinism, particularly against any form of creationism. I found the third and fourth chapters of this book, in particular, to be quite interesting. I think they provide the intellectual backbone for the way of thinking about evolution that is characteristic of Dawkins himself, and that shapes the rest of the book. In the third chapter, Dawkins describes a computer simulation that he invented. He views this simulation as a sort of (very) simplified model of evolution, giving the reader a more accessible picture of how it might have taken place. Dawkins describes how he wrote a computer program that would draw a “tree”: on the first “generation” it would draw a single vertical line segment. On the second generation, it would add to the upper tip of this line two new line segments, set at an angle to each other, on the third generation it would add two new segments to each of these, and so on. Thus after a number of generations, a complex tree is drawn. Now, Dawkins built into his program nine “genes”: these were parameters that influenced how the program would draw the tree. The parameters would influence the angle between the line segments, the length of the new line segments, and the number of successive steps branching that will occur when the program was run. For example, giving a positive value to gene number 5 would increase the angle between branches. This is all meant to be analogous to how a biological organism’s genes determine it’s development from the embryo onward.

By changing these parameters, Dawkins is able to create a myriad of complex and varying trees. Dawkins then introduces the notion of a “child” to a particular tree. This is simply another tree with almost the same genes as the “parent” tree. Dawkins wrote another program that would randomly introduce minor changes–“mutations”–to the genes of a particular tree, and then draw the resulting tree. Using this program, Dawkins is able to “evolve” a variety of different trees. He does this by running the program to create various different “children” of a given tree, and then selecting one of those based on his aesthetic preference. He then repeats the process. In doing so, he is able to push the appearance of the tree in a direction of his choosing–he is even able to make, to his own surprise, trees that bear a striking resemblance to insects.

In the fourth chapter, Dawkins argues that the simplified model described in the third chapter is analogous to what goes on in the reproduction of biological life. The main difference is that biological life is a lot more complicated: there are thousands of genes, rather than just nine. Dawkins pictures all of the different possible permutations of these genes as a sort of “genetic space”–each permutation represents a point in this space.  And, since genes largely determine the development of the organism, a particular point in genetic space basically represents a particular organism. Now, this space is many dimensional–it has as many dimensions as there are genes, so we can’t really picture it. But the spacial analogy is still quite helpful, from a intuitive standpoint: we can think of organisms that have similar genes as being “close” in genetic space. Genetic space is incomprehensibly vast but, in in each instance of reproduction, a minor move may be made within this genetic space. Dawkins argues that, in order for us to believe that it is plausible for complex biological systems (for example, the eye) to evolve, we must realize that while the two different states in question (an organism with no eye vs. as organism with fully functional eyes) are very far apart in genetic space, it is in principle possible to travel from one state to the other via minor changes in the gene sequence. There is nothing deep to this claim–it is simply a consequence of the fact that an organism’s gene sequence, contained in its DNA, is a concrete and definite string of data (A’s and T’s and C’s and G’s, as my biology teacher used to say) that can and does experience minor modifications (mutations) when the organism reproduces and passes it on to its progeny (this is ignoring, for purposes of simplicity, the additional variation that occurs as a result sexual reproduction). We must, if we are to accept Darwinism, also believe that each required step (for a given path between the two states) could provide a survival advantage to the new organism.

Dawkins goes on to defend the idea that all of this is possible–that such a process of natural selection could introduce the variation and complexity that we see in life today, and that even the origin of biological life itself, while unlikely, could be accounted for by natural selection operating on self-replicating entities that came about by chance in a vast universe. He gives convincing refutations of common objections regarding the fruitfulness of natural selection in producing certain types of complexity. Moreover, to Dawkins, Darwinism is really the only good way to explain the situation we find ourselves in. Hence near the end of the book, he makes this astonishing remark:

The theory of evolution by cumulative natural selection is the only theory that is in principle capable of explaining the existence of organized complexity. Even if the evidence did not favour it, it would still be the best theory available! In fact the evidence does favour it. But that is another story. (p. 317)

Reading this quote in isolation might lead one to believe that Dawkins is forgetting about the idea of a designer. In fact, Dawkins has already dismissed this possibility as superfluous: Dawkins argues that, to posit God as an explanation for the organized complexity of life, one is positing something that is already so complex that it must itself require an explanation more incredible than what we were trying to explain in the first place. Thus one accomplishes nothing in positing a designer. I will quote him in full here:

If we want to postulate a deity capable of engineering all the organized complexity in the world, either instantaneously or by guiding evolution, that deity must already have been vastly complex in the first place. The creationist, whether a naive Bible-thumper or an educated bishop, simply postulates an already existing being of prodigious intelligence intelligence and complexity. If we are going to allow ourselves the luxury of postulating organized complexity without offering an explanation, we might as well make a job of it and simply postulate the existence of life as we know it! (p. 316)

This is an ingenious variation of the “who made God” argument, but I think it is fundamentally flawed, at least as an argument against the existence of God. I think Dawkins is ignoring the fact that there are important metaphysical differences between God and the material world. What are those differences? Essentially, they boil down to the fact that is God is infinite and personal, whereas the material universe is finite and impersonal. Because God is infinite and personal, it doesn’t really make sense to talk about “how complex” he is. Complexity is an idea we can only apply to finite and (in principle) comprehensible systems, things that are by their nature describable. I believe that it simply does not make sense to look at such a God in terms of the categories of complexity that Dawkins has set up in his study of biological life. Anything that could be understood in those categories would not be God. I think that the reason God is conceived of in this way by Dawkins is because his materialism is so strong that he actually imagines God, if he did exist, would be pretty much like how he sees the universe–an “object” of some sort, which we could study.

But God is, rather, a being with a will, consciousness, and creativity–that is what I mean when I say that he is personal. These attributes are fundamental to who he is. They are metaphysically irreducible, so to speak. If we are to say that God is the cause of the design in the universe, we mean that he employed these faculties (and perhaps others) to create it. Life in the universe is ultimately derivative of his activity, as an autonomous agent, somehow. Even Dawkins would probably admit that such a being would be capable of creating life as we know it, by any number of means. But the deeper question of whether such a God exists hinges on much more than the question of how life came into being. It is more of a philosophical question than a scientific one (but to materialists like Dawkins, the only real questions are scientific in nature).

If we are using God simply as an explanation for the origin of life, then I agree with Dawkins that he would be a superfluous hypothesis. Thus Dawkins’ argument actually turns out, at best, to be not so much an argument against the existence of God, but rather an argument against the inference of the existence of God based on the existence of organized complexity. Perhaps he only means it as such. And actually I think Dawkins is right with this, that we shouldn’t “infer” a creator from the design apparent in nature, as the intelligent design theorists often say we should. But neither should we dismiss the involvement of a creator simply because we’ve discovered a mechanism (natural selection) that can create the appearance of design. This, I think, is where Dawkins goes fundamentally wrong in his own thinking: having dismissed the need to posit God as the explanation for every particular appearance of design, he totally dismisses the possibility of God’s involvement in the process of bringing about that appearance. This is an understandable move for an atheist, but I wish he would realize that it is his atheism that is what is driving the conclusion.

In the book Dawkins does make, I think, a strong case for the conclusion that all of life is ultimately related by a common ancestor. The fossil record and the study of genetics seem to indicate this, as Dawkins describes in detail. There may be, within a theistic paradigm at least, another explanation for this data, but I have never heard one that I have found convincing. I remain open to one, but right now I consider the arguments provided by Dawkins in this regard to be quite persuasive. Thus I think that the problem with materialist evolution turns out to be, not it’s view of the history of life, in terms of common ancestry, but rather it’s preoccupation with natural selection as the shaping factor. This does not seem to me to be warranted by the evidence. I stress the fact, however, that I am saying this from within a theist paradigm already. The most plausible view from this position, to me, seems to be one where much of biological life did come into being gradually, but where God was intimately involved in the whole process. Obviously there are a myriad of ways in which this could have happened. Dawkins, in his dismissal of divine involvement, gives very little space or credit to any sort of suggestion. He lumps all such theories together, and portrays each as a sort of lame concession, something that the most sensible theologians have adopted now because the previous consensus, instantaneous creation, has been refuted by the evidence. This is not even historically accurate–even Augustine (who lived more than a thousand years before Darwin), I’ve been told, had a sort of theory of evolution.

But I think that the reason that such a view–a “God guided evolution”–now seems like a lame concession to Dawkins, and to many others, is the affect that our tendencies toward materialism have had on our intuitive understanding of how God interacts with the world. In short, one with a bent towards materialism will inevitably view the activity of God himself as a series of interventions in what is essentially a mechanical universe. Thus God guided evolution can come to seem like a sort of haphazard and convoluted series of miraculous interventions. And I think that this sort of thing is rightly seen as an unnecessary hypothesis, and unworthy of any wise designer.

But this is not how the God described in the bible, the Creator God first worshiped by the Jews, interacts with his creation. The God of the bible is always intimately involved in his creation–he forms it, nurtures it, and sustains it. The bible suggests that life itself cannot go on without the constant activity of God. We cannot reduce the whole of God’s activity in the world to a sort “interference.” As Dawkins himself points out, we don’t even really understand exactly why or how an embryo develops into a fully formed animal. I don’t think it is unreasonable to believe, from a Christian standpoint, that “the Lord, the giver of life” is specially involved in this sort of thing. In the same way, God must have overseen, shaped, and nurtured the development of life on earth, from its beginnings until now, and onward. Thus I think that it should be stressed that theories of divine involvement in the development of life on earth need not reduce to the idea that God committed a series of interventions. Nor, I think, must it then reduce to the idea that God “set things up so that evolution would happen.” No doubt this is true to some extent in any such theory, but I think that this idea, taken to it’s extreme, boarders on Deism and concedes way more to the mechanism of natural selection than is warranted in a theistic paradigm.

Anyway, we should be grateful to Dawkins for his concise summary and defense of materialist evolution–he has show us what is possible from this viewpoint. But we should not, of course, be as quick as he is to dismiss God’s involvement in the history of life on earth. As I come to the close of this post, I’d like to make a note on where I’ll be going with all of this. In my next post on this subject, I would like to begin to consider things from a more biblical perspective. I will begin to consider the question of how we ought to integrate the bible into our understanding of the history of life on earth. The next book I will be reading, in this regard, is Lost World of Genesis One: Ancient Cosmology and the Origins Debate, by John Walton. One other thing I would still like to consider is, in addition to the involvement of God in the history of life, the possible involvement of angels as well–particularly “bad angels” (demons). I think that a consideration of their possible activity might shed light on how God is related to some of the more violent, and thus seemingly evil, aspects of evolution. Though I know of some who have considered this possibility (I think CS Lewis does so in The Problem of Pain; I don’t know if Walton does in his book), I feel like there is much potential here that ought to be explored.

Categories: Uncategorized
  1. Carrie
    August 30, 2009 at 4:21 pm

    God is infinite and personal. I like that

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