The Blind Watchmaker
First edition cover
|Publisher||Norton & Company, Inc|
|Media type||Print, e-book|
|LC Class||QH366.2 .D37 1996|
|Preceded by||The Extended Phenotype|
|Followed by||River Out of Eden|
The Blind Watchmaker: Why the Evidence of Evolution Reveals a Universe without Design is a 1986 book by Richard Dawkins in which he presents an explanation of, and argument for, the theory of evolution by means of natural selection. He also presents arguments to refute certain criticisms made on his previous book, The Selfish Gene. (Both books espouse the gene-centric view of evolution.) An unabridged audiobook edition was released in 2011, narrated by Richard Dawkins and Lalla Ward.
In his choice of the title for this book, Dawkins refers to the watchmaker analogy made famous by William Paley in his book Natural Theology. Paley, arguing more than fifty years before Charles Darwin published On the Origin of Species, held that the complexity of living organisms was evidence of the existence of a divine creator by drawing a parallel with the way in which the existence of a watch compels belief in an intelligent watchmaker. Dawkins, in contrasting the differences between human design and its potential for planning with the workings of natural selection, therefore dubbed evolutionary processes as analogous to a blind watchmaker.
To dispel the idea that complexity cannot arise without the intervention of a "creator", Dawkins uses the example of the eye. Beginning with a simple organism, capable only of distinguishing between light and dark, in only the crudest fashion, he takes the reader through a series of minor modifications, which build in sophistication until we arrive at the elegant and complex mammalian eye. In making this journey, he points to several creatures whose various seeing apparatus are, whilst still useful, living examples of intermediate levels of complexity.
In developing his argument that natural selection can explain the complex adaptations of organisms, Dawkins' first concern is to illustrate the difference between the potential for the development of complexity as a result of pure randomness, as opposed to that of randomness coupled with cumulative selection. He demonstrates this by the example of the weasel program. Dawkins then describes his experiences with a more sophisticated computer model of artificial selection implemented in a program also called The Blind Watchmaker, which was sold separately as a teaching aid (open source implementations are currently available, as are more advanced versions of the idea).
The program displayed a two dimensional shape (a “biomorph”) made up of straight black lines, the length, position, and angle of which were defined by a simple set of rules and instructions (analogous to a genome). Adding new lines (or removing them) based on these rules offered a discrete set of possible new shapes (mutations), which were displayed on screen so that the user could choose between them. The chosen mutation would then be the basis for another generation of biomorph mutants to be chosen from, and so on. Thus, the user, by selection, could steer the evolution of biomorphs. This process often produced images which were reminiscent of real organisms for instance beetles, bats, or trees. Dawkins speculated that the unnatural selection role played by the user in this program could be replaced by a more natural agent if, for example, colourful biomorphs could be selected by butterflies or other insects, via a touch sensitive display set up in a garden.
In an appendix to a later edition of the book (1996), Dawkins explains how his experiences with computer models led him to a greater appreciation of the role of embryological constraints on natural selection. In particular, he recognised that certain patterns of embryological development could lead to the success of a related group of species in filling varied ecological niches, though he continued to maintain that this should not be confused with the ideas associated with group selection. He dubbed this insight the evolution of evolvability.
After arguing that evolution is capable of explaining the origin of complexity, near the end of the book Dawkins uses this to argue against the existence of God: "a deity capable of engineering all the organized complexity in the world, either instantaneously or by guiding evolution ... must already have been vastly complex in the first place ..." He calls this "postulating organized complexity without offering an explanation."
In its preface, Dawkins states that he wrote the book "to persuade the reader, not just that the Darwinian world-view happens to be true, but that it is the only known theory that could, in principle, solve the mystery of our existence."
The engineer Theo Jansen read the book in 1986 and was fascinated by evolution and natural selection. Since 1990 he has been building kinetic sculptures, the Strandbeest, capable of walking when impulsed by the wind.
- "Richard Dawkins' watchmaker still has the power to open our eyes", The Guardian, 30 April 2010. Accessed 24 Sept 2014
- Biomorphs applet at Ultrastudio.org
- (Spanish)Theo Jansen. Asombrosas criaturas. An exhibition of Theo Jansen's work in Espacio Fundación Telefónica, Madrid, Spain.
- Dawkins, Richard (1996) . The Blind Watchmaker. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc. ISBN 0-393-31570-3.
- Maynard Smith, John (1986). "Evolution for those that have ears." New Scientist 112 (20 Nov.): 61.