Thursday, October 22, 2009

Warming my toes with Darwin & Dawkins

When Badger suggests, in a comment to my First fire article [display], that I might be curling up my toes in front of the fireplace instead of pursuing Antipodes, he has hit the proverbial nail on its head. I have indeed got into the pleasant habit, over the last week, of sitting in front of the fire of an evening and soaking in slowly—as if I were appreciating a fine wine—the powerful words of the Richard Dawkins book that I evoked recently in the article entitled Latest Dawkins book [display]. I found it hard to imagine a priori that Dawkins still had room to produce yet another book on his usual themes of Darwinism and genes, but all I can say is that the master has succeeded brilliantly, surprising me in ways that I would never have imagined.

Insofar as this book simply aims to supply readers with the actual evidence in favor of Darwinian evolution, Dawkins has written it in an almost colloquial style. Here's a humorous specimen: One Australian river turtle, indeed, gets the majority of its oxygen by breathing (as an Australian would not hesitate to say) through its arse.

There's a hell of a lot of good basic stuff about fossils and the way in which they're dated by radioactive "clocks". I don't know whether or not God exists, but the Devil surely does... otherwise I can think of no other reason to explain why Ardi waited up until the Dawkins book had just rolled off the press before making her coming-out. In a way, it's no sweat, because (a) it's easy to fit Ardi into the context presented by Dawkins; (b) it's nice for us lowly disciples to have an opportunity of feeling, if only for a short while, that we possess more information than the master; and (c) we'll be looking forward to a forthcoming book in which Dawkins will give us his reactions to Ardi.

To my mind, the best-written section of this book deals with embryology, and a quasi-magical phenomenon known as epigenesis, which concerns the processes enabling a single cell to "evolve" (nothing whatsoever to do with Darwinian evolution) into a living organism. We know that the single cell soon splits exponentially into countless essentially identical cells. But how do all these cells get their act together in such a way as to coalesce into a creature such as a dog or a human, or a rose bush? If we liken the end product (the creature or the plant) to a symphony performed buy an orchestra, and the cells to a vast set of musicians belonging to the orchestra, where's the conductor who makes sure that every performer is playing the required notes in a perfect manner? For that matter, where's the score? To approach such questions, Dawkins resorts to the fabulous metaphor of flocks of starlings in an aerial ballet:

The amazing conclusion is that each cell in the evolving organism, like each starling in the flock, is in fact doing its own thing. There is neither an explicit score, nor a unique conductor. This idea is hard to grasp. Computer programmers are accustomed to working in the domain of object-oriented programming, where you program a single relatively-simple object equipped with its own methods, whereupon you can instantiate that object as many times as you like, with differing parameters. This computer-based version of cloning provides a good paradigm of the starling phenomenon, or the process that enables ants to build vast and complex subterranean cities. And this is what biological epigenesis is all about.

Everybody knows that DNA can be likened to a string. But living tissues are highly-convoluted three-dimensional structures. So, in embryology, how do simple strings get folded into all the wonderful shapes of living creatures and plants? To tackle this question, Dawkins calls upon the metaphor of paper-folding, known as origami, of which there are many fascinating demonstrations on YouTube [click here for an origami rose].

The only negative element in this great new Dawkins book is his insertion of a four-page transcription of a TV interview between Dawkins and a female named Peggy Wright, president of Concerned Women for America. In the context of so much scientific poetry and wisdom, her presence is like a hair in the soup. Read the book, to see if you agree/disagree with me.


  1. have been busy! I am reading 'The Greatest Show on Earth' at the moment and - as with all Dawkin's books - it makes my heart sing.

    Wendy Wright is unfortunately in a position of significant influence in the USA. Doubly unfortunately - she is a completely mad bible bashing tub thumping creationist and is one of those nutters trying to get it taught in schools.

  2. You've used beautifully simple words to express the joy of reading the fine prose of Richard Dawkins: It makes my heart sing. I cannot imagine a better statement to express my own reactions. In New Testament Greek, an evangelist was literally a bringer of good news. Ever since my first contact with a book by Dawkins (The Blind Watchmaker), I see him in that role, as an author whose good news is synonymous with the scientific truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. He has always revealed an uncanny skill at explaining highly complex concepts... such as epigenesis, for example. He's a creator of several fabulous ideas: the notion of the so-called "selfish gene", then the "extended phenotype" concept, and even the fuzzy but exciting phenomenon of memes (which is fast becoming a household word). Although most people would designate Dawkins as a zoologist, maybe a biologist or simply a scientist with a mastery of several fields, I would describe him as the planet's greatest philosopher. In his philosophy, Dawkins manipulates elements from the real world, whereas most professional philosophers tend simply to play with words.