The blind watchmaker

by Richard Dawkins

Hardcover, 1986





New York : Norton, 1986.


A defense of Darwin's theory of evolution, which "identifies those aspects of the theory which people find hard to believe and removes the barriers to credibility one by one."--Back cover.

Media reviews

Almost everything about this book – the instances, the writing, the passion, the lyrical imagery – confirms again and again that there is nothing dry about science, nothing heartless about research, and nothing unfeeling about the way a biologist looks at an animal.

User reviews

LibraryThing member bduguid
This must be one of the classic books explaining modern evolutionary theory to a popular audience. What Dawkins offers is an ability to articulate his impeccable logic in ways that render often slightly subtle concepts easy to understand.

"The Blind Watchmaker" is very much a companion to "Climbing Mount Improbable". Both seek to explain how Darwin's theory of natural selection can explain what appears to highly improbably complexity in nature. "Watchmaker" is particularly insistent that not only does natural selection explain it, it's the only explanation that we have.

In the current climate, with opponents of science becoming ever more-vocal, the book retains its power in explaining key parts of evolutionary theory, and simultaneously debunking any alternatives and refuting common criticisms.

It starts by demonstrating quite what is improbable and complex about nature, using the sonar of bats as an example of a system that appears so well-refined as to be the product of design. Chapters go on to discuss the accumulation and selection of small changes in the genome, the role of DNA in replication, the possible origins of life and sexual selection.

Attacks on alternative theories include a detailed commentary on Eldredge and Gould's "punctuationism", disputes in taxonomy, and everything from Lamarckism to creationism. Sometimes there's a sense that Dawkins is fighting battles with scientific colleagues that would be better left to the specialist reader, but personally I found these squabbles helped illuminate the wider subject.

There's very little here on the evidence that evolution has occurred, whether from genetics or palaeontology. "Watchmaker's" territory is to explain how it has occurred, and why only natural selection can explain the complexity of life.
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LibraryThing member FionaCat
An entertaining, witty and easy to understand explanation of Darwin's theory of natural selection that illustrates why Darwinian evolution is the only viable explanation for complex life on Earth. Dawkins makes no bones about his preference for Darwin's theory over all others, but he does give other possibilities a fair chance before clearly and elegantly showing that natural selection is the best (and really only) answer to the question of how complex life came to be. The edition I own is published by the Folio Society, with several sections of full color photographs that help to illustrate Dawkins' argument.… (more)
LibraryThing member psutto
Classic pop science about evolution


Originally published in 1985 and badly dated because of this (e.g. he’s oh so proud of his 64k computer) Dawkins is on his hobby horse of arguing against the creationists. I’ve read much better books on “why evolution is true” and this book dragged especially in later chapters. In addition Dawkins authorial voice is pompous and extremely patronising to those that don’t understand or question the validity of Darwin’s theory. OK creationists have got things wrong, young Earth creationists very badly so and they deserve a little derision but Dawkins argues with perhaps too much stridency and is therefore preaching to the converted. In addition Dawkins sometimes isn’t very clear in his explanations and even on a few subjects I thought I knew well I got confused by his explanation.

Overall – Evolution deserves a less pompous advocate, there are better books about evolution out there
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LibraryThing member elenchus
Preparatory to Bateson's Steps to an Ecology of Mind, my summary under three headings for aspects useful in understanding Batesonian cybernetics.

Evolution a process
(a) characterised by random mutation and/or replication of genes [individual]
(b) followed by cumulative selection of individuals based on interaction with environment [individual & population]
(c) effecting incremental changes over time [individual & population]
(d) and resulting in complex natural phenomena suited to survival / self-replication, bearing the illusion of design.

Dawkins defines life as adaptive complexity (the eye his typical referent); omits all reference to sentience, consciousness, homeostasis, purposefulness. "Living organisms exist for the benefit of DNA rather than the other way around" -- notes genes are effectually permanent while bodies exist but a generation. [126] "[T]he long-lived gene as an evolutionary unit is not any particular physical structure but the textual archival information that is copied down the generations. This textual replicator has a distributed existence. It is widely distributed in space among different individuals, and widely distributed in time across generations." [170]

Evolution the sole extant theory capable in principle of accounting for origin of life from non-living beginnings; validity wholly independent of deities or design. [288] Dawkins here unconcerned with the evidence supporting the theory, though instances are mentioned to illustrate points throughout. His aim is to clarify the theory and dismantle straw men arguments, such as that evolution creates complexity by "random chance", or random means anything can happen, or mutation responsible for adaptations in a single-step process, or that evolution is teleological.

Elements of Evolutionary Process
● Reproduction doubly-determined by (a) replication (copying genetic code, with or without mutation, into a new cell and destined for a new body), and (b) development or embryology (epigenesis: reading out genetic instructions to form a mature body)
● Survival defined as an organism's body preserving itself over time, and reproducing, with no comment whatsoever on what (else) may occur in that time. "Survival of the fittest" applies specifically to fitness to defend a body's physical integrity. An individual could endure a lifetime of despair, hunger, pain, fear -- and still be deemed "fit" or to have "succeeded" in life so long as progeny result. Conversely, an individual may have adapted beautifully to environment, having enjoyed a pleasant and productive lifetime but without progeny, and so considered "fit" or to have "succeeded" but not to have "survived". It is the genetic code which survives, not the bodily engine replicating that code.
● Adaptation is one of two things: (a) organism displays improved capacity for self-replication; (b) organism has greater chance for living longer, thereby indirectly improving capacity for self-replication. Presumably some adaptations would be undesirable for sentient individuals, at least in principle: do not confuse this definition of adaptation with better (i.e. an organism living a better life, however defined) though the overlap is great.
● Implies bodily attributes directly affect an organism's survival; and those bodily attributes are defined by genes (whether replicated or mutated). Put another way: progeny must resemble parents more than others in species, and selection must sort on that physical resemblance. Accounts for marginal improvement even of piecemeal evolution: the "pieces" of an eyeball are useful even before the full eye is developed, justifying the process of cumulative selection.
● Cumulative selection involves both selection (filtering in favour of specific features) and a cumulative effect (involving geometric progression as a feature becomes more widely distributed through a population over time as their competition is filtered out, and/or because certain genes replicate faster than others and account for a greater share of the gene pool in a population)
● Sufficient time for the necessary changes to occur: Dawkins posits thousands of millions of generations to human ancestry.
● Evolution may be "additive" and not merely "subtractive", noting that mutation, co-adapted genotypes, and arms races (in which genes / species co-evolve, being crucial aspects of one another's environments contributing to the selection process) all contribute to novel developments in evolutionary process, doing more than merely winnowing down from a given set of options.

● Dawkins claims cumulative selection favours continuous variables over discrete variables; also notes that digital / coded information is likely requisite. Interestingly, there also appears requisite a digital / analogue bridge in order to translate the digital archive into a physical form, which Dawkins describes as centred in the shape of proteins used to encode digital information.
● Simple action of a sieve / analogy with genes and proteins (physical shape determines interactions with environment determines output or pattern). Dawkins notes the human brain isn't wired to readily estimate evolutionary time scales nor the likely effects over that many generations. Notes we've evolved imaginations / sense of plausibility fit to our embodied existence, with human scale in the middle of our range of size estimates, and lifespan the midpoint of our time estimates. Outside of that we should rely on calculation not subjective judgment. [160-62]
● Sexual reproduction speeds evolution compared to asexual reproduction.
● Species vs Individual (characteristics, survival, adaptation); crucial dynamic is that evolution manifests at both levels, though strictly speaking only individuals are affected by genes.
● Dawkins postulates life originated just once on the planet, or at least there was one origin linked to all extant living beings today. (Progeny of other origins may have gone extinct.) [258] If true, gaps in the fossil record are requisite to identifying species, for elsewise every creature could be put on a spectrum rather than in discrete buckets. It's possible life originated more than once, so not all living things are related; but very unlikely given carbon-based life we've found. Silicon-basis is also possible based upon similarities between carbon and silicon; we've not found it. (I thought plant life was nitrogen-based: a branch from carbon-based roots?)
● Dawkins does not address the dynamics introduced by dominant / recessive genes; but touches on the vital step-process of DNA / RNA.
● Lamarckism combines (a) use / disuse principle with (b) inheritance of acquired characteristics, with (a) proven and (b) can never be proven false, can only be refuted by lack of observation of a positive instance. Yet, genes do not provide a blueprint of a mature body, rather a recipe for building a body as defined at birth, and genes are not read-write but read-only, so no capacity for capturing the newly acquired traits into the recipe. [296-98]
● Outlines four basic taxonomies relevant to biological evolution: phyleticists (cladists & traditional) and 'Pure Resemblance Measurers' (pheneticists & transformed cladists). Evolutionary tree the only true cladistic taxonomy with "zero" overlaps or "miscellanous" entries to exhaustively catalogue all possible entries, because branches in evolutionary biology always diverge, and never merge.
● Reminiscent of Bateson: Dawkins invokes St Matthews Gospel in his account of runaway feedback. "Unto those ..."
● Interestingly, William Bateson (Gregory's father) was an avowed mutationist.
● Dawkins originated the concept of meme in The Selfish Gene


Further reading ...

Dawkins, The Extended Phenotype
RA Fischer and neo-Darwinism e.g. Red Queen Phenomenon (?)
Egbert Leigh e.g. altruism & Green Beard Effect
Russell Lande and the phenomenon of carrying a physical feature (e.g. peacock plumage) and the preference for it (peahen attraction to said plumage) on the same gene, effect of which is to reinforce the dis/advantage of a feature
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LibraryThing member hcubic
I agree with the blurb on the back of this book, from The Good Book Guide: "This might be the most important book on evolution since Darwin".
LibraryThing member cdogzilla
I wish I'd read this back when it was published, it would've been a perfect complement to my high school biology class. I think Dawkin's "The Ancestor's Tale" supplants this book though, and would recommend that one if only one of the two could crack your reading list.
LibraryThing member bclark
I do not have a lot to add that hasn't already been said in the existing Library Thing reviews. Let me just say this. If you haven't read The Selfish Gene, bypass this one and read it instead. If you've read The Selfish Gene and found it difficult, then try this one.
LibraryThing member ppendharkar
Dawkins does science very well. Love his books on science.
LibraryThing member miketroll
A marvellously lucid introduction to Darwinian evolution, already a classic. Dawkins carefully dismantles the illusion of intelligent design in the universe. A favourite creationist image is the turtle on the gatepost. ("Don't tell me someone didn't put it there!") The analogy is false: the universe is run by the laws of physics - the blind watchmaker of the title.… (more)
LibraryThing member jaemaree
i'm not finished with it, but this book is really helping to educate me on the pitfalls when sorting out good science in evolution and just feelings (the same goes for the more contemporary christian biases we find rampant not only around us here in the south but also in my humble background)
LibraryThing member mptpro
This is a demonstration of science and reason. If one doesn't *believe* in the power of natural selection after reading this book, then that person is not rational.

There is an old saying among empiricists... "a fact is something that even your enemy has to agree with." Evolution is a fact. Remember, the word "theory" has a different meaning in science than it does in the vernacular. In science, EVERYTHING is a theory. Even gravity. For something to be a theory it has to already be very mature and just shy of utterly provable.

Anyway, TBW does a tremendous job of make the RATIONAL case for Darwinism. It appeals to those who think rationally, not emotionally.

TBW is a bit technical so you can't "space out: while reading - you must think and engage your mind, and it is well worth it.

Dawkings makes the case that Darwinism is not only a viable explanation for the advanced species that walk the earth, but it is the ONLY explanation.

The three main points (there are others) that I picked up are:

1) the immense amount of time that natural selection (Darwinism) takes. 30,000 million years, for example, is considered a "flicker"!

2) Natural Selection consists of many, many (thousands) of very small incremental steps. Very many. And very small. The complexity of the eye, for example, did not evolve from bar skin to eye in one step!

3) Natural selection also fails. There are many animals, and entire species, that didn't make it! But, the only we thing that we see today are the ones that made it - so we think "wow, how amazing this all is!". Of course, all we CAN see are the species that made it, which are by definition, the amazing sophisticated creatures.
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LibraryThing member topologyrob
Though possibly too sure of himself here, Dawkins does an amazing job of demonstrating how incredible is the illusion of design that natural selection weaves. Inspiring and wondrous.
LibraryThing member maryh10000
Disappointing. Most of the book sets up strawman arguments. Finally, in the last chapter (or maybe, actually, an appendix), he brings up the argument that nothing he's said precludes God being involved in the ongoing process of evolution. Well, yes. *That's* the argument I thought the whole book was trying to make!
LibraryThing member yapete
Dawkins is one of my favorite science writers and this one is an absolute classic and must-read.
LibraryThing member voodoochilli
A fantastic book! This book was the first one that I have read that really explains how evolution works and why it must be more than just a "theory". Dawkins simply but expertly explains the sheer elegance of evolution and how life evolves at a painstakingly slow pace, how evolution is the most natural of all processes for organic life. Even before reading this book, many years ago I had an interest in evolution. My interest back then was not focused or based on much tangible knowledge or understanding. This book changed all of that and opened up a new world to me. Highly recommended to all Homo Sapiens.… (more)
LibraryThing member pod
Excellent book.
Not easy for people with no knowledge in evolutionism theories, but not impossible to read and clearly understand it.
Clear sentences and 'light' approach (considering the difficult toopic) of exposure. Brilliant way of argumentating.
I've enjoyed the most the first half of the book, in which Dawkins tries to explain how in practical the evolution/mutation of the species happen.
I've found the last chapters (the comparisons between different theories of evolution) to be a little bit more difficult to follow.
Surely reading it is worthwhile the effort
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LibraryThing member stefano
Excellent exposition of the main concepts and consequences of the theory of evolution. Although this does in no way detract from the quality of the book, it is a little curious to see how preoccupied Dawkins seems to be with the critics of evolution. In this respect, his book is structured in the grand manner of an Apology. One thing that I would have liked in a book like this (but maybe Dawkins will write another one) is a sense of what are considered to be the open problems in the theory of evolution, i.e. those spots (which exists in every discipline) where even the best informed scientists have to admit that there are things that we don't understand or seem conflicting.… (more)
LibraryThing member Eric_the_Hamster
I don't agree with Dawkins much of the time (I find his atheism as fanatical as the religions he criticises), but find him an intelligent and entertaining read. He posits the other side of the coin to the argument for "intelligent design". Some very funny correspondence in the Guardian this month (October 2005), included one query that GWBush might be evidence against intelligent design.… (more)
LibraryThing member iayork
Isn't concrete. : I'm not arguing against Evolution and I'm not a Creationist, but couldn't a higher power have created evolution? Like stacking dominoes and watching them fall.
LibraryThing member math_foo
Dawkins is capable of bringing a great deal of insight and excitement into the simple question of how we understand complex life-forms to have arisen. When he leaves this topic, as in the later chapters on punctuationism and taxonomy, the book drags.
LibraryThing member nmarun
After reading The Selfish Gene, God Delusion and The Blind Watchmaker, I think it's safe to say 'You can read just about any book written by Richard Dawkins'.
LibraryThing member gmicksmith
Dawkins here examines complex design in which he agrees with the notion of complex design but he also adheres to random design. There is design but it is not planned. His point is one of counter-intuition, a leap of the imagination. Dawkins states: "Natural selection is the blind matchmaker" (p. 29) hence the title of the work. There is no purpose in the universe, we are unaware of consequences.… (more)
LibraryThing member smitkevi
This was in no way Dawkins' best work primarily due to an occasional lack of the clarity I'm used to seeing from him. The other problem that really nagged at me throughout was a tendency to hammer at points that were sufficiently banged in. Mr. (or Mrs.) editor, please bring your A game next time. Thank you.
LibraryThing member hcubic
I agree with the blurb on the back of this book, from The Good Book Guide: "This might be the most important book on evolution since Darwin".
LibraryThing member cwhouston
For me, this book was preaching to the converted - I have a good understanding of evolution and can't see how any reasonable scientist could argue with the position spelled out by Dawkins in this book. However, I cannot agree at all that he is good at communicating these ideas - his writing and arguments are laboured, convoluted and actually rather confusing. In particular, the description of molecular genetics is awful and without extensive prior knowledge of this I would have to have read the (albeit limited - see below) coverage of this area many times over to understand it.

I personally found reading the author's smug or arrogant criticisms of others in his field or opponents amusing - perhaps others might not. The problem for the 'Blind Watchmaker' is that this often appears to be the author's primary objective, rather than explaining evolution - hence my challenge that it is not balanced. In my opinion, this comes at the expense of far too little coverage of recombination, evolution of social behaviour or basic Mendelian genetics, just to name a few areas fundamental to understanding evolution that are either not covered well or at all.

In summary, this book might have been better co-authored with a molecular geneticist and an animal behaviourist. The content of the 'Blind Watchmaker' is narrow in scope and not well written. I have `God Delusion' on my shelf and I shall now be selling rather than reading it.
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