The blind watchmaker

by Richard Dawkins

Hardcover, 1986





New York : Norton, 1986.


From the author of The God Delusion, Richard Dawkins' The Blind Watchmaker has been acclaimed as the most influential work on evolution in the last hundred years. In 1802 the Rev. William Paley's argued in Natural Theology that just as finding a watch would lead you to conclude that a watchmaker must exist, the complexity of living organisms proves that a Creator exists. Not so, says Richard Dawkins, and in this brilliant and controversial book, the acclaimed evolutionary biologist sets out to demonstrate that the theory of evolution by natural selection - the unconscious, automatic, blind yet essentially non-random process discovered by Charles Darwin - is the only answer to the biggest question of all: why do we exist? 'I want 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' To Dawkins, The Blind Watchmaker is nature itself, gradually forming order from the very building-blocks of life: DNA. 'This might just be the most important evolution book since Darwin' John Gribbin 'Richard Dawkins has updated evolution ... his subject is nothing less than the meaning of life' The Times 'Enchantingly witty and persusive ... pleasurably intelligible to the scientifically illiterate' Observer Richard Dawkins is a Fellow of both the Royal Society and the Royal Society of Literature, and Vice President of the British Humanist Association. He was first catapulted to fame with The Selfish Gene, which he followed with a string of bestselling books: The Extended Phenotype, The Blind Watchmaker, River Out of Eden, Unweaving the Rainbow, and an impassioned defence of atheism, The God Delusion.… (more)

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
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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 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
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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
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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 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
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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.
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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 ppendharkar
Dawkins does science very well. Love his books on science.
LibraryThing member scottcholstad
An incredible work of great importance...
LibraryThing member asxz
This was a hard read... as in it was hard for me, because I'm stupid. I haven't studied Biology for over 30 years and I gave up because they kept trying to make me draw an eye. I was terrible at drawing eyes. So I got as much of this as my brain was able to process and there was a ton of goodness,
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but I could have done with more anecdotes and slightly less God-bashing. I get that God-bashing is Dawkins' superpower, but his arguments for natural selection stand on their own without them having to be a refutation.
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LibraryThing member DarthDeverell
In The Blind Watchmaker, Richard Dawkins writes, "Natural selection is the blind watchmaker, blind because it does not see ahead, does not plan consequences, has no purpose in view. Yet the living results of natural selection overwhelmingly impress us with the appearance of design as if by a master
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watchmaker, impress us with the illusion of design and planning. The purpose of this book is to resolve this paradox to the satisfaction of the reader" (pg. 29). He works to allay any misconceptions about evolutionary theory, writing, "Evolutionary change in a species largely consists of changes in how many copies there are of each of the various possible contents at each addressed DNA location, as the generations pass... what matters in evolution is changes in frequency of alternative possible contents at each address in populations" (pg. 169). He draws extensively upon computer simulations to help put scientific concepts that take billions of years or occur on the molecular level into terms the reader may understand. Further, he demonstrates his mastery of molecular genetics in explaining the way genes shape evolutionary paths. Through these explanations, Dawkins demonstrates how life and our place in the living world can be explained through science without resort to superstition and how, through an understanding of that science, we can better appreciate the variations of life. The Blind Watchmaker should be read as a companion to the first edition of Darwin's Origin of Species as it fills in the details that Darwin did not know but that would have served as further proof of his discovery. This 30th Anniversary Edition features a unique biomorph (see Chapter 3 for more details).
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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 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
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universe is run by the laws of physics - the blind watchmaker of the title.
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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
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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.
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LibraryThing member yapete
Dawkins is one of my favorite science writers and this one is an absolute classic and must-read.
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
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was trying to make!
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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 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,
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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 reading_fox
The original public scince work on evolution. To be honest I already "believed" in evolution and all this book did was make me wish it wasn't so evangelical. Presented very much in a "this is the answer" manner, a more useful guide would have expressed the ligitiamate stumbling blocks that are
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still in the path to a full scientific understading of evolution. Still a worthwhile read, it does counter some of the more traditional arguments from the "god made it all" camp. There are better works available.
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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 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.
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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 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 Designoid
I cannot think of any other book which so effectively demonstrates the real meaning of evolution. So simple and elegant.
LibraryThing member PDCRead
I have only ever read one other Dawkins book before, The God Delusion, and really didn't like the style or attitude of the writing, so was not completely looking forward to this one.

The primary aim of the book is to look at all the evidence and theories that make up the Darwinian theory of
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evolution and natural selection. He considers all the evidence from real life examples, in particular the eye, and buy using a computer program that he wrote, demonstrates how new variants of a species can evolve with very simple initial amendments.

Later on in the book he looks at how DNA works, the effects of positive feedback on evolution and the way that mutations works of evolution and selection. He also considers the complexity of trying to document the tree of life.

Overall I thought this book was a better read than the previous one I had read. Bearing in mind it was written originally in 1986 most of it is still valid, though we now understand far more than we did then. He can get on his high horse quite often, but thankfully not so much in this book.
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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
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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.
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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.
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29) hence the title of the work. There is no purpose in the universe, we are unaware of consequences.
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LA Times Book Prize (Finalist — 1987)



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