How did the replication bomb we call "life" begin and where in the world, or rather, in the universe, is it heading? Writing with characteristic wit and an ability to clarify complex phenomena (the New York Times described his style as "the sort of science writing that makes the reader feel like a genius"), Richard Dawkins confronts this ancient mystery. Dawkins has been named by the London Daily Telegraph "the most brilliant contemporary preacher of Charles Darwin's theory of evolution." More than any other contemporary scientist, he has lent credence to the idea that human beings - indeed, all living things - are mere vehicles of information, gene carriers whose primary purpose is propagation of their own DNA. In this new book, Dawkins explains evolution as a flowing river of genes, genes meeting, competing, uniting, and sometimes separating to form new species. Filled with absorbing, at times alarming, stories about the world of bees and orchids, "designed" eyes and human ancestors, River Out of Eden answers tantalizing questions: Why are forest trees tall - wouldn't each survive more economically if all were short? Why is the sex ratio fifty-fifty when relatively few males are needed to impregnate many females? Why do we inherit genes for fatal illnesses? Who was our last universal ancestor? Dawkins suggests that it was more likely to have been an Adam than an African Eve. By "reverse engineering," he deduces the purpose of life ("God's Utility Function"). Hammering home the crucial role of gradualism in evolution, he confounds those who argue that every element of, say, an eye has to function perfectly or the whole system will collapse. But the engaging, personal, frequently provocative narrative that carries us along River Out of Eden has a larger purpose: the book illustrates the nature of scientific reasoning, exposing the difficulties scientists face in explaining life. We learn that our assumptions, intuitions, origin myths, and trendy intellectual and cultural "isms" all too often lead us astray.
Here's what I mean: In both books, the writing is so sloppy that I can't help but believe the same kind of sloppy thinking informs the actual scientific data the authors are trying to explain. And this even though I think the authors have important points to make about how the world works.
For example, on page 17 of "River out of Eden," we get this from Dawkins: "After Watson and Crick, we know that genes themselves, within their minute internal structure, are long strings of pure digital information."
Without getting into too deep a philosophical discussion about the meaning of the word "true," I'm confident in saying that in the sense Dawkins uses the word when discussing evolution and the like, that is not a true statement. It's a metaphor. Genes are not literally "pure digital information."
And Dawkins himself provides proof of this in the same chapter. After all, with digital signals, "things can be set up so that the information gets through perfectly."
But, of course, this doesn't happen with genes. The fact of the matter, as Dawkins himself writes, is that when genes are copied, there are "just enough occasional errors to introduce variety."
So, either digital signals are not copied perfectly or genes aren't digital information. (Or both.)
In a novel, or even in a nonfiction book that doesn't depend so much on supposedly rational, scientific thinking, I can let this slide. In a book that specifically purports to show how evolution "really" works, I can't.
This one is a quick meal but full of flavour. Elegantly worked out analogies abound.
Several jaw dropping moments. In particular I will look at bees with much more wonder in future.
Read all his books - now.
These include that things such as the eye do function beneficially when only partially evolved, in fact nothing is "fully evolved" as everything is constantly adapting and selecting through the generations.
"Science shares with religion the claim that it answers deep questions about origins, the nature of life, and the cosmos. But there the resemblance ends. Scientific beliefs are supported by evidence, and get results. Myths and faiths are not and do not." - p. 33
"Sex is an archivist's nightmare. Instead of leaving ancestral texts intact but for an occasional inevitable error, sex wantonly wades in and destroys the evidence. No bull ever abused a china shop as sex abuses the DNA archives." - p. 39-40
As a secondary complaint, Dawkins can't resist ramming his brand of reactionary atheism down the reader's throat. As I am already an atheist I find this annoying, if I wanted to be preachd at I would read The God Delusion.
River Out of Eden, as the name might suggest, is a look at Darwinism with a polemical eye toward religion. It’s a short book with five chapters. He examines the following topics:
- DNA, with its combination of four letters, is essentially digital which allows it to copy itself without degeneration.
- Our ultimate ancestors are found in Africa.
- Natural selection is the most elegant way to explain every aspect of life.
- DNA is not concerned with good or evil; all that matters is self-preservation.
- A number of thresholds have been passed in self-replication (life).
Each of these topics are fascinating. Dawkins makes his case with his trademark wit and wisdom. Unfortunately, each argument is framed with pot-shots at the foolishness of religion. He’s managed to write an incisive book that’s almost impossible to read by anyone who disagrees with his view of religion (unless they have very thick skin).
...but at the very least, you have no right to assume that the "Why?" question deserves an answer when posed about a boulder, a misfortune, Mt. Everest or the universe."
Well worth the read, and likely a re-read.
Some reviewers have criticised Dawkins's disparagement of religion throughout the book, but this I think misunderstands the point of the work, which is to present a way of thinking about life – how could he have avoided making reference to Darwinism's greatest intellectual rival? I don't think he has been gratuitously harsh. But whether you are religiously inclined or not, if you are looking for a brief yet well-explained introduction to the Darwinian way of thinking, this would be a very good choice.