book review

Climbing Mount Improbable

Is There a Slope?

Reviewing “Climbing Mount Improbable” by Richard Dawkins

the book’s author

Richard Dawkins is an eminent biologist, writer, and speaker, who proudly promotes the theory of evolution and secularism. He was the Professor for Public Understanding of Science at Oxford from 1995 to 2008, and the founder of the Richard Dawkins Foundation in 2006. Dawkins and his foundation are a good example those who take the position that science and religious faith are in opposition. Although I do not consider him to be objective, he does present a clear and well-developed case for his position. In my search for understanding, he is one of the first authorities that I have examined. If he has something important to say, I want to know what it is.

Visualize the Mountain

The visual image of Mount Improbable caught my attention when I first encountered it in one of Dawkin’s more recent books, “The God Delusion”. One side of the mountain is a sheer cliff, impossible to climb, which represents the extreme complexity of living organisms and the statistical impossibility of going from inert matter to highly ordered systems. The other side, however, is a gentle slope that can be slowly but surely scaled. Because the name Richard Dawkins is so well known as a evangelist for evolution, I was anxious to learn from an authority about the latest scientific discoveries supporting the gradual evolution of life. Since the title implies that there is a way to get to the top, I read the book expecting to find solid support for his illustration.

Improbable or Impossible?

Let’s look at the obvious, visible side of the mountain first. Even Dawkins recognizes that the probability of life forming by chance is so mathematically small that it makes it impossible. He cites Sir Fred Hoyle as saying that the formation of a working enzyme by chance can be compared a hurricane that blows through a junk yard assembling a Boeing 747. He advances one in 20100 as that probability, which he admits is “far greater than the number of fundamental particle in the entire universe”.(p 77) The way that he gets past the obvious impossibility of evolution is to say that evolution was not random but directed essentially by an intelligence, which is natural selection. He even minimizes mutations as a contributing factor.

Natural selection is such a powerful force in his mind that he created a computer program called the Blind Watchmaker to model natural selection. In one adaptation of the modeling program, called NetSpinner, the user sees a number of biomorphs of spider webs and picks one. The user clicking on one of the webs represents natural selection. The computer program then generates a new set of webs based on the selection. This representation of natural selection has two significant assumptions. The student using NetSpinner draws upon his intelligence and life experiences to make a deliberate choice, according to his or her preference. So we assume that natural selection is able to choose wisely in a way that is more favorable than random processes, but without intelligence. The second assumption is that nature is able to create variations that are significant enough to account for evolution. It’s one thing to do them on a computer, and another thing for them to happen in real life. I kept looking for the scientific support behind the assumptions.

Filling in the Gaps

Most of the book, in fact, almost all the book, consists of looking at the similarities between microorganisms, plants, and animals, and describing what intermediary forms might have looked like. It’s like creating Darwin’s missing links on paper because they don’t exist in the real world. I was a little disappointed not to find something more substantial.
Dogs, spider webs, and sea shells come in many varieties, but there is no scientific indication of the extent of these variations. Dawkins describes David Raup’s cube, which graphs the shape of sea shells according to three measurements. This gives a mental image that all biology can be presented as a continual spectrum of forms, which are mostly possible. Although it’s an interesting idea, most of the continuum simply doesn’t exist, and we don’t know if it could.
Another approach he used is to align all the animals that have wings or appendages like wings in order to imagine how flight could have developed. The same was done with the eye. To me, this is like the first movies, which were a series of still images, giving the illusion of motion. All the intermediary constructs are based on speculation as to what might have happened. Talking about it makes it more believable, but it doesn’t make it more true.

The Hope for Slope

One of the strong themes of the book is that matter has a natural tendency to improve itself. This certainly came out in the discussion of natural selection. Dawkins brings it all home by describing the propensity to replicate as a driving force for evolution. The original replicating molecule would have been formed by luck from the primal soup. From then on, the desire to multiply would have been the motivation that fueled progress. In fact, Dawkins describes an elephant as genes wanting to reproduce themselves and using the body of the elephant as a means to an end. Only, where is the scientific evidence for any kind of volition at any level? Where is the evidence that natural selection has the ability to select anything in favor of improvement, and do it consistently over millions of years?

I would at least reconsider my belief in God, if everything I owned didn’t have a tendency to break down. I see people’s confidence in a biology that evolves as a feeling of hope more than as science. As I read this book, I kept thinking, “Where’s the meat?” Give me a good reason to believe that life tends to evolve. If the slope of Mount Improbable goes down, it will never reach the top, no matter how many millions of years it might be around. On both sides, it’s not Mount Improbable. It’s Mount Impossible.

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