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Book Review : Facing Off With Theists Over the Existence of God

November 25, 1986|LEE DEMBART | Dembart is a Times staff writer.

The Blind Watchmaker: Why the Evidence of Evolution Reveals a Universe Without Design by Richard Dawkins (Norton: $18.95)

Theodore Sturgeon, who died last year, was a well-known science-fiction writer. He was less well known as the discoverer of Sturgeon's Law, one of the basic truths of the universe, which says, "95% of everything is nonsense."

To Sturgeon's Law I would add Dembart's Corollary; namely, that there appears to be a dominant gene causing people to believe the 95% rather than the 5%, so widespread is the bunkum that afflicts the world. Belief in foolishness takes many forms: astrology, spiritualism, ESP, stock-market projection, faith healing and religion, to name a few. Only something like Dembart's Corollary can explain their popularity.

These belief systems--and many others--share a common thread, which is that people do not want to hear that the answers they crave are unknown. Instead they invent and believe fairy tales.

In the midst of the cacophony of flapdoodle that swirls around us, Richard Dawkins, a zoologist at Oxford University, has written a clear, logical, rational book that is the antidote to silliness. It explains without any ifs, ands or buts and to my complete satisfaction why Darwin's theory of evolution is true and all other explanations for the variety of living things not only are false but must be false.

Cutting Through Nonsense

Dawkins' book, "The Blind Watchmaker," cuts through the nonsense about the origin and development of life and leaves it for dead. He demonstrates beyond a shadow of a doubt that evolution is the only possible explanation for the world we see around us.

The book is beautifully and superbly written. It is completely understandable, but it has the cadence of impassioned speech. Every page rings of truth. It is one of the best science books--one of the best any books--I have ever read.

Dawkins confronts the theists head on and demolishes them. The title of his book is a reference to what is probably the strongest argument for the existence of God; namely, the argument from design.

Wherever there is a watch, this argument goes, there must have been a watchmaker. You can take all of the pieces of a watch, put them in a box and shake that box forever, and you will never get a watch. No wind will ever swirl through a junkyard and whip up a Boeing 747. How, then, could all of the complexity we see in one individual--not to mention in all of life--have come about by chance?

Darwin himself addressed this question when he wrote about the development of the eye. How could this complex organ, which depends on the action and interaction of lens, iris, retina, muscles and so forth, have evolved higgledy-piggledy from nothing? And the eye is just one of many similar organs in a living creature.

Survival Advantage

Dawkins shows that given enough time and enough chances, the improbable becomes probable. And, he shows, there has certainly been enough time. What's more, the eye does not have to spring into existence full blown, the chance of which is indeed too small to have happened even in billions of years. Each small improvement in the eye's ability to see would give its owner a survival advantage over other organisms. Dawkins writes:

"Five per cent vision is better than no vision at all. Five per cent hearing is better than no hearing at all. Five per cent flight efficiency is better than no flight at all. It is thoroughly believable that every organ or apparatus that we actually see is the product of a smooth trajectory (of development), a trajectory in which every intermediate stage assisted survival and reproduction."

Early in the book, Dawkins sums up his argument. It is worth quoting at length because it is one of the best statements around of the sophisticated way of understanding the world:

"All appearances to the contrary, the only watchmaker in nature is the blind forces of physics, albeit deployed in a very special way. A true watchmaker has foresight: he designs his cogs and springs, and plans their interconnections, with a future purpose in his mind's eye. Natural selection, the blind, unconscious, automatic process which Darwin discovered, and which we now know is the explanation for the existence and apparently purposeful form of all life, has no purpose in mind. It has no mind and no mind's eye. It does not plan for the future. It has no vision, no foresight, not sight at all. If it can be said to play the role of watchmaker in nature, it is the blind watchmaker."

Of course, many people--in my opinion, dismayingly many people--don't want to be told that life is meaningless, that we are here as the result of an accident of chemistry and biology, that when you're dead you're dead and it's over. They don't want to believe it. They would rather believe that there is a purpose to all of this and a designer who gives life purpose.

'Lazy Way Out'

Dawkins points out, however, that believers can never explain where this designer came from. "You have to say something like 'God was always there,' " Dawkins writes. "And if you allow yourself that kind of lazy way out, you might as well just say, 'DNA was always there' or 'Life was always there,' and be done with it."

At this point, if there are any believers still reading, their blood pressure has no doubt reached 200 over 140, and some, at least, will write me letters calling me rude names. Write if you must, but be aware that the facts are all on Dawkins' side of the argument. Believers have only belief to stand on.

Lest there be any scrap of doubt on this score, the Times does have in me an atheist reviewer. And even if I am wrong and there is a God, and even if he has nothing better to do than think about me, he cannot possibly hate me for my views. After all, he gave me a logical brain, and this brain looks around, weighs evidence and concludes that Dawkins is right.

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