The subject was "Climbing Mount Improbable", which is the title of Dawkins'
latest book. I won't go into a lot of detail here, but I would recommend that
you purchase this book and read it, and/or its predecessor, The Blind Watchmaker
or others. I became acquainted with Dawkins from his earlier book, The Selfish
Gene, in 1980. I didn't get to ask Dawkins any questions; the 500-person
auditorium was nearly full and time was limited.
Dawkins is a lean, handsome Oxford don. His holds the Chair of Public
Understanding of Science at Oxford. He spoke with clarity and civility about
the classic Darwinian concepts of mutation and natural selection. He is fond of
using all kinds of metaphors to make the concepts clear to a wide audience. The
metaphor of Mount Improbable refers to a kind of mountain (perhaps like Mt.
Whitney) that is very steep and high -- it looks impossible to climb. But on
the other side, it has a very gradual slope that can readily be climbed, but it
takes a long time.
Dawkins took note of the criticism of creationists that something as complex
and systemic as the eye could never have evolved. Creationists like to quote
Darwin's remarks that seem to concede this. However, Dawkins quoted the rest of
the passage in the Origin, where Darwin concluded that it is nevertheless
possible via evolution.
Dawkins' book contains a whole chapter dealing with eyes, noting that they
apparently evolved independently over 40 times, and there are all kinds of
intermediate forms. The book contains some of the funniest pictures I have ever
seen: a mutant frog with his eyes inside the roof of his mouth, fruit flies with
working eyes on their legs, etc.
Dawkins once asked his small daughter, "What are flowers for?" Said
Dawkins: "Her answer (to make the world pretty, and to feed the bees) were good
but, sadly, untrue. The truth is that flowers are for DNA.
What are viruses for? To punish us for our sins? To get rid of us? To
give us courage in the face of adversity? None of the above. Viruses have no
feelings, no wishes or motives. They are for the good of themselves. Their
only message is "copy me". Their mischief is a by-product of this.
All of us are like viruses: colonies of genes clubbed together to write
(This is nothing more than the old saying that a hen is an egg's way of
making more eggs).
Dawkins call this a less human-centered viewpoint of life. Everything was
not made for us to dominate and exploit. We are not the center of the universe.
Some complained to Dawkins that this view makes the world a very bleak,
pointless, pessimistic place. Dawkins gave two responses to this:
1. If the truth is disagreeable, tough. You can't live in a fantasy world.
2. How pathetic that you need a cosmic purpose just to get out of bed in the
morning. Stop moping around and make your own life purpose. Write a sonata,
get a life! Humans are uniquely equipped to do this.
Dawkins offered a kind of optimism: Consider the countless number of people
that could have been -- the sperms that didn't make it to the egg, for instance.
In the teeth of the odds, it is you and I who are alive. We are very lucky to
be here. And we are very lucky to be in the bright spotlight of the present
century, living on this sumptuous planet. It is a noble thing to wake up here,
and to be a scientist, trying to understand the universe. In fact I'm tempted
to say that science is the only supportable occupation.
I'll stop here and comment on the talk later. Your comments are welcome.
Paul Arveson, Research Physicist
Code 724, NSWC, Bethesda, MD 20084
(301) 227-3831 (W) (301) 227-1914 (FAX) (301) 816-9459 (H)