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Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Good Science Writers: Richard Dawkins

Richard Dawkins was not included in Richard Dawkins' book: The Oxford Book of Modern Science Writing. The reason for the omission is obvious, so I rectify the "oversight" by including him in my list of good science writers.

I don't always agree with what Dawkins writes but there's no controversy about his ability to explain biology to the general public. He has a clear, crisp style that's easy to read and his arguments are well constructed. Part of his success is achieved by simplifying difficult concepts but this is also part of the problem since, in some cases, an over-simplification leads to misinterpretations.

Dawkins is also a master of metaphor but, sometimes the metaphors are misleading and can give an incorrect view of evolution (e.g. Climbing Mt. Improbable). I've chosen an excerpt from The Ancestor's Tale to illustrate Dawkins' skill at writing about science. This book is somewhat less polemical than his others, although it still has its fair share of strongly voiced personal opinions about evolution.

The passage below addresses "convergence," a favorite topic of theistic evolutionists such as Simon Conway Morris and Ken Miller. Dawkins has his own spin on the subject. He begins by addressing a question posed by Stuart Kauffman in 1985. Kauffman asked whether there are certain features of life that are easy to evolve. If so, we might expect these features to appear whenever life evolves. On the other hand ....
Those biologists who could be said to take their lead from the late Stephen Jay Gould regard all of evolution, including post-Cambrian evolution, as massively contingent—lucky, unlikely to be repeated in a Kauffman rerun. Calling it "rewinding the tape of evolution," Gould independently evolved Kauffman's thought experiment. The chance of anything remotely resembling humans on a second rerun is widely seen as vanishingly small, and Gould voiced it persuasively in Wonderful Life. It was this orthodoxy that led me to the cautious self-denying ordinance of my opening chapter; led me, indeed, to undertake my backwards pilgrimage, and now leads me to forsake my pilgrim companion at Canterbury and return alone. And yet ... I have long wondered whether the hectoring orthodoxy of contingency might have gone too far. My review of Gould's Full House (reprinted in The Devil's Chaplain) defended the unpopular notion of progress in evolution: not progress towards humanity—Darwin forfend!—but progress in directions that are at least predictable enough to justify the word. As I shall argue in a moment, the cumulative build-up of complex adaptations like eyes, strongly suggests a version of progress—especially when coupled in imagination with some of the wonderful products of convergent evolution.

Convergent evolution also inspired the Cambridge geologist Simon Conway Morris, whose provocative book Life's Solution: Inevitable Humans in a Lonely Universe presents exactly the opposite case to Gould's "contingency." Conway Morris means his subtitle in a sense which is not far from literal. He really thinks that a rerun of evolution would result in a second coming of man: or something extremely close to man. And, for such an unpopular thesis, he mounts a defiantly courageous case. The two witnesses he repeatedly calls are convergence and constraint.

Convergence we have met again and again in this book, including in this chapter. Similar problems call forth similar solutions, not just twice or three times but, in many cases, dozens of times. I thought I was pretty extreme in my enthusiasm for convergent evolution, but I have met my match in Conway Morris, who presents a stunning array of examples, many of which I had not met before. But whereas I usually explain convergence by invoking similar selection pressures, Conway Morris adds the testimony of his second witness, constraint. The materials of life, and the processes of embryonic development, allow only a limited range of solutions to a particular problem. Given any particular evolutionary starting situation, there is only a limited number of ways out of the box. So if two reruns of a Kauffman experiment encounter anything like similar selection pressures, developmental constraints will enhance the tendency to arrive at the same solution.

You can see how a skilled advocate could deploy these two witnesses in defence of the daring belief that a rerun of evolution would be positively likely to converge on a large-brained biped with two skilled hands, forward-pointing camera eyes and other human features. Unfortunately, it has only happened once on this planet, but I suppose there has to be a first time. I admit that I was impressed by Conway Morris's parallel case for the predictability of the evolution of insects.


  1. I keep this book as a reference when I have questions about common ancestry, precisely because it is helpful to someone like myself. There may be differences between how Dawkins sees evolution and how you see it, but it was his explanations and essays on cnidarians that helped me understand Oakley's paper on opsins.

    I am sure that is was due to modesty that Dawkins didn't include himself. I am enjoying this series, btw, Larry.

  2. I'm enjoying it quietly off to the side as well.

    I will add that Dawkins' style of writing was what first cemented my interest as an adult in painting subjects from science, particularly biology.

    River Out of Eden was the first book of his that I read, and I still can remember the marvelous feeling of, for the first time in my life, understanding how organisms evolved. I'm looking forward to picking up his new compendium.

  3. In terms of writing style, I also prefer Dawkin's clear and focused approach.

    I find Gould's style a bit annoying - he seems to try too hard to portray himself as a polymath.

  4. Lim Leng Hiong

    In terms of writing style, I also prefer Dawkin's clear and focused approach.

    I find Gould's style a bit annoying - he seems to try too hard to portray himself as a polymath.

    I prefer Gould. His analogies are much more accurate and he addresses biological problems in a much more thorough manner. I especially like that Gould doesn't skate over the fact that biology is messy and complicated.

    One of the most difficult things in science writing is deciding how much to simplify. Every simplification involves a little lie. The trick is to find the middle ground where the lies are minimized and understanding is maximized.

    Dawkins goes too far toward the simplification end of the spectrum, in my opinion. Gould may err slightly in the other direction. This is why the average person finds it easy to read Dawkins but hard to read Gould.

  5. Call me scrupulous, I don't think you can talk about "information" the way Dawkins does.
    Consider this Dawkins quote:

    "What has happened is that genetics has become a branch of information technology. It is pure information. It's digital information. It's precisely the kind of information that can be translated digit for digit, byte for byte, into any other kind of information and then translated back again. This is a major revolution. I suppose it's probably "the" major revolution in the whole history of our understanding of ourselves. It's something would have boggled the mind of Darwin, and Darwin would have loved it, I'm absolutely sure"

    -- Richard Dawkins, Life: A Gene-Centric View Craig Venter & Richard Dawkins: A Conversation in Munich (Moderator: John Brockman) "This event was a continuation of the Edge 'Life: What a Concept!' meeting in August, 2008." [sic]

    Te fcat you can make a code, plan or blueprint using symbols to retrieve the "actual thing" does not mena that actual thing "is" encodede information, as if we were looking at a book...the fact we can write sequences onto a disk or a piece of paer to later synthesize it biochemically does not mean the DNA "is" "information.

    I think there is something seriously screwed up about Dawkins way of dealing with the notion of information. .

  6. How could I possibly be in agreement with Sanders? And yet, strangely enough, I find myself compelled to say "Yep, that's the way I see it, too."

  7. Dawkins may be a good stylist, but his climbing Mt.Improbable thesis is a fantasy;

  8. Larry says:

    "Dawkins goes too far toward the simplification end of the spectrum, in my opinion. Gould may err slightly in the other direction. This is why the average person finds it easy to read Dawkins but hard to read Gould."

    I agree, I find Dawkins easier to read, but of course Gould is scientifically more accurate.

  9. Dr Phillip Johnson correctly says that Dawkins' books are not primarly about science, but about atheism.

    The "science" he has in there is a platform for his presentation of his worldview (atheism).

  10. I would highly suggest for you, and any one else interested to read the book ""The Devil's Delusion: Atheism and its Scientific Pretensions." by self-professed secular Jew and mathematics/philosophies teacher David Berlinski.
    This tells the story of a Jew who was forced to dig his own grave prior to being shot by a German soldier. Prior to being shot, the old Jewish man advised the German that “God is watching what you are doing.” The Jewish gentleman pointed what i think is the real problem with atheism. "If you have the time please check the book out

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