The Mystery of Life

Reading between the lines.
Sept. 17 1996 3:30 AM

The Mystery of Life

Darwinism doesn't solve it.

Climbing Mount Improbable

By Richard Dawkins

(W.W. Norton & Co.; 288 pages; $25)

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Last month, the New York Times reviewed a book by Michael J. Behe, a biochemist from Lehigh University. Titled Darwin's Black Box: The Biochemical Challenge to Evolution, the book contended that the molecular machinery of living things works too well to have been produced by chance alone. Life must have been designed by some intelligent being, possibly one that was divine. Reading the review--surprisingly respectful, considering that its author was a science writer--I had to smile imagining the vein-popping fury that it would arouse in Richard Dawkins. Fools! he would mutter. I am surrounded by fools!

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Dawkins, an evolutionary biologist at the Oxford University, is "the most brilliant and compelling propagandist of Darwin today," as Wired recently put it. He is also an adamant atheist. His work is basically one long argument that natural selection, and natural selection alone, is sufficient to explain the seemingly miraculous variety, beauty, and ingenuity of living things. The mystery of life, he declared in his 1986 best seller The Blind Watchmaker, "is a mystery no longer because [Darwin] solved it."

Dawkins is one of those rare scientists whose writings both persuade his peers and charm the public. He excels at coining pithy phrases and metaphors that express anew the power of Darwinian theory. In his first book, The Selfish Gene, published in 1976, he set forth his brutally reductionist view that all organisms are vehicles created by genes seeking to make copies of themselves. In The Extended Phenotype (1982), he introduced the notion that culture consists of self-replicating ideas called "memes." As many profilers of Dawkins have remarked, Dawkins himself is one of the most successful meme-propagators on the planet.

His latest book, Climbing Mount Improbable, is erected around yet another compelling meme. Dawkins asks us to imagine the myriad forms of life inhabiting a vast mountain. At its foot are the least complex--and hence most probable--organisms, such as bacteria and algae. On the peaks are species that seem least likely to have been produced by happenstance, such as spiders, whose webs are marvels of engineering.

Dawkins reminds us that natural selection produces such creatures through a series of incremental steps that "smear out" their improbability over long periods of time. To reinforce this point, he tells us how he constructed a computer program that, with only a few rules for guidance, could "learn" to construct webs remarkably similar to those built by real spiders.

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A >s in his previous books, Dawkins' tendency toward donnish didacticism is more than counterbalanced by the transparency of his prose and his genuine delight in the intricacies of nature. His description toward the end of Climbing Mount Improbable of wasps enmeshed in Byzantine power struggles with fig trees is a model of nature writing, at once lyrical and lucid.

In an era when even reputable scientists indulge in mysticism, Dawkins' rejection of intelligent design is also bracing. He openly loathes those who discern divine intentions behind natural phenomena, such as fundamentalist Christians who view the AIDS virus as divine punishment for sodomites. Dawkins spares no one. He describes a conversation in which his 6-year-old daughter speculated that flowers were put on earth to "make the world pretty." "I was touched by this," Dawkins recalls, "and sorry I had to tell her that it wasn't true."

Despite its blunt charms, however, Climbing Mount Improbable strikes me as being the least convincing of all of Dawkins' books. In focusing on the notion of life's improbability--or lack thereof--Dawkins has inadvertently drawn attention to the greatest weakness of Darwinian theory. There has always been something disturbingly retroactive, after-the-fact, about natural selection as an explanation of life, even when propounded by someone as eloquent as Dawkins. Life, explained by natural selection alone, just does not seem inevitable enough.

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Addressing this issue, Dawkins sometimes resembles a flack for Lotto assuring us that winning the big one is easy. He allows that at first glance, it seems almost miraculous that Joe Blow would win the $10 million jackpot. But by retracing the steps that culminated in Joe's good fortune--the printing of the fateful ticket, Joe's purchase of it at his local liquor store, the selection of that number by Lotto officials--Dawkins demonstrates that each conforms to well-understood principles of physics, biology, and social science; no miracles were required. Well, true enough. But that does not make Joe any less lucky.

It is not only religious creationists who are bothered by this problem but also some prominent scientists. At the Santa Fe Institute, biologist Stuart Kauffman claims to have glimpsed--deep in his computer simulations--a mysterious "antichaos" force that counteracts the tendency of all physical systems to drift toward disorder. This force supposedly makes stars "self-organize" into galaxies, and inanimate molecules, into living cells.

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