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Saturday, November 26, 2005

River Out of Eden

A few weeks ago, catching up on my Discover magazines, I read an interesting article about a Sir Richard Dawkins, described in the magazine as "Darwin's Rottweiler." Among other things, the article praised Dawkins' gift for writing for the nonscientist as well as his adamant stance concerning the truth of evolution.

Hmmm, I thought, I'd sure like to read something by Dawkins. When I got home that night, my bookshelf served up one of its many gifts: River Out of Eden: A Darwinian View of Life by Richard Dawkins. There's nothing like having a bunch of books I've never read, but I digress.

True to Discover's word, Dawkins' writing is erudite and imaginative. The book is short (161 pages) and accomplishes its lofty goal of explaining the workings of evolution and natural selection at the genetic level. This being a popular science book, Dawkins relies on arm-chair logic to make many of his points, and he does so with wit, all the while conveying a sense of wonder at the natural world, whether he is describing the behavior of bees or the evolutionary functions of the eye.

I've read and heard ID proponents try to argue that the eye is too complex a thing not to have been designed by an intelligence, but Dawkins counters nicely:
Thus the creationist's question-"What is the use of half an eye?" - is a lightweight question, a doodle to answer. Half an eye is just 1 percent better than 49 percent of an eye, which is already better than 48 percent, and the difference is significant.
From there he details a variety of eye-types in the fish, insect, and mammal worlds, all of which represent "eyes" that we might consider half an eye or less, from eyes that do nothing more than track movement or show a difference between light and dark to eyes as complex as birds' eyes. Ultimately, he argues that an eye (or any other aspect of a creature's biology) will be only just good enough for the purpose it is intended to serve.

Throughout the book, Dawkins defends the truth of evolution with a seeming twinkle in his eye and smile on his face. Dawkins clearly relishes sharing his love of the natural world as much as he enjoys shooting down anti-scientific positions making this a surprisingly fun book (unless, I suppose, you're dead-set against evolution). The most memorable aspect of the book, though, is his discussion of ancestry, a poignant reminder that we are all related, all cousins.

River Out of Eden is an engaging book that provides a wonderfully lucid counter to the unscientific claims of the (embarrassingly antiscientific) Intelligent Design movement. It's also a good book just to remind us of the many wonders of the natural world.

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