Friday, October 09, 2009

Dawkins' new book

Here are some excerpts from two consumer reviews of Dawkins' new book.


A good book, but didn't live up to its subtitle, September 28, 2009

By The Agnostic Apatheist (New York, NY) - See all my reviews

This book is the latest among a long list of evolutionary texts by Dawkins. By his own admission, this book differs from his previous works. While his other books assume the truth of evolution, and thus, sought to answer specific and common criticisms against evolution (often espoused by creationists), this is the first time Dawkins has attempted to lay out the actual evidence for its acceptance by the scientific community.

My number one complaint is that he did not provide much in evidence, and where he did provide evidence it was short on detail. For instance, in Chapter 2, Dawkins mentions that all dog breeds are descended from the wolf. Similarly, broccoli, cauliflower, kale, and other commonly distinct vegetables today are all descendants of the wild cabbage. While this might seem evident to the scientifically literate, if you don't accept evolution, you might need some convincing to show that this is true. But he doesn't provide evidence or even an explanation of how we know that dogs descended from wolves or broccoli from cabbage. He merely asserts this as evidence and then moves on to chapter 3, which concerns natural selction.

In chapter 3, he discusses flowers and insects (and birds) and presents this as evidence for evolution (specifically by natural selection). But he doesn't provide much explanation of how we know this to be true. For instance, why should we conclude that this arrangement between pollen producing flower and pollinating insect to be the result of co-evolution? How do we know that the pollen producing flower was not always the way it is and that the pollinating insect was not always the way it is and that these two merely "found" or discovered one another, in essence, falling into and exploiting a niche that was always present? [This might seem crazy, but this was actually used in an argument by a creationist]

Another criticism. He was careful to define the distinction between a scientific theory and a mere hypothesis or conjecture. Yet through much of the first few chapters of his book, he is short on evidence and long on speculation. For instance, he mentions the Heika japonica crab, with the resemblance of a samurai warrior on the back of its shell. While Carl Sagan states that this was the result of natural selection, Dawkins states it probably was not; it was likely coincidence. But this very case has often been cited as evidence for evolution (by selection). Is this evidence of evolution or not? And if not, then why is Dawkins' mentioning this in his book. If anything it calls into question how we determine that something is the result of evolution (and therefore qualified as evidence), as opposed to coincidence or something else? From this example, it seems almost arbitrary.

His review of the fossil record is compelling but rehashes the same information presented in other books. And he doesn't explain how we know that the discovered fossils represent a history of the same clad, as opposed to distinct, unrelated organisms. This is particularly important since we are often comparing fossils from different time periods, from different geographical locations, and don't have access to the entire skeletal remains (let alone genetic information) of the organisms that we are claiming are descended from one another. For example, how do we know that we aren't merely pattern seeking when we look at Pakicetus, Ambulocetus, and Basilosaurus? Or Australopithecus and Homo? Moreover, he spends most of the chapter on human evolution explaining why paleontologists feud over the specific genus (or species) of particular fossils and why such arguments would be predicted under evolution precisely because they represent intermediates. But his explanation could've been condensed into 1 paragraph. It would've been far better if he spent the time to present more evidence among the mountains of evidence that are claimed to exist.

His chapter, "You did it yourself in nine months", was spent explaining by analogy that matter is capable of self assembly from the bottom-up, rather than a top-down approach as espoused by creationists. He presents his hypothesis that this is possible via "local rules" and uses the analogies of the starling and origami as examples, but this is not evidence. In fact, while analogy can clarify and improve understanding, it does not constitute evidence. Dawkins forgets that the "local rules" are functioning from a template coded in our genome. Thus, can we truly say that it is the "local rules" that create the appearance of design when a recipe is necessary for determining these "local rules"? He needs to show that the genome is capable of self assembly by local rules and that a complex organism can be created from this base. While he implies that possibility during his discussion of viruses, he does not provide much detail. Thus, the reader is left unconvinced and with more questions. Thus, if you get to this point, you will have read 50% of the book and realize that much of the book has been devoted to explanation, speculation, hypotheses, and very few presentation of actual evidence. He uses computer models to illustrate or make his points. But once again, while these models may help explain concepts, they do not constitute evidence.

My final criticism is in regard to his reference section. Most good books concerning scientific topics contain plenty of references to primary articles. But there are very few primary articles listed in this book. In fact, you'll find more scientific literature referenced in a pop diet book than here. And I am not joking! Go to a bookstore and look at the "Notes" section of Dawkins' book yourself. He does include a bibliography, but most of the entries represent secondary or tertiary sources. This doesn't mean the information is inaccurate, but it would've been nice to have citations to primary sources for those wanting to do further research.

There are some experiments mentioned in the book (rather clever ones too), but given the fact that evolutionists are always touting the volumes of evidence (and not just from fossils) for the fact of evolution, I was disappointed to find that only a handful are mentioned in the book. As mentioned earlier, most of the book is either providing background information (about rudimentary chemistry or biology), providing explanation, or tearing down common creationist arguments or criticisms against evolution, rather than focusing on positive evidence favoring evolution. Moreover, Dawkins practically ignores the evidence from molecular biology and glosses over genetics.

In short, Dawkins writes his book as if he is talking to a fellow evolutionist (preaching to the choir). But such a person does not need convincing or evidence of evolution. You can merely point or mention the "obvious" and expect the person to understand. You don't need to go into detail or explain much. On the other hand, if you do not accept evolution or require convincing, then you will likely find that Dawkins assumes too much and does not provide sufficient data or detail as to why evolution is the best explanation for the observations under discussion.

Needless to say, I was disappointed with the book since it failed to live up to its subtitle - "The Evidence for Evolution" [emphasis mine].

Great Show, Lousy Argument, September 22, 2009

By David Marshall (Seattle area) - See all my reviews

But why does an Oxford zoologist insist on "debating" only the most ignorant opponents? Why does he give us a more than four page transcript of his conversation with a representative from Concerned Women for America, whom he tears to pieces to his evident satisfaction, and never mention any proponent of Intelligent Design?

I was hoping he would. I wanted to read Dawkins' best argument against the most convincing arguments the other side could put up, for the curious reason that I really would like to know if there's anything to ID.

Instead, I found a strange but yawning "gap" in Dawkins' argument.

Dawkins knows who Michael Behe is. He wrote a review of his last book, The Edge of Evolution, for the New York Times. He never mentions him overtly in this book, but he does refer to him, at least twice. On page 128, Dawkins refers to "the 'irreducible complexity' of creationist propaganda." Then again on 132, he writes how "creationists" revile a certain set of experiments, because they show the power of natural selection "undermines their central dogma of irreducible complexity." As Dawkins well knows, "Irreducible complexity" is the signal idea in Behe's popular Darwin's Black Box, probably the most widely-cited book in the ID arsenal.

These references occur in an interesting context here. You find them in a chapter called "Before Our Own Eyes," about the fact that on occasion, evolution occurs so rapidly that it can be witnessed. More specifically, Dawkins offers these jibes towards the beginning of a seventeen-page long discussion of Richard Lenski's experiments with e-coli.

Dawkins discussion of these experiments is more than a little flabbergasting, giving his claim to have read Edge of Evolution. Behe discussed those experiments in that book, in quite a bit of detail as I recall. Behe also discussed the mutations Dawkins refers to here in a blog about a year ago. Dawkins mentions none of that. He says nothing about the probility of particular mutations compared to population size. He doesn't even deal with the physiological detail Behe gave. Reading this, it is hard to believe that he even read chapter 7 of Behe's book, still less his blog on how one "tribe" of e-coli found a way to metabolize citrate. He imagines that these experimental results are a great blow to Behe's concept of IC, completely overlooking the fact that these results are just what Behe predicted! A single instance of a probably double mutation in e coli after trillions of cell divisions, is closely in line with Behe's predictions. Surely someone as literate as Dawkins ought to be able to see this. Behe wrote in his blog a year ago:

"In The Edge of Evolution I had argued that the extreme rarity of the development of chloroquine resistance in malaria was likely the result of the need for several mutations to occur before the trait appeared. Even though the evolutionary literature contains discussions of multiple mutations, Darwinian reviewers drew back in horror, acted as if I had blasphemed, and argued desperately that a series of single beneficial mutations certainly could do the trick. Now here we have Richard Lenski affirming that the evolution of some pretty simple cellular features likely requires multiple mutations."

So Behe knows very well that duel mutations can aid in evolution on occasion. How bizarre for Dawkins to treat the same thing here as the death knell of IC!

Dawkins also claims that in Lenski's experiment:

"It all happened in a tiny faction of the time evolution normally takes."

Nonsense. 20,000 generations is the equivalent of 400,000 years for human beings. A trillion individuals would be equal to perhaps 20 million years of human evolution.

Dawkins then talks about how bacteria develop resistance to drugs -- the main subject of Behe's book, but he takes no notice whatsoever of any of the tough details Behe discusses. All we get are glib words of comfort for anyone who might doubt the power of evolution, and an attack on "goons and fools" at some conservative web site led by a lawyer. Dawkins seems to refuse to engage in any but the most childish contrary arguments -- a remarkable act of self-discipline for a scholar.

I'm finding it hard to "place" this guy. There's no doubt he knows a lot about the natural world, and is in love with its wonders. No one can deny that he is a brilliant and evocative writer, that his similes are often moving and suggestive, and that many eminent scientists swear by him. Nor would I deny this book is worth reading.

But Richard Dawkins seems to me less a scholar, and even rhetorical pugalist, than that sort of mythologist, like Freud, Nietzche, or Marx, who cloaks his beliefs in the language but not always the rigor of scientific argument. To the extent he argues, he only seems inclined, to take on the easiest possible targets; indeed one gets the feeling both here and in GD that he is talking down to his readers.

1 comment:

  1. The naturalistic atheists whine that theistic creationists' answer to their 'evidence' is "God did it." Apparently, Dawkins think the naturalistic atheist argument should be, "Dawkins said it."