Twenty years after The Blind Watchmaker

Twenty years ago, The Blind Watchmaker burst on the scene and readers were assured that faith in a Creator God had been dealt a death-blow. Richard Dawkins, the author, set out “to persuade the reader, not just that the Darwinian world-view happens to be true, but that it is the only known theory that could, in principle, solve the mystery of our existence.”1 The rise of the Intelligent Design movement over the past 20 years may be seen as a measure of Dawkins' success.

Dawkins' losing strategy

The book's title is a reference to a design argument made in the early 19th century by William Paley, an English clergyman, who noted that the evident purpose in a watch's construction logically means “the watch must have had a maker.”2 Paley then argued that similar purpose is evident in organisms; thus it is logical to infer a Maker of living things. In countering Paley's reasonable observation, Dawkins adopted a losing strategy from the start. Instead of laying out logically coherent arguments for Darwinism, he instead chose “to become an advocate and use the tricks of the advocate's trade.”3 By advocate Dawkins is presumably using the term in the English sense, meaning a defense lawyer. His admirable honesty in admitting this in the preface to the book makes it easy to understand why his arguments appear designed more to confuse the reader than actually make a case for Darwinism. In short, Dawkins does write like an advocate, but one defending a clearly guilty client.

Dawkins' amateur foray into the advocate's art has been fully dispatched with by real lawyers, particularly Phillip Johnson of the University of California, Berkeley. Johnson's Darwin on Trial,4 published a few years after The Blind Watchmaker, shows what a qualified lawyer can do with logically incoherent arguments. But that should not be taken to mean that Dawkins is not a brilliant man or that reading The Blind Watchmaker is a dull and droning penance. Quite the opposite is true. Dawkins' prose is stimulating, and his wonder at marvelous natural systems like the sonar used by bats is contagious, even if his mantra that they do not require a designer sounds as if he were trying to convince himself in the face of overwhelming contrary evidence. Dawkins provides a perfect example of why breathing life into an argument that is already a corpse takes true brilliance.

Misrepresenting Darwinism to save it

In his enthusiasm to convince the reader, Dawkins commits any number of sins. Probably the most serious and ironic of these is the violence he does to Darwinism itself. While acting as its self-anointed high priest, he uses example after example that is not Darwinian at all. From replicating clay crystals to multiple computer simulations, core Darwinian doctrines are slapped, spanked, and ejected from the ring. My original copy of The Blind Watchmaker–the paperback edition published in 1988–came with a floppy disk containing a program designed to convince the reader by simulating evolution. This Apple Macintosh program–imaginatively titled Blind Watchmaker like the book–allowed a person to stand in the place of Mother Nature herself, selecting various “mutated” “biomorphs” until a desired outcome was achieved.

The mental image of Darwin rolling in his grave at such an embarrassingly inaccurate representation of his theory is difficult to erase. Natural selection is supposed to lack a goal, a teleology; that is why Dawkins called it the Blind Watchmaker. But the process of evolution carried out in the Blind Watchmaker program occurs in response to the intelligent guidance of a person with a specific goal in mind. Yes, evolution occurs, but it is hardly Darwinian evolution. In any case, even a simple program like this requires all the work and intelligence that goes into creating an Apple Macintosh computer and writing programs, not to mention a human being to run it. Dawkins is explicit that nature starts with simple things that act according to the laws of physics, not with complex creations like computers, software, and humans.5

Possibly Dawkins' most famous illustration of the Darwinian mechanism involves a phrase from Shakespeare's Hamlet. Speculating on the shape of a cloud, Hamlet states: “Methinks it is like a weasel.”6 Here Dawkins uses yet another computer simulation to show it is possible to evolve the phrase in a relative few generations if correct letters are fixed while incorrect letters continue to change randomly until they, by chance, hit on the correct letter. For example, if the second letter, which should be “e,” was actually “p” in a random starting string of letters, it could “mutate” to another letter of the alphabet, but once it became “e” by chance, selection would prevent further change. The sin in this example is twofold. First, it misrepresents Darwinism because it requires a goal, the phrase “Methinks it is like a weasel.” Darwinism specifically forbids this kind of teleology because it claims living things resulted from “natural” causes, not from the intelligent plan of a designer who had a goal in mind.

Misrepresenting nature to support Darwinism

The second sin in this example is a misrepresentation of nature itself. Protein machines, which may be fairly represented as a string of letters like “Methinks it is like a weasel,” operate within tolerances like any other machine or machine part. A random string of amino acids does not have a little bit of this, that or the other function, just as a chunk of metal lacks a little bit of the function of an engine piston or cam shaft. If the parts are not constructed within certain specifications, they do not work at all. While tolerances may vary from one protein to another, they still have limits to how much they can vary; otherwise, every protein would do everything. Proteins must have some minimal function before they can be selected, just as a string of letters must have some minimal order to them before any meaning can be discerned. Dawkins cheats by not requiring that his starting string become in some minimal way like “Methinks it is like a weasel” before he begins selecting for it.

As Dawkins points out, “If evolutionary progress had had to rely on single-step selection, it would never have got [sic] anywhere.”7 And yet this is precisely what Darwinian evolution must rely on to get some minimally functional protein before cumulative selection can kick in. In Dawkins' defense, he realizes the problems with his illustration and honestly, if briefly, points out that while his “model is useful for explaining the distinction between single-step selection and cumulative selection, it is misleading in important ways.” This pattern of spending pages exciting the reader with some “misleading” argument followed by a brief admission immunizes Dawkins from accusations of either ignorance or duplicity, but leaves readers wondering exactly when a real argument is going to be offered in support of Darwinism.

Occasionally Dawkins actually seems to attempt this. For example, he takes on eye evolution, perhaps not so much as evidence of evolution, but as a way of showing how Darwinism can deal with an organ that has been put forward as evidence of design in nature.8 But here again his argument is more of a gloss than logically coherent. His interesting thought experiments seem to hinge on the assumption that “5 percent vision is better than no vision at all.”9 But 5 percent vision requires close to 100 percent of the machinery necessary for sight in the first place. There must be some kind of retina, a mechanism for forming an image, or at least allowing light to hit the retina, a way of conducting the signal to the brain, part of the brain capable of recognizing the signal, and so on.

Some members of my family suffer from retinitis pigmentosa, a hereditary disease that involves retina degeneration, reducing vision significantly. Even this impaired vision requires 100 percent of an eye, optic nerve, and the part of the brain that deals with sight. Dawkins struggles to explain the gradual evolution of sight while seeming to ignore the biological reality of how sight works. Ultimately his argument telescopes back to something like Darwin's use of examples of different kinds of eyes, some of which are morphologically simpler than the camera-type eyes of mammals, while ignoring the remarkable biochemical and physiological systems necessary for eyes of any kind to work.10

Triumphal claims of victory

Ironically, in the same chapter, Dawkins fails to show how eyes could actually evolve via Darwin's “successive slight modifications.” He then boldly claims: “One hundred and twenty five years on, we know a lot more about animals and plants than Darwin did, and still not a single case is known to me of a complex organ that could not have formed by numerous successive slight modifications.”11 In one sense, this is a claim with which anyone could concur. I don't know of a single aircraft that could not, in principle, form by numerous successive slight modifications, but I don't know of any that could do this via the Darwinian mechanism while maintaining the ability to fly, let alone making it a better flyer at each step. It is not that one can't make up imaginary scenarios for the gradual creation of anything, but the task becomes much more challenging when every modification must be both small and cause the organism to produce more offspring.

After The Blind Watchmaker

Since the mid 1980s when The Blind Watchmaker was first published, much has changed in our understanding of where the true complexity is in living things. In his book Darwin's Black Box,12 biochemist Michael Behe specifically takes on Darwin's challenge providing multiple examples of molecular machines that appear to violate Darwinism's requirement of numerous slight modifications while subject to natural selection.

My own experience upon first reading The Blind Watchmaker for a graduate evolutionary biology course was immediate surprise at the weak arguments.13 It had the unintended effect of creating doubt about Darwinism and building my interest in design in nature. I have met numerous others who had similar experiences. Reading The Blind Watchmaker would probably be a good exercise for anyone with the logical skills and necessary knowledge to see through its vacuous Darwinian apologetic.

Even some of the “facts” Dawkins appealed to have changed over the past 20 years. For example, Dawkins' trumpeting of “junk” DNA as leftover evolutionary baggage has fallen flat with the discovery of functions for many classes of non-coding DNA, and promise of further discoveries.14 In addition, it seems that every newly discovered molecular machine makes living things look that much more designed.

Ultimately, Dawkins fails to deliver on his extravagant promise in the first chapter to show that while “biology is the study of complicated things that give the appearance of having been designed for a purpose,”15 “natural selection, the blind, unconscious, automatic process which Darwin discovered, and which we now know is the explanation for the existence and apparently purposeful form of all life, has no purpose in mind.”16 In the end, he resorts to attacking other people's ideas, from the punctuated equilibrium of Stephen J. Gould and Niles Eldridge to the theology of believers–anyone who questions Dawkins view of Darwinism gets the Dawkins treatment.

Even in doing this, Dawkins provides nothing that has not been dealt with previously, particularly arguments from imperfection as when he states in reference to the location of eyes on flatfish, “No sensible designer would have conceived such a monstrosity if given a clean hand to create a flatfish on a clean drawing board.” This argument may work against a specific theological view of God, but not against design. In essence it is a straw-man argument, as bad design is hardly evidence of no design; and Dawkins' view of what constitutes bad design may or may not actually be bad design. In essence, just because a person doesn't think God would do something a certain way is not an argument that He didn't or couldn't.

Recycling old arguments

Another mantra against design that is repeated in The Blind Watchmaker is the infinite regress or, the “Who designed the designer?” argument.17 “If we want to postulate a deity capable of engineering all the organized complexity in the world, either instantaneously or by guiding evolution, that deity must already have been vastly complex in the first place.” This off-the-shelf atheist argument has been around for a very long time. The internal incoherence of such an argument is remarkable; if the assumption is true that greater complexity is necessary to create lesser complexity–and it probably is–why is it logical to claim that simple laws like random mutations and natural selection must have created complexity? Darwinism claims this is the case and denies that complexity must arise from some greater complexity, so this argument is not based on assumptions assumed to be universally true by Darwinists, but is an attempt to use a design assumption against design.

Logically, it should be possible to detect design even if one has no answer for who designed it.18 For example, when the Nazca lines in Peru were first discovered by Westerners, they were immediately recognized as designed, even though the designers were a mystery. In the case of design in living things, the need for an ultimate uncaused cause, Aristotle's unmoved mover, is well recognized in Christian theology. This is why the Christian view of God, consistent with Scripture, is that God is eternal. As the Apostle Paul put it: “Now unto the King eternal, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honor and glory forever and ever. Amen” (1 Timothy 1:17, NIV). Ultimately, belief in an uncaused designer is at minimum as logical as Darwinists' belief in an uncaused universe.

From scientist to devil's chaplain

Since The Blind Watchmaker was published, Dawkins' contributions as an actual scientific researcher publishing in the peer-reviewed literature have been thin at best.19 Instead he has declared himself “A Devil's Chaplain”20 and from his position as Charles Simonyi Professor of the Public Understanding of Science, University of Oxford, and Professorial Fellow of New College, he seems to concentrate his talents on destroying religious faith rather than genuinely helping the public to understand science. In his latest book, The God Delusion,21 Dawkins continues his attack on religion at the expense of doing any real science. His efforts may be cheered on by an enthusiastic choir, but more thoughtful readers continue to wonder when he will make an actual logical argument based in empirical data for the truth of Darwinism. In the meantime, evidence accrues on a daily basis supporting the inference from living things to an intelligent cause and the Intelligent Design movement continues to gain momentum.

Timothy G. Standish (Ph.D., George Mason University) is a scientist at the Geoscience Research Institute. His mailing address: 11060 Campus Street; Loma Linda, California 92350; U.S.A.

REFERENCES

  1. Page x, emphasis in original. Note that there is an almost identical statement in the second paragraph (p. 287) of the final chapter, Chapter 11, “Doomed Rivals.”
  2. W. Paley, Natural Theology: or, Evidences of the Existence and Attributes of the Deity, 12th Edition (London: J. Faulder, 1802), p. 3. Published electronically by University of Michigan Humanities Text Initiative, Ann Arbor, Michigan.
  3. Page x.
  4. P. E. Johnson, Darwin on Trial (Washington, D.C.: Regnery Gateway, 1991).
  5. See Chapter 1, “Explaining the Very Improbable.”
  6. This is discussed in Chapter 3 “Accumulating Small Change.” Dawkins is quoting Shakespeare, Hamlet Act III, Scene II.
  7. Page 49.
  8. See Chapter 4, “Making Tracks Through Animal Space.”
  9. Page 84.
  10. For a brief discussion of the problems involved, see: http://www.arn.org/docs/behe/mb_mm92496.htm.
  11. Page 91.
  12. M. J. Behe, Darwin's Black Box: The Biochemical Challenge to Evolution (New York: Free Press, 1998).
  13. T. G. Standish, In Six Days: Why 50 Scientists Choose to Believe in Creation. John F. Ashton, editor (Sydney: New Holland Publishers, 1999).
  14. T. G. Standish, “Rushing to Judgment: Functionality in Non-Coding or Junk DNA,” Origins 53 (2002), pp. 7-30.
  15. Page 1.
  16. Page 5.
  17. See Chapter 11, “Doomed Rivals.”
  18. Much has been written about this. Here is a good starting essay: http://www.idthefuture.com/2005/06/who_designed_the_designer_a_lengthier_re.html; also see: http://www.ideacenter.org/contentmgr/showdetails.php/id/1147.
  19. Dawkins' résumé can be viewed at: http://www.simonyi.ox.ac.uk/dawkins/CV.pdf.
  20. R. Dawkins, A Devil's Chaplain (London: Weidenfeld & Nicholson, 2003).
  21. Dawkins, The God Delusion (New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2006).