Saturday 16 February 2008

Richard Dawkins: The Blind Watchmaker

One of the hardest things to accept about evolution is the element of random chance that seems so improbably unlikely to have ended up in us. Fred Hoyle describes it as akin to a hurricane blowing through a junk yard and forming a Boeing 747 by pure chance. Although there is no chance or luck whatsover in the proces of natural selection, there is an element of randomness in the mutation of genes. Dawkins takes this chance and breaks it down by explaining the probabilities and the essential element of building on successive small steps rather then just single impossibly unlikely chance events. I saw a programme on TV last week that reminded me of how this seemingly impossible chance works. It was a show called “The System” by Derren Brown in which he provided a full proof guaranteed way for one lucky punter to always win on the horses. The programme followed her fortunes through 5 successive incredible wins until she had enough confidence and belief in his system to gamble several thousand pounds (which she didn’t have) on the final race. The system worked by initially selecting hundreds of possible punters, dividing them into groups without any knowledge of the other people and giving each group a different horse in the race. The people in the group given the horse that actually won the race were then further split and each new group given a different horse in the next race and so on. Eventually you end up with one person who had to win all of the races. From the perspective of this lucky person in the group it must have indeed looked like pure chance could not have got her into this situation and that “The System” must indeed work. Without the knowledge of all the other failures it provided her with the faith she needed to believe in the system. Dawkins explains evolution by natural selection in much the same way. We are all the lucky lady who made it through and won all those successive races, not because of some divine guidance, not because of complete random chance, but through cumulative successive small pieces of chance over evolutionary time at the expense of those countless millions who took the alternative paths and disappeared from our knowledge.

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