Photo: Richard Arculus, www.flickr.com/photos/29261553@N08/2742916836
I begin with a lengthy quotation:
“So, cumulative selection can manufacture complexity while single-step selection cannot. But cumulative selection cannot work unless there is some minimal machinery of replication and replicator power, and the only machinery of replication that we know seems too complicated to have come into existence by means of anything less than many generations of cumulative selection! Some people see this as a fundamental flaw in the whole theory of the blind watchmaker. They see it as the ultimate proof that there must originally have been a designer, not a blind watchmaker but a far-sighted supernatural watchmaker. Maybe, it is argued, the Creator does not control the day-to-day succession of evolutionary events; maybe he did not frame the tiger and the lamb, maybe he did not make a tree, but he did set up the original machinery of replication and replicator power, the original machinery of DNA and protein that made cumulative selection, and hence all of evolution, possible.
“This is a transparently feeble argument, indeed it is obviously self-defeating. Organized complexity is the thing that we are having difficulty in explaining. Once we are allowed simply to postulate organized complexity, if only the organized complexity of the DNA/protein replicating engine, it is relatively easy to invoke it as a generator of yet more organized complexity. That, indeed, is what most of this book is about. But of course any God capable of intelligently designing something as complex as the DNA/protein replicating machine must have been at least as complex and organized as that machine itself. Far more so if we suppose him additionally capable of such advanced functions as listening to prayers and forgiving sins. To explain the origin of the DNA/protein machine by invoking a supernatural Designer is to explain precisely nothing, for it leaves unexplained the origin of the Designer. You have to say something like ‘God was always there’, and if you allow yourself that kind of lazy way out, you might as well just say ‘DNA was always there’, or ‘Life was always there’, and be done with it.
“The more we can get away from miracles, major improbabilities, fantastic coincidences, large chance events, and the more thoroughly we can break large chance events up into a cumulative series of small chance events, the more satisfying to rational minds our explanations will be.”
— Dawkins R., “The Blind Watchmaker: Why the Evidence of Evolution Reveals a Universe Without Design,” W. W. Norton & Co: New York NY, 1986, p.141.
This passage from a book by Richard Dawkins is the subject of this essay. I have quoted it at length in order to be fair to the original and in order that the present essay can be self-contained.
When I first read this passage, many years ago, I remember being puzzled by it. It sort of “threw” me. It seems at first as if it is a display of lucid rational argument, and it appears to carry the sort of force which a good argument carries. But, as I will explain, once you look at it more carefully both the lucidity and even the very notion that the above quotation is a reasoned argument become questionable.
There are several strands of thought that have become tangled to create this muddle. In order to untangle them, the following is divided up into sub-headings.