Sunday, August 17, 2008

Climbing Mount Improbable with Richard Dawkins

I’ve been trying to fill a big gap in my reading – literature on popular science – and have been greatly enjoying some of Richard Dawkins’ earlier books, Climbing Mount Improbable, Unweaving the Rainbow and The Blind Watchmaker among them. My introduction to Dawkins was through The God Delusion (old post here), which, unlike his popular-science writing, is a strong polemic about a very sensitive topic, and calculated to evoke extreme reactions. But the roots of many of its ideas can be found in his earlier work, which falls more properly into his field of specialisation (evolutionary biology).

Much of Dawkins’ writing is geared towards opening the reader’s eyes to the wonders of the natural world and the laws that made it what it is – and, by association, showing that you don’t need to believe in a higher power in order to be overwhelmed by the beauty of creation. In fact, The God Delusion gets its epigraph from a line plucked out of Douglas Adams’ The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, from a passage where Ford Prefect is bemused by the myths that have grown around a planet named Magrathea. “Isn’t it enough to see that a garden is beautiful without having to believe that there are fairies at the bottom of it too?” he asks himself. Variations on this theme runs through all of Dawkins’ writing – in Unweaving the Rainbow, for instance, he argues against the idea that explaining how things work (“unweaving the rainbow”, as the poet Keats put it) means taking the mystery and the poetry out of them.

My favourite among his books so far is Climbing Mount Improbable, a collection of essays that have been expanded from various lectures Dawkins has given about natural selection. “Mount Improbable” itself is the metaphor Dawkins uses to show that the illusion of design in living things is just that – an illusion – and that the incredible complexity we see in the natural world (however improbable it appears when we take it in all at once) can be explained with great economy by Charles Darwin’s theory of natural selection. Here, and in his other books, Dawkins has to repeatedly clarify that natural selection is not a matter of “chance” (a belief propagated by Creationists and advocates of intelligent design) but the end result of an unimaginably long accumulative process. In Climbing Mount Improbable, he uses the following analogy to explain this:
Mount Improbable rears up from the plain, lofting its peaks dizzily to the rarefied sky. The towering, vertical cliffs of Mount Improbable can never, it seems, be climbed. Dwarfed like insects, thwarted mountaineers crawl and scrabble along the foot, gazing hopelessly at the sheer, unattainable heights. They shake their tiny, baffled heads and declare the brooding summit forever unscalable.

Our mountaineers are too ambitious. So intent are they on the perpendicular drama of the cliffs, they do not think to look round the other side of the mountain. There they would find not vertical cliffs and echoing canyons but gently inclined grassy meadows, graded steadily and easily towards the distant uplands. Occasionally the gradual ascent is punctuated by a small, rocky crag, but you can usually find a detour that is not too steep for a fit hill-walker in stout shoes and with time to spare. The sheer height of the peak doesn't matter, so long as you don't try to scale it in a single bound. Locate the mildly sloping path and, if you have unlimited time, the ascent is only as formidable as the next step.
My initial acquaintance with this book was by way of the Pocket Penguin The View From Mount Improbable, which carries an excerpt about the evolution of that most intricate of organs, the human eye (an organ that apparently produced a “cold shudder” in Charles Darwin because he had doubts about whether its complexity could be fully explained by his theory). With the help of a marvelous series of diagrams done by his wife, the actress-illustrator Lalla Ward, Dawkins explains how eyes have evolved at least 40 times independently in various parts of the animal kingdom – from their most primitive forms in single-celled organisms billions of years ago (“...eyes so simple that they scarcely deserve to be recognized as eyes at all. It is better to say that the general body surface is slightly sensitive to light”) to the critical step that was the evolution of the lens.

The eye chapter (cheekily titled “The Forty-Fold Path to Enlightenment”) occupies a central position in Climbing Mount Improbable, but there are many other treasures in this book: among them, absorbing and detailed analyses of how wings and spider webs came into existence, and the spine-tingling final chapter ‘A Garden Inclosed’, about the astonishingly complex co-dependent relationship between a fig tree and the tiny wasps that live and die within the confines of the fruit (which Dawkins describes as “a flower garden turned inside out...and one of the wonders of the world”). In between all this, he also explains his use of computer biomorphs to artificially simulate the process of evolution. Other bits I enjoyed included the descriptions of the termite mounds – “insect skyscrapers” – that can be found in parts of Australia, and the feats of mimickry in the insect world, especially the startling achievement of the beetle that arches its abdomen backwards in order to superficially resemble a termite (Ward’s drawings are a big help here as well).

Dawkins’ great achievement is to make evolution and natural selection easy to understand, and even stimulating, for the layperson. His passion is truly contagious and his writing is free of distancing or hard-to-understand jargon, making it accessible to a layperson like myself. I think someone observed once that his writing has the effect of making readers feel smarter than they are. This is something I’ve experienced firsthand: if you were intimidated by the sciences when you studied them in school (as I was, at least from class 9 onwards), prepare to feel rejuvenated by the clarity with which R.D. explains things.

[The first chapter of Climbing Mount Improbable can be read here, though unfortunately it doesn’t include the diagrams. Suggestions welcome for more reading on these and related topics. I’ve read a few essays by Stephen Jay Gould – who disagrees with Dawkins over some of the finer points of evolutionary theory – as well as some Steven Pinker, Richard Feynman and Jared Diamond. Anything else that’s as accessible as the books mentioned in this post?]


  1. Have you read Carl Sagan? "Broca's Brain" is really my favorite in the genre of accessible pop-sci. "Cosmos" (the book behind the series) and "Contact" (fiction, the book behind the movie) are other favorites. I have heard good things about "Uncle Tungsten: Memories of a Chemical Boyhood" by Oliver Sacks.

    I recently read "iWoz" by Wozniak - it talks about the making of the geek. The pranks and practical jokes Wozniak plays are reminiscent of Feyman's.

  2. I have read his "Selfish Gene" and I loved it.It introduced to me the word and the concept of "meme" and nudged me towards Zen Buddhism.
    Nandana has mentioned Feynman and I strongly recommend his lectures.He said that the measure of an expert is that how effectively he can explain a concept to a layman.
    Bertrand Russel has written some pop-science books- "The abc of atoms","the abc of relativity".
    I have been meaning to read Brian Greenes "The Fabric of the Cosmos: Space, Time, and the Texture of Reality" .

  3. Can we get Pratibha Patel to read The Blind Watchmaker?

  4. If you are interested in evolution, you should read Matt Ridley's "The Red Queen". It sheds new light on everything around you particularly relationships between opposite sexes.

    If you are inclined towards physics, I suggest "Nobel Dreams" by Gary Tabues which is about the fierce competition to get the Nobel prize between two groups.

    Maths books for lay people are difficult to find (and write!) so "Fermats Last Theorem" by Simone Singh thought not as accesibile as the Richard Dawkins is a great read to get some flavour of the field.

  5. I'm a big fan of Sci-Fi and an obvious evolution from that is to this genre.

    You never cease to pleasantly surprise me. And hence, you have just been felicitated.

    Check this link out.

  6. I would recommend Matt Ridley, Freeman Dyson and early John Gribbin.

  7. beat me to it!
    matt ridley, oliver sacks, though he can get a bit obtuse, and this one lovely book by v.s.ramachandran, phantoms in the brain.

  8. I love almost all the Dawkins books, but two are favourites. The selfish gene off course and The ancestors tale. The latter is a brilliant story sketch of our ancestry starting from homo sapiens going all the way to the primordial soup. A must read!

  9. Thanks for the recos, everyone.
    Nandana: no, have only read Sagan's Contact, but his other work has often been recommended to me.

    Manish: I suspect not.

    kris bass: thanks for that very kind felicitation!

  10. If you want to read more on evolutionary biology, you must read Olivia Judson's Dr Tatiana's Sex Advice to All Creation. Reveals the 'magic' of evolution without getting too technical.

  11. I will recommend Pinker's book The Language Instinct if you haven't read it already. It is an introduction to Chomskian linguistics and gets you up-to-date (at that time) on the theories of the origin of language faculty in human beings. It is not as famous as his other books on mind and human nature but it is way funnier and much more interesting. One chapter on "language mavens" is specially recommended for all the grammar snobs. (But really we need more grammar snobs not less in this age of sms, blogs and rediff comments).

    I used to read a lot of popular science books and Dawkins was one of my key intellectual influences when I was in college but I have now totally moved to literary fiction. I don't even remember the last time i read one of these books.

    I have also read a few books in the "very short introduction" series of the OUP. They are extremely good too, great introductions to a variety of technical subjects, all written in a very accessible language.

  12. I would also recommend Steven Pinker's 'Blank Slate'.

  13. Chandni: yes, have read The Blank Slate and regard it very highly - need to get started on the other Pinkers though...

    Alok: ys, I agree v nd more snbs! :)

  14. Hey J,

    Since you are often complaining about recommending a book to people, this article obviously reminded me of you...

    Chloe Hooper is quoted within the article, "A good bookseller should be part psychic, part co-conspirator, part matchmaker, and someone who, though a passionate reader, never makes you feel ill-read or possessed of inferior taste."

    ah! but you are no bookseller my friend!! ;)

  15. In the popular science books genre, one of the best that I have come across is, "Conversation with Einstein and other essays" by Werner Heisenberg. I think it has also been sold as 'The part and the whole'.

    I stumbled upon this very slim book in a second hand book store and loved it. It is very understated and comforting, and doesnt throw radical ideas to shock us. (After coming up with the uncertainity principle, perhaps, the author did not desire to shock anymore.) There is this lovely quote from the book here

  16. Dawkin's writing is at best when he stays off the political polemic course - which is why The Ancestor's tale and The extended phenotype are much better works than say the God Delusion. Having started off with Pinker and Dawkins I soon grew tired of their rather one-dimensional approach. Infact from a multi-dimensional analysis perspective on science,religion, consciousness theories I'd recommend a supplementary reading of(even if they all fall under the realm of science,philosophy and psychology, cognitive sciences) the perspectives of Dan Dennett, Owen Flanagan, John Searle, Ian Hacking among others.

  17. Great post! Dawkins, Pinker, Sacks and others have done a lot to demystify science while at the same time inspiring a sense of wonder and awe at the complex truths that can be uncovered through the scientific method. On the subject of the "God Delusion" I loved reading Daniel Dennet's "Breaking the Spell" which offers a rational account of the origins of religion.

  18. Nice post. Dawkins's articles and books are always a treat. As for the suggestions, if interested in Neuroscience (and biological analysis of human behaviour patterns), you should give V S Ramachandran a try. His two most popular books are - 1). Phantoms in the Brain, 2). The Emerging Mind (BBC Reith lectures). His genius and Reproducing his knowledge on subject matter in popular language make these books pretty interesting and gripping. I think one (a not-much-science reader) can find his book more intelligible than many of humanities and economic books. I strongly recommend him. Anyways, the fact that he delivered Reith lectures says it all.

    Other than Dawkins and Ramachandran, books by Hawking and Darwin can also be counted under popular science genre. But I feel this genre still needs much attention by the experts who mostly prefer to write for their peers and research students.

    Btw, I would also demand you to write more on this topic! :-P


  19. Highly recommended: Carl Sagan's "The Dragons of Eden". Among non-fiction in general (though not necessarily related to evolutionary biology specifically), Bill Bryson's "A Short History of Nearly Everything", and John D. Barrow's "Impossibility" are very good reading.

  20. If you are interested in popular literature on evolution and natural science, the late Stephen J. Gould is highly recommended. A good book to start off with is 'The Panda's Thumb'.

  21. Chapter 5 is my favorite too. Its inspiring and humbling at the same time. I am a researcher in the field of optical design, specializing in innovative architectures for cameras. I was blissfully unaware of this whole body of work. Yes, we(the research community) are getting so specialized that we are missing the big picture and reinventing the wheel again and again in different disguise. Thanks to your post on this book...I was so excited after reading this chapter I ordered the recommended references by Nilsson et al and Land. I read Nilsson's latest book and planning on reading Land's book (apparently one of the best in the field according to Dawkins).

    I recommend:
    # Feynman's rainbow by L. Mlodinow...its to read...very happening life...a quantum physicist who did great work in his PhD dissertation... got a chance to work @ Caltech with the likes of Feynman and Murray Gellman...diagnosed with terminal illness...ended up writing screenplay for start trek series in 80's..

    # A drunkard's walk again by Mlodinow is an exciting read for the way he explain some of the very difficult concepts in statistics and random processes. Also it has several insightful case studies where statistics has been abused.

    # Certain Ambiguity by Suri and Bal is a fun read. The story arc made me uncomfortable in the beginning but the insightful explanation for mathematical proofs and the debate on God and Mathematics was very rewarding.

    # Disturbing the universe by Freeman of my favorite biography.

    PS: Thanks to you, I just finished reading Menon's Mahabharata and Adiga's The White Tiger. I enjoyed both of them.

    PPS: I am planning on reading Naipaul's work but I am not sure where to start. His early works or the latest ones? Any suggestion??