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.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.
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.
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?]