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The Blind Watchmaker
The Blind Watchmaker 2
Once again I have benefited from the relentless dynamism with which Michael Rodgers, now of Longman, carries all before him. He, and Mary Cunnane of Norton, skilfully applied the accelerator (to my morale) and the brake (to my sense of humour) when each was needed. Part of the book was written during a sabbatical leave kindly granted by the Department of Zoology and New College. Finally — a debt I should have acknowledged in both my previous books — the Oxford tutorial system and my many tutorial pupils in zoology over the years have helped me to practise what few skills I may have in the difficult art of explaining.
THE BLIND WATCHMAKER
Explaining the very improbable
We animals are the most complicated things in the known universe. The universe that we know, of course, is a tiny fragment of the actual universe. There may be yet more complicated objects than us on other planets, and some of them may already know about us. But this doesn’t alter the point that I want to make. Complicated things, everywhere, deserve a very special kind of explanation. We want to know how they came into existence and why they are so complicated. The explanation, as I shall argue, is likely to be broadly the same for complicated things everywhere in the universe; the same for us, for chimpanzees, worms, oak trees and monsters from outer space. On the other hand, it will not be the same for what I shall call ‘simple’ things, such as rocks, clouds, rivers, galaxies and quarks. These are the stuff of physics. Chimps and dogs and bats and cockroaches and people and worms and dandelions and bacteria and galactic aliens are the stuff of biology.
The difference is one of complexity of design. Biology is the study of complicated things that give the appearance of having been designed for a purpose. Physics is the study of simple things that do not tempt us to invoke design. At first sight, man-made artefacts like computers and cars will seem to provide exceptions. They are complicated and obviously designed for a purpose, yet they are not alive, and they are made of metal and plastic rather than of flesh and blood. In this book they will be firmly treated as biological objects.
The reader’s reaction to this may be to ask, ‘Yes, but are they really biological objects?’ Words are our servants, not our masters. For different purposes we find it convenient to use words in different senses. Most cookery books class lobsters as fish. Zoologists can become quite apoplectic about this, pointing out that lobsters could with greater justice call humans fish, since fish are far closer kin to humans than they are to lobsters. And, talking of justice and lobsters, I understand that a court of law recently had to decide whether lobsters were insects or ‘animals’ (it bore upon whether people should be allowed to boil them alive). Zoologically speaking, lobsters are certainly not insects. They are animals, but then so are insects and so are we. There is little point in getting worked up about the way different people use words (although in my nonprofessional life I am quite prepared to get worked up about people who boil lobsters alive). Cooks and lawyers need to use words in their own special ways, and so do I in this book. Never mind whether cars and computers are ‘really’ biological objects. The point is that if anything of that degree of complexity were found on a planet, we should have no hesitation in concluding that life existed, or had once existed, on that planet. Machines are the direct products of living objects; they derive their complexity and design from living objects, and they are diagnostic of the existence of life on a planet. The same goes for fossils, skeletons and dead bodies.
I said that physics is the study of simple things, and this, too, may seem strange at first. Physics appears to be a complicated subject, because the ideas of physics are difficult for us to understand. Our brains were designed to understand hunting and gathering, mating and child-rearing: a world of medium-sized objects moving in three dimensions at moderate speeds. We are ill-equipped to comprehend the very small and the very large; things whose duration is measured in picoseconds or gigayears; particles that don’t have position; forces and fields that we cannot see or touch, which we know of only because they affect things that we can see or touch. We think that physics is complicated because it is hard for us to understand, and because physics books are full of difficult mathematics. But the objects that physicists study are still basically simple objects. They are clouds of gas or tiny particles, or lumps of uniform matter like crystals, with almost endlessly repeated atomic patterns. They do not, at least by biological standards, have intricate working parts. Even large physical objects like stars consist of a rather limited array of parts, more or less haphazardly arranged. The behaviour of physical, nonbiological objects is so simple that it is feasible to use existing mathematical language to describe it, which is why physics books are full of mathematics.
Physics books may be complicated, but physics books, like cars and computers, are the product of biological objects — human brains. The objects and phenomena that a physics book describes are simpler than a single cell in the body of its author. And the author consists of trillions of those cells, many of them different from each other, organized with intricate architecture and precision-engineering into a working machine capable of writing a book (my trillions are American, like all my units: one American trillion is a million millions; an American billion is a thousand millions). Our brains are no better equipped to handle extremes of complexity than extremes of size and the other difficult extremes of physics. Nobody has yet invented the mathematics for describing the total structure and behaviour of such an object as a physicist, or even of one of his cells. What we can do is understand some of the general principles of how living things work, and why they exist at all.
This was where we came in. We wanted to know why we, and all other complicated things, exist. And we can now answer that question in general terms, even without being able to comprehend the details of the complexity itself. To take an analogy, most of us don’t understand in detail how an airliner works. Probably its builders don’t comprehend it fully either: engine specialists don’t in detail understand wings, and wing specialists understand engines only vaguely. Wing specialists don’t even understand wings with full mathematical precision: they can predict how a wing will behave in turbulent conditions, only by examining a model in a wind tunnel or a computer simulation — the sort of thing a biologist might do to understand an animal. But however incompletely we understand how an airliner works, we all understand by what general process it came into existence. It was designed by humans on drawing boards. Then other humans made the bits from the drawings, then lots more humans (with the aid of other machines designed by humans) screwed, rivetted, welded or glued the bits together, each in its right place. The process by which an airliner came into existence is not fundamentally mysterious to us, because humans built it. The systematic putting together of parts to a purposeful design is something we know and understand, for we have experienced it at first hand, even if only with our childhood Meccano or Erector set.
What about our own bodies? Each one of us is a machine, like an airliner only much more complicated. Were we designed on a drawing board too, and were our parts assembled by a skilled engineer? The answer is no. It is a surprising answer, and we have known and understood it for only a century or so. When Charles Darwin first explained the matter, many people either wouldn’t or couldn’t grasp it. I myself flatly refused to believe Darwin’s theory when I first heard about it as a child. Almost everybody throughout history, up to the second half of the nineteenth century, has firmly believed in the opposite — the Conscious Designer theory. Many people still do, perhaps because the true, Darwinian explanation of our own existence is still, remarkably, not a routine part of the curriculum of a general education. It is certainly very widely misunderstood.
The watchmaker of my title is borrowed from a famous treatise by the eighteenth-century theologian William Paley. His Natural Theology — or Evidences of the Existence and Attributes of the Deity Collected from the Appearances of Nature, publis
hed in 1802, is the best-known exposition of the ‘Argument from Design’, always the most influential of the arguments for the existence of a God. It is a book that I greatly admire, for in his own time its author succeeded in doing what I am struggling to do now. He had a point to make, he passionately believed in it, and he spared no effort to ram it home clearly. He had a proper reverence for the complexity of the living world, and he saw that it demands a very special kind of explanation. The only thing he got wrong — admittedly quite a big thing! — was the explanation itself. He gave the traditional religious answer to the riddle, but he articulated it more clearly and convincingly than anybody had before. The true explanation is utterly different, and it had to wait for one of the most revolutionary thinkers of all time, Charles Darwin.
Paley begins Natural Theology with a famous passage:
In crossing a heath, suppose I pitched my foot against a stone, and were asked how the stone came to be there; I might possibly answer, that, for anything I knew to the contrary, it had lain there for ever: nor would it perhaps be very easy to show the absurdity of this answer. But suppose I had found a watch upon the ground, and it should be inquired how the watch happened to be in that place; I should hardly think of the answer which I had before given, that for anything I knew, the watch might have always been there.
Paley here appreciates the difference between natural physical objects like stones, and designed and manufactured objects like watches. He goes on to expound the precision with which the cogs and springs of a watch are fashioned, and the intricacy with which they are put together. If we found an object such as a watch upon a heath, even if we didn’t know how it had come into existence, its own precision and intricacy of design would force us to conclude
that the watch must have had a maker: that there must have existed, at some time, and at some place or other, an artificer or artificers, who formed it for the purpose which we find it actually to answer; who comprehended its construction, and designed its use.
Nobody could reasonably dissent from this conclusion, Paley insists, yet that is just what the atheist, in effect, does when he contemplates the works of nature, for:
every indication of contrivance, every manifestation of design, which existed in the watch, exists in the works of nature; with the difference, on the side of nature, of being greater or more, and that in a degree which exceeds all computation.
Paley drives his point home with beautiful and reverent descriptions of the dissected machinery of life, beginning with the human eye, a favourite example which Darwin was later to use and which will reappear throughout this book. Paley compares the eye with a designed instrument such as a telescope, and concludes that ‘there is precisely the same proof that the eye was made for vision, as there is that the telescope was made for assisting it’. The eye must have had a designer, just as the telescope had.
Paley’s argument is made with passionate sincerity and is informed by the best biological scholarship of his day, but it is wrong, gloriously and utterly wrong. The analogy between telescope and eye, between watch and living organism, is false. All appearances to the contrary, the only watchmaker in nature is the blind forces of physics, albeit deployed in a very special way. A true watchmaker has foresight: he designs his cogs and springs, and plans their interconnections, with a future purpose in his mind’s eye. 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. It has no mind and no mind’s eye. It does not plan for the future. It has no vision, no foresight, no sight at all. If it can be said to play the role of watchmaker in nature, it is the blind watchmaker.
I shall explain all this, and much else besides. But one thing I shall not do is belittle the wonder of the living ‘watches’ that so inspired Paley. On the contrary, I shall try to illustrate my feeling that here Paley could have gone even further. When it comes to feeling awe over living ‘watches’ I yield to nobody. I feel more in common with the Reverend William Paley than I do with the distinguished modern philosopher, a well-known atheist, with whom I once discussed the matter at dinner. I said that I could not imagine being an atheist at any time before 1859, when Darwin’s Origin of Species was published. ‘What about Hume?’, replied the philosopher. ‘How did Hume explain the organized complexity of the living world?’, I asked. ‘He didn’t’, said the philosopher. ‘Why does it need any special explanation?’
Paley knew that it needed a special explanation; Darwin knew it, and I suspect that in his heart of hearts my philosopher companion knew it too. In any case it will be my business to show it here. As for David Hume himself, it is sometimes said that that great Scottish philosopher disposed of the Argument from Design a century before Darwin. But what Hume did was criticize the logic of using apparent design in nature as positive evidence for the existence of a God. He did not offer any alternative explanation for apparent design, but left the question open. An atheist before Darwin could have said, following Hume: ‘I have no explanation for complex biological design. All I know is that God isn’t a good explanation, so we must wait and hope that somebody comes up with a better one.’ I can’t help feeling that such a position, though logically sound, would have left one feeling pretty unsatisfied, and that although atheism might have been logically tenable before Darwin, Darwin made it possible to be an intellectually fulfilled atheist. I like to think that Hume would agree, but some of his writings suggest that he underestimated the complexity and beauty of biological design. The boy naturalist Charles Darwin could have shown him a thing or two about that, but Hume had been dead 40 years when Darwin enrolled in Hume’s university of Edinburgh.
I have talked glibly of complexity, and of apparent design, as though it were obvious what these words mean. In a sense it is obvious — most people have an intuitive idea of what complexity means. But these notions, complexity and design, are so pivotal to this book that I must try to capture a little more precisely, in words, our feeling that there is something special about complex, and apparently designed things.
So, what is a complex thing? How should we recognize it? In what sense is it true to say that a watch or an airliner or an earwig or a person is complex, but the moon is simple? The first point that might occur to us, as a necessary attribute of a complex thing, is that it has a heterogeneous structure. A pink milk pudding or blancmange is simple in the sense that, if we slice it in two, the two portions will have the same internal constitution: a blancmange is homogeneous. A car is heterogeneous: unlike a blancmange, almost any portion of the car is different from other portions. Two times half a car does not make a car. This will often amount to saying that a complex object, as opposed to a simple one, has many parts, these parts being of more than one kind.
Such heterogeneity, or ‘many-partedness’, may be a necessary condition, but it is not sufficient. Plenty of objects are many-parted and heterogeneous in internal structure, without being complex in the sense in which I want to use the term. Mont Blanc, for instance, consists of many different kinds of rock, all jumbled together in such a way that, if you sliced the mountain anywhere, the two portions would differ from each other in their internal constitution. Mont Blanc has a heterogeneity of structure not possessed by a blancmange, but it is still not complex in the sense in which a biologist uses the term.
Let us try another tack in our quest for a definition of complexity, and make use of the mathematical idea of probability. Suppose we try out the following definition: a complex thing is something whose constituent parts are arranged in a way that is unlikely to have arisen by chance alone. To borrow an analogy from an eminent astronomer, if you take the parts of an airliner and jumble them up at random, the likelihood that you would happen to assemble a working Boeing is vanishingly small. There are billions of possible ways of putting together the bits of an airliner, and only one, or very few, of them would actually be an airliner. There are even more way
s of putting together the scrambled parts of a human.
This approach to a definition of complexity is promising, but something more is still needed. There are billions of ways of throwing together the bits of Mont Blanc, it might be said, and only one of them is Mont Blanc. So what is it that makes the airliner and the human complicated, if Mont Blanc is simple? Any old jumbled collection of parts is unique and, with hindsight, is as improbable as any other. The scrap-heap at an aircraft breaker’s yard is unique. No two scrap-heaps are the same. If you start throwing fragments of aeroplanes into heaps, the odds of your happening to hit upon exactly the same arrangement of junk twice are just about as low as the odds of your throwing together a working airliner. So, why don’t we say that a rubbish dump, or Mont Blanc, or the moon, is just as complex as an aeroplane or a dog, because in all these cases the arrangement of atoms is ‘improbable’?
The combination lock on my bicycle has 4,096 different positions. Every one of these is equally ‘improbable’ in the sense that, if you spin the wheels at random, every one of the 4,096 positions is equally unlikely to turn up. I can spin the wheels at random, look at whatever number is displayed and exclaim with hindsight: ‘How amazing. The odds against that number appearing are 4,096:1. A minor miracle!’ That is equivalent to regarding the particular arrangement of rocks in a mountain, or of bits of metal in a scrap-heap, as ‘complex’. But one of those 4,096 wheel positions really is interestingly unique: the combination 1207 is the only one that opens the lock. The uniqueness of 1207 has nothing to do with hindsight: it is specified in advance by the manufacturer. If you spun the wheels at random and happened to hit 1207 first time, you would be able to steal the bike, and it would seem a minor miracle. If you struck lucky on one of those multi-dialled combination locks on bank safes, it would seem a very major miracle, for the odds against it are many millions to one, and you would be able to steal a fortune.