Evolution’s River of Life

by David Bloomberg

Book Review: River Out of Eden: A Darwinian View of Life, by Richard Dawkins, Basic Books, The Science Masters Series.

Those familiar with Richard Dawkins and his previous writings (The Blind Watchmaker, The Extended Phenotype, The Selfish Gene) may find the title of this book to be a bit odd. Dawkins is a strict Darwinian scientist who takes numerous opportunities throughout his works to put forth the evidence for evolution and against creationism. So why reference the biblical story of Eden?

It seems that the main reason he has done this is that the biblical origins story is such an integral part of most people’s background, to the point that scientific studies looking at the ancestral origin of humankind has been referred to as "African Eve." But Dawkins explains that the river referenced by the title is not one of water, but of DNA, and it flows through time, passing along information from one body to the next.

The first chapter, "The Digital River" explains this and other important evolutionary basics. In fact, this entire book is written with the layman in mind — one does not have to have a degree in biology to understand it. Parts of it seems geared towards those who have heard about creationism and perhaps might be persuaded by some of its tenets. Dawkins uses simple logic and evolutionary theory to swat down the creationist’s claims.

Indeed, Chapter 3, "Do Good by Stealth," is almost fully dedicated to discussing such matters. Dawkins writes about a correspondent who was convinced that evolution cannot be true because he read about a species of orchid which fooled male wasps into thinking the flower was actually a female wasp, tricking it into pollinating the flowers. He decided, by a fallacy Dawkins calls "the Argument from Personal Incredulity," that he could not believe this type of arrangement could have evolved, so it therefore must have been created. Dawkins explains, using numerous examples, how such an arrangement could have indeed evolved, and ends by noting that the lesson we need to learn is that we cannot simply use human judgment in assessing these matters: "Never say, and never take seriously anybody who says, ‘I cannot believe that so-and-so could have evolved by gradual selection.’"

Personally, I am always glad to see a book aimed at general audiences tackle subjects like creationism. Too often such a topic is glossed over, as many scientists don’t take creationists very seriously. Dawkins, however, draws a bead directly on their claims and shoots them down. He tackles some of their other claims and questions, which I myself have been asked on occasion. "If evolution is true, then we have no purpose for being here." I generally respond that this is a matter of faith, and, as such, is outside the realm of science (and REALL). Dawkins tackles that more directly by saying, yes, that’s right. Science answers the "how" questions. Just because you might want to ask "why" questions, such as "Why are we here?" doesn’t mean there is necessarily an answer, and certainly not one that can be provided by science. The "why" question is often brought up by creationists as part of the "Argument from Design," and Dawkins responds to the "illusion of purposeful design" with Darwinian natural selection.

Throughout the book, which is relatively short at 172 pages in five chapters, Dawkins makes use of numerous well-thought-out scientific experiments which document some of the evidence for his discussions. As I said, this is a book for the layman, so he doesn’t go into the nitty-gritty of chemical reactions, he just gives you an overview of the important information in an easy-to-read format.

I would definitely suggest this book to those without a strong backing in biology, but also to those who do have that background. Dawkins’ discussions are aimed at the layman, so we, as skeptics and promoters of critical thinking, can use those arguments ourselves when challenged by creationists who ask, "I can’t believe that the eye could have evolved by gradual selection. After all, what good is 20% of an eye?"

Dawkins gives us the answer that question. Simply put, 20% of an eye is better than 19% of an eye, which is better still than 18%. That’s evolution in action.

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