There’s an interesting discussion going on between Larry Moran and Richard Dawkins. The subject is the title of Dawkins’ 1996 book Climbing Mt. Improbable. It started with this post over at Larry’s blog. He included Dawkins in his list of good science writers who were nonetheless excluded from Dawkins’ recent anthology of science writing. Along the way, Moran offered this thought:
Dawkins is also a master of metaphor but, sometimes the metaphors are misleading and can give an incorrect view of evolution (e.g. Climbing Mt. Improbable).
Personally, I loved the metaphor of Mt. Improbable. We shall return to this point momentarily.
Dawkins’ website reposted Larry’s blog entry. Dawkins himself turned up in the comments to offer this thought:
I am interested in the suggestion that Climbing Mount Improbable might not be an ideal title. Interested, because I regard it as the most under-rated of my books. It sells FAR fewer copies than The Blind Watchmaker although I think it is a better book. Perhaps the reason is that the title is not so good. It covers some of the same ground as The Blind Watchmaker, but — even though it is not really for me to say — I like to think the two chapters called ‘The Museum of all Shells’ and ‘Kaleidoscopic Embryos’ are genuinely novel and original, where The Blind Watchmaker is mostly popularizing stuff that is already well known to professionals. Well, as I say, it is not really for me to judge. But my own opinion is that, if anybody is thinking of reading The Blind Watchmaker, they might do better to read Climbing Mount Improbable instead. Of course, I wouldn’t want to STOP anyone reading BOTH!
I found this interesting, since I preferred Climbing Mt. Improbable (CMI) to The Blind Watchmaker (TBW).
My introduction to Dawkins’ writing came during my graduate school years at Dartmouth College. The student newspaper published a very enthusiastic (to put it kindly) op-ed defending young-Earth creationism. Since I was feeling a bit burned out on mathematics at that time, I used the opportunity to start educating myself on the subject of evolution and creationism. Of course, at that time it never occurred to me that this topic would occupy any significant part of my life.
Anyway, at that time I knew of only two evolutionary biologists. One was Charles Darwin. The other was Stephen Jay Gould, who I took to be the voice of establishment science. It never even occurred to me that anything he said about evolution was contrversial. I began my program of self-education with several of his essay collections. I enjoyed them immensely, but decided nonetheless that it was time to get someone else’s view of the matter. So I went to the public library, located the three shelves or so of evolution books, and noticed a rather attractive volume called The Blind Watchmaker by Richard Dawkins, of whom I had never heard.
I was disappointed with the book on my first reading. The main reason was the subtitle: “Why the Evidence of Evolution Reveals A Universe Without Design.” The book, you see, presents very little in the way of evidence for evolution. Really it’s main purpose is to dispel certain common misconceptions of evolution. This it does very well, but it was not what the subtitle had led me to expect.
Dawkins devotes the early chapters of the book to explaining how natural selection builds up complex structures by accumulating small, random variations. (No doubt everyone will recall his Weasel experiment and the biomorphs.) I felt he was belaboring the obvious. Was anyone really confused on these points?
Today, a decade later, after reading countless inane criticisms of these chapters not just from creationists but even a few from actual scientists, I realize that Dawkins had good reason to include this material. I can’t tell you how many creationists I’ve met at various conferences who seem genuinely mystified about how evolution is said to work. I have experienced the frustration of trying to explain what I regard as perfectly obvious points to people who, in perfect sincerity, find them baffling. Mind you, I was not trying to convince them of the truth of evolution. I was just trying to get them to understand what was being claimed.
So my opinion of TBW is higher today than it was after that first reading (though I still hate that subtitle). That aside, I loved CMI. It provided exactly the sort of thing I was looking for. You see, at that time I was sympathetic to the creationist argument that complex structures could not evolve gradually. I understood Dawkins’ Weasel argument, and his related arguments about his biomorphs, but that was all very abstract. In principle it was a viable argument, but could it really be applied to actual complex structures?
CMI went a long way to convincing me that it could.
And I really loved that metaphor! It perfectly captured the idea that natural selection changes the probabilities of everything. (Indeed, a failure to understand this basic point has foiled nearly every creationist mathematical argument in history, from the misapplication of basic combinatorics found in YEC volumes, to the murkier adumbrations of William Dembski.) Sure, if you have to get to the top of the mountain in one step there is little hope of getting there. But if you can find a gradually sloping path to the top, you could, indeed, get there step by step.
In one simple metaphor it cut to the heart of what I believe is the major stumbling block for people who find evolution hard to accept.
On the other hand, maybe this is just my mathematical bias showing. Responding to Dawkins’ comment, Larry offers some criticisms of the metaphor:
To begin with, you use the Mt. Improbable image as a metaphor for evolution. This is misleading since evolution encompasses more than just adaptation. It would be difficult to apply the “Climbing Mt. Improbable” metaphor to the organization of our genome, for example, since it’s clearly not well-designed and could never be characterized as the peak of an adaptive landscape.
I don’t have the book handy at the moment, and it’s been some time since I read it. But this is not how I remember the metaphor at all. Mt. Improbable was not a metaphor for all of evolution, but simply for the part of evolution that explains how complex structures evolve gradually over time. The top of the mountain was not the peak of an adaptive landscape, but simply some particular complex structure (an eye, a wing) whose origin we are retroactively trying to explain. I could be remembering this wrong, but I think that was what Dawkins had in mind.
But even as a metaphor for adaptation the image is less than perfect. Most readers will see the peak of Mt. Improbable as a goal of adaptation, implying that evolution somehow recognizes that there is an ultimate perfection that all organisms seek to achieve by reaching the summit. As you well know (I hope) there are very few (any?) species that are perfectly adapted to their environment. If this were true, adaptation would cease because the species resides on the summit of Mt. Improbable.
Once again, I didn’t get this at all from what Dawkins said. The peak of Mt. Improbable is not a goal of adaptation, just some complex structure whose origin we are trying to understand. Vertebrate eyes are mainfestly imperfect, but they are nonetheless the sort of thing Dawkins placed at the top of Mt. Improbable. Notions of ultimate perfection or of species trying to attain anything (even metaphorically) had nothing to do with Dawkins’ metaphor, as I understand it.
At any rate, Moran goes on a bit longer, but I will stop here. For now, I still think Mt. Improbable is a pretty nifty metaphor. And by “pretty nifty” I mean that I wish I had thought of it.