Thu 16 Aug 2007
River out of Eden is Richard Dawkins’ clear, readable and well researched explanation of basic Evolution and Natural Selection. This entirely accessible explanation dispels many confusions and erroneous views of the current scientific understanding of the “Origin of Species”. It includes a comprehensive (through 1995) bibliography for those who want to continue their reading. Dawkins is a firebrand for the Brights athiest-naturalist movement, and many religious folks would cast anything he writes out as the word of the Satan. I picked up my copy for a quarter at the local Salvation Army thrift shop, and probably would not have gotten it at a regular bookstore because of Dawkins’ reputation as a strident, evangelical athiest. I am very glad I picked it up.
Well, Dawkins does make a case that if an “Old One” holding the keys to life exists, he either could care less about his creations, or reallly loves to play dice. Dawkins’ conclusions in this area do not overburden this book with anti-religious philosophy – he sticks to the facts and exposes how we now understand the way that species vary and optimize for their unique environments. Upon careful reading of River out of Eden, the mechanisms of the DNA evolutionary process become not only clear, but obvious. The Utility Function for evolution and natural selection is simply optimizing the prevalence of the particular DNA patterns of an organism in the universe.
Some of the results: The more progeny, the better; the more successful (able to reproduce) the progeny the better; the more successful similar versions of the DNA the better. The rules are incredibly simple, but not what one might think at first. It takes Dawkins’ clear, methodological development to remove the reader’s erroneous preconceptions and intuitive assumptions and allow the simple principles to show through.
Dawkins’ earlier The Selfish Gene stated the principle that drives the variation of organisms. The concept was initially explored by George C. Williams, but River Out of Eden may be the first full illustration of random variation filtered by utility for success.
The River out of Eden is only 166 pages. It is a comfortable read, without heavy math or statistics – just clear concise exposition of our scientic understanding of how organisms get to be the way they are. He doesn’t play with the facts of science – no handwaving or leaps of faith needed. Each premise is developed from well established (and documented) science.
For those of us who think we understand evolution and natural selection, there are some surprises. For those who believe that the Creator must have an active and ongoing hand in making the complex beings here on earth just the way they are – it becomes obvious that only simple rules are needed to perfect things like eyes, brains, opposable thumbs, orchids, bees, cheetahs and antelopes. No tinkering needed! You will finish the book with a different viewpoint – possibly not Dawkins’, but it won’t be what you started with.
You don’t have to agree with Dawkins’ conclusions about what the rules of Evolution and Natural Selection mean, but any thinking person should understand contemporary knowledge of the field. This book is probably the easiest way to understand what the rules are, how the rules work and some of the implications. You can draw your own conclusions from the facts. Buy this book – read it – think about it.
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