“If you wanted to make a flying animal, you wouldn’t start with a hippo”

“We used to think our fate was in the stars. Now we know in large measure our fate is in our genes”   

-James Watson

Beholding the variations among each organism, triggers us to raise a question about what made them different from each other? And surprisingly, we have the answer – Evolution. Though, we also know that the basis for the intricate phenomena of evolution are DNA, mutation and natural selection which ultimately aids in understanding the gradual sequential ‘change’ from the most primitive form to the complex one. But for us, the actual mechanism of how they occur in nature is still a matter of curiosity. Therefore, we often prefer simple artistic way to quench our curiosity about this gradual upgrading amongst the organisms. Our pursuit, of knowing the actuality, has been simplified by Richard Dawkins. The metaphorical title of the book- Climbing Mount Improbable by Richard Dawkins not just only tempts its readers to read but also makes them to think in an evolutionary angle. Fortunately, I am one of them to be wooed by his graceful way of writing that unleashes the complexity into the simpler form. Being one of the World’s leading evolutionary biologists- Richard Dawkins, in this book, writes elegantly to define how evolution works under natural selection based on the gene-centered axis.

Professor Richard Dawkins, a British ethologist; an evolutionary biologist and on the top, an eminent writer, was born in Nairobi in 1941. He was an emeritus fellow of New College, Oxford University and got his doctorate under Novel Prize winning ethologist Niko Tinbergen. As mentioned in this book, he is a ‘dyed-in-the-wool Darwinist’ who supports Darwinism. He works immensely to support scientific education, critical thinking and evidence-based understanding of the natural world in the pursuit to conquer the narrowness of religious fundamentalism, superstition, intolerance and suffering.  Dawkins wrote many fantastic books to support the gene-centered view of evolution. Some of his collection includes The Selfish Gene (1976), The Extended Phenotype (1982), The Blind Watchmaker (1986), River out of Eden (1995), Climbing Mount Improbable (1996),Unweaving the Rainbow (1998), A Devil’s Chaplain (2003), The Ancestor’s Tale (2004),The God Delusion (2006). With his 1976 book The Selfish Gene, Dawkins came into eminence. This book popularized the gene-centered view of evolution and coined the term meme. With the aid of all his publications, he introduced the influential concepts into evolutionary biology; the concept of evolutionary gradualism, the concept of “all life evolves by the differential survival of replicating entities” and some astonishing concepts like- The Extended Phenotype and the non-existence of supernatural creator (The God Delusion). Being an atheist and humanist, he is renowned for his criticism of creationism and firmly believes in ‘genes gives rise to genes’.

Climbing Mount Improbable, like many of his books, follows the similar trend of broadening the horizon for an evolutionary explanation significantly based on the idea of natural selection with the gene-level perspective. The creative uses of metaphors, oxymoron and litotes have made this book- worth reading in the literary context. Ten different chapters, metaphorically entitled, describe in their best, for how to climb Mount Improbable. The vibrant examples define, vividly, what Mount Improbable stands for.

Climbing up the terrain from Facing Mount Rushmore, one can easily make out the concept of ‘nature selects the best of all’. Dawkins beautifully defines that before we start hiking up on Mount Improbable, it is essential to know that the resemblances are accidents, that the design object can be designed but the designoid objects which looks as if they were designed, are due to non accidental-cum-non-random cumulative process. True designs and designoid pseudo-design objects forms a chasm between chance and non-randomness. Some living organisms converged into the similar shape, of some usefulness, though they might not be mimicking each other, here comes the idea of Convergent Evolution. Beside the “nature-selects” concepts, Dawkins pops in the concept of Artificial Selection by a human chooser through computer-based program called Biomorphs. Though it worked, but still, they lacked the real world scenario of Prey-predator interactions and many other environmental factors that limits the survival.

The Silken Fetter artistically showed, by the help of the spider web, that the natural selection selects the best and many species of spiders have their own distinctive way of improving themselves to get the best survival strategy for catching the prey and minimizing the cost of weaving a web. The illustration, that impressed me, was of the independent evolution of Ladder webs in Spiders from New Guinea and Columbia. To understand the natural selection through artificial spider behavior under the influence of numbers in computer’s memory, so-called “genes”- NetSpinner I, NetSpinner II (asexually reproduced) and NetSpinner III (sexually reproduced) were used. The oxymoronic Artificial Natural Selection helped to understand how population evolves; generation after generation with further refinement even in artificial environment let-alone the natural circumstance.

The most significant chapter of this book- The Message from the Mountain-not just helps in justifying the use of title Climbing Mount Improbable but also holds the center theme of the entire book, whilst the rest of the chapters provides the strong circumstantial evidence to prove it. Generally, Darwinism was thought to be the theory of random chance. Dawkins clarifies the misconception-“It is actually the theory of random mutation plus non-random cumulative natural selection”. It’s all about the step-by-step progression from primitiveness to the complexity, a journey up from the foothills to the paramount. An organism, at the bottom of this Mount, will reach to the top by the gradual perfection due to random mutation and non-random selection. Example of Spreading Bush fire helps in understanding the role of heredity- hence DNA as the accumulated wisdom of the ancestors. Mount Improbable got its name –Improbable, because whoever is climbing the mount must know that- ‘there can be no sudden leap’ i.e. the complexity increases step-by-step, but not all of sudden; ‘there can be no going downhill’ i.e. no organisms can return to its primitive form and the best part of this Mountain is ‘there may be more than one peak’- i.e. like in spider webs, one species have many ways of acquiring the refinement. The best line in this chapter is:

“No animal ever made a living purely by being on the evolutionary path to something better. Animals make a living by eating, avoiding being eaten and reproducing” (P.83)

This addresses Pre-adaptation- where an organ of some function can be used for another function, on our way towards the top of Mount. Species on their way, sometimes, are surprised by the Macro-mutation or Saltation which makes them completely different from what they were and hence forming a new peak. Richard Goldschmidt, hence, called it as the “hopeful Monster’ theory”.

The title Climbing Mount Improbable best fits to explain the vivacity of the book – the complicated gradual evolutionary path, with the strict rules of no sudden leaps and no going down provided with the alternative way or peaks and hence justifies itself to be the best metaphorical title.

By now, we discern that the gradual refinements or improvements are needed, to be in the summit. Improvements or progressions in flight, sight, spirals and symmetry shows how genes keeps on mutating randomly to produce the best design and how these are non-randomly selected by the nature. Dawkins sprinkles some hilarity- “If you wanted to make a flying animal, you wouldn’t start with a hippo” (P.101) – to prove that many peaks exists with their own height of ‘fitness’ and that they can’t be clumped together. It’s flabbergasting to know how species developed their wings. What there was before?  The gradual evolution developed the feathers from scales. In nutshell, the best amongst all organisms are selected for their flying, gliding, jumping and swimming behavior coded in their genes.

Coming to the sight refinement, this is the chapter I liked the most- The Forty-fold Path to Enlightenment. The title itself gives us enlightenment! And marvels us with the fine splash of delight, as we keep on hiking high, we will see how eyes evolves from- a photocell, the layers of photocells, the layers bent inward, the pigment cup-shaped eye, the pinhole, the magic window-lens, then the vitreous mass and finally, we got our precious Eyes to behold the most beautiful World around us from the summit of Mount Improbable. Beside these fine-gradual slopes that leads to top, what lured me in this chapter is – “Loudspeaker as a ‘Silence-device’ of a radio”, where Dawkins flawlessly mention about the eyeless gene in Drosophila that actually makes eyes and small eye genes that makes the bigger eyes! That any mutational damage to these genes may act in counter way. Eyes developed forty times independently to give us many peaks of enlightenment – includes all those superposed, neural superposed, apposed, intermediate- Compound and Camera type eyes. Isn’t this so incredible?

Selection pressure helps in shaping the slopes and creating some impassable cliffs. All that matter is variation- a genetic one. Lack of variation, sometime, limits Evolution. The Museum of all shells shows the existence of some impassable cliffs. Natural selection, hence, needs an alternative to choose and genetic variation to work on. If there is no variation at all, but only the environmental factors, no evolutionary event will occur and so Mount Improbable will have no slope to cling on. Here Dawkins introduced ‘Blind Snail Maker’ computer-based selection.

‘The evolution of evolvability’- is the main theme of Kaleidoscopic Embryos. Some embryos make themselves good enough to be evolved further. Visual beauty of embryo provided with symmetry can oppose restriction and here mutation acts as a mirror. With gorgeous examples of Radiolaria and other echinoderms species, the amazing symmetries and segmentation within all organisms, hence showed the gene-to-organism mapping. The processes of random mutation and selection produces far better ‘likenesses’. He uses ‘Arthromorphs’ to make us clear about duplication-deletion process of mutation artificially and to produce best fit kaleidoscopic genes.

In last two chapters, Pollen Grains and Magic Bullets and The Robot Repeater, Dawkins talks about “for a benefit of” idea. All organisms are there cause of DNA and its replication. Like computer virus and Robot, DNA is assigned with a command of “Copy me and spread me around” in circular fashion. All it emphasizes on: is Genetic Variation and spreading of genetic information.

‘A Garden Inclosed’ strikingly presents the life of Fig wasps and Fig tree. It’s marvelous to observe how two different species on their way up the summit, can co-evolved following the stable balance theory. Unlike in evolution, where winners are selected, there exists an exception – Altruism- due to Kinship- which forces selfish genes to move ahead.

Thus, the whole book ends giving us a clear insight of how evolution occurs through ‘non-random’ natural selection which depends on variations (random mutation and recombination), individual or inclusive fitness and heritability. The Mount Improbable- ‘Evolutionary high ground’ can’t be climbed hastily. A gradual climb will lead us to the summit but we are not allowed to quit.

There are merely few flaws that can be pointed out in this book and that’s the only point I disliked and perplexed me. As he mentioned “Nowadays, the replicator that matters on Earth are the DNA molecules, but the original replicator probably was not DNA” (P.261) what was it then, if it was not a DNA?

Though Dawkins talk about the evolution of most of the species belonging to all phyla of both kingdoms, he didn’t mention about the primitive plants or animals (he mentioned some planktons in Kaleidoscopic Embryos). By primitive, I mean prokaryotes. Prokaryotes may have given rise to Eukaryotes? It would have been best, if Dawkins have mentioned about them. May be the prokaryotes were on the periphery of foothills of Mount Improbable, so remained unnoticed.

It is essential for us to think whether Darwinism and creationism are compatible? For me, both of them are strictly incompatible. Since we know, Darwinism is purely a theory of non-random chance and relies on Evolution where each primitive organism develops into the complex form gradually with purposeless process like mutation and best of them are selected to move further. While Creationism trusts in a Creator and have broad sense of God has created the world with purpose. If God had created the World, as per Genesis, the Mount Improbable wouldn’t have been “The Improbable”. No variations would have existed. But, we can now easily prove that each organism varies because of their genes. Fossils evidences and Carbon-dating mechanisms have proved the non-existence of supernatural designer and have supported Darwinism. All organisms that exist today are the refined species of the past. Whilst Creationists ideas wholly depend on the beliefs and myths, they lack the scientific basis.  Science (that relies on facts) and religion (that depends on beliefs) are, hence, incompatible.

To support Darwinism, one must be able to prove that Evolution is true. As Dobzhansky stated “Nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution”. Generally, Evolution is a gradual change in an organism with respect to time while technically; it’s a change in the frequencies of genes or a gradual process where some sudden modification (Saltation) may give rise to a new species or organ. We have sufficient examples to show that evolution is true and it does occurred. Phylogenic studies can help us in tracking the ancestors of a species based on genetic information. We gradually climbed the Mount from Pre-biotic (Primordial) Soup to algae to slime moulds to slugs to reptiles to mammals and so on. The basis lies on DNA. The variation through mutation (Duplication and deletion or recombination) gives rise to various forms which are hence inherited generations after generation. Evolution act as a ‘Tinkerer’ (as said by Francois Jacob) who build or modify the stuffs which already exists around. Best example of proving that the evolution is true is the sequential development of eyes, brains and wings from the primitive forms.  Use of computer based software (Biomorphs, Arthromorphs etc) can also aid.

Last but not the least, we are at some crest, that we still have many slopes to crawl on and to reach to the zenith of Mount Improbable.

[ Apology for ‘this’ long post. One must read this book (Climbing Mount Improbable) to understand the enigma of evolution]

Photocredits: Internet


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