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Paul Nelson Writes:

Dawkins is a wonderfully clear and honest writer who cares deeply about conveying the truth (as he understands it) to his audience, without equivocation. The opening chapters of The Blind Watchmaker, on bat sonar, are unmatched in science prose, and I've used them in writing courses I've taught at the University of Chicago. And reading Dawkins never fails to make me think. So I'm a big fan of Dawkins, actually. Nevertheless, much of The Blind Watchmaker is very poor biology, and some of it --for example, the WEASEL illustration -- is wickedly bad.

The reader assumes that Dawkins is talking about cumulative selection via "the blind forces of nature" (Dawkins's phrase on page 49, and the theme of The Blind Watchmaker). But Dawkins fails to provide any kind of a bridge between his computer generated phrase, "METHINKS IT IS LIKE A WEASEL" as an example of how cumulative selection works, and the natural process this is supposed to represent. This he must do before he can support any parallel to genuine biological processes.

There is no natural analogue, of course, but Dawkins acknowledges this only *after* he has (quite unjustifiably) drawn his "cumulative selection" conclusion from the WEASEL example -- with the reader still assuming that Dawkins is providing a trustworthy parallel. Stripped to its logical bones, here's what Dawkins does:

1. I shall illustrate [q]. [Claimed on p. 47]

2. Illustration of not-[q]. [Acknowledged by Dawkins on p. 50]

3. Therefore, [q]. [Asserted on p. 49]

The details:

from page 47: "So much for single-step selection of random variation. What about cumulative selection; how much more effective should this be? Very very much more effective, perhaps more so than we at first realize, although it is almost obvious when we reflect further. We again use our computer program, but with a crucial difference in its program."

He is stating-- I will illustrate the efficacy of cumulative selection [q].

from page 49:

"There is a big difference, then, between cumulative selection (in which each improvement, however slight, is used as a basis for future building), and single-step selection (in which each new 'try' is a fresh one)....As a matter of fact that is exactly what happened on this planet, and we ourselves are among the most recent, if not the strangest and most wonderful, of those consequences."

He is stating-- I have illustrated the efficacy of cumulative selection [q].

from page 50:

"Although the monkey/Shakespeare model is useful for explaining the distinction between single-step selection and cumulative selection, it is misleading in important ways. One of these is that, in each generation of selective 'breeding', the mutant 'progeny' phrases were judged according to the criterion of resemblance to a *distant ideal* target, the phrase METHINKS IT IS LIKE A WEASEL. Life isn't like that. Evolution has no long-term goal....In real life, the criterion for selection is always short-term, either simple survival or, more generally, reproductive success."

He is stating-- My illustration actually does not represent biologically realistic cumulative selection [not-q].

It's a con game. Only by prostituting the English language can one say that Dawkins provides evidence for "cumulative selection" in the sense he wants the reader to understand -- namely, as a natural, undirected process that incrementally gets round biological improbabilities. Dawkins's discussion of "cumulative selection" can be discarded as elegantly written rubbish.

______________________________________________________ Ó 2010 Arthur V. Chadwick, Ph.D.