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article imageClimbing Mount Improbable: A Lecture by Richard Dawkins

By Bart B. Van Bockstaele     Feb 17, 2009 in Science
In 1991, world-renowned evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins gave a landmark series of 5 lectures on evolution at the prestigious Royal Institution; the third lecture -Climbing Mount Improbable- can now be seen on YouTube, in high quality video.
The lecture starts off with a hilarious incident involving a stick insect and a leaf insect and proceeds showing a number of other examples of camouflage in animals. He compares them to a lock and its key.
This analogy is then used to show one of the potential problems with the theory of evolution. One cannot use a key that half fits a lock to open that lock. This is what this lecture is about: one of the major criticisms of creationists on the theory of evolution as expressed in questions like “What is the use of half an eye or half a wing?”
Using the parable of “Climbing Mount Improbable,” Dawkins shows us that leaping from the bottom of a mountain to the top is quite hard and next to impossible, but that taking small, gradual steps, makes the improbable not quite so hard to achieve.
This lecture addresses precisely this apparent problem. Richard Dawkins talks about the Hoyle fallacy, a very popular comparison made by esteemed astronomer Fred Hoyle who compared the appearance of even a simple life form to a hurricane sweeping through a junkyard and assembling a Boeing 747 by mere random chance.
Richard Dawkins gives an impressive demonstration of the difference between random luck and directed evolution, by means of a computer simulation of a monkey typing at random in the hopes of recreating Shakespeare’s works. He promises to eat his hat and to donate all his worldly goods to the Royal Institution if the monkey succeeds in typing even a single sentence. Needless to say, the monkey does not succeed.
Richard Dawkins shows that people who are convinced by Hoyle fallacy type arguments, mostly creationists, simply do not understand evolution. Yes, there is “luck” involved in natural evolution. However, this “luck” merely creates minute random changes in organisms. It is natural selection that pushes them to evolve.
That point is compellingly brought home by showing how eyes evolve and by showing that eyes are not only relatively likely to evolve but that they have done so several times in history, in completely different and independent ways. He show us nautilus with its primitive eye, he shows compound insect eyes, the eye of a spider, and more.
Even more fun is the way Richard Dawkins demonstrates that half a wing is better than no wing, and that considerably less of a wing is still very useful. In this argument, Dawkins shows us flying snakes and squirrels, and we get to see some very impressive birds.
The third point Dawkins addresses is that of camouflage. Is camouflage useful? Yes, it is. But how useful is imperfect camouflage? Quite useful, as it turns out, and his demonstration makes that point quite strongly.
Almost as an afterthought, or a break, Richard Dawkins addresses the case of the bombardier beetle, a beetle that creationists consider incontrovertible evidence for the creationist view, and he shows how the creationists fail to even get their basic facts right. Then, he shows what really happens and how this might have evolved in nature.
Please, do yourself a favour and watch this series of lectures. They are meant for a young public, and they make no use of any jargon or complicated mathematics. They are perfectly understandable for anyone, even for people with no scientific training whatsoever. This is one of the reasons Richard Dawkins is such a great educator. He is able to present scientific concepts to a public that is not scientifically trained, and he does it without compromising scientific integrity and with his usual great charm.
More about Growing universe, Climbing mount improbable, Richard Dawkins
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