Removing The Blindfold From The Watchmaker
Updated: Mar 21, 2020
[Eye under an electron microscope Image by Peter Westenskow, a staff scientist at Lowy Medical Research Institute (LMRI) and research associate at The Scripps Research Institute (TSRI); Malcolm R. Wood, director of Core Microscopy at TSRI; and Martin Friedlander, president of LMRI and professor at TSRI.]
Moments of wonder in my childhood took place in discovering life in ponds and forests on the edge of suburbia where I lived. Those same feelings emerged again as I was exposed to biology in school. I remember one assignment where we were asked to take a sample of pond water and bring it to class. We took a single drop of that water and placed it under a microscope; I could not believe my eyes! An entire world of life within that single drop of water! A similar reaction occurred at university on a regular basis as I would look under a microscope in my histology (the microscopic study of tissues) class. There was an incredible order and complexity of tissues whether they were in the heart, the gut, or the muscle. But nothing prepared me for what I would see as I looked at a cross-section of an eye, even at the highest magnification the eye’s layers were perfectly straight!
This leads us back to Dawkins’ and his specific arguments for claiming that the modern synthesis (ie. Natural selection coupled with random mutation) is sufficient to take the place of a watchmaker or designer in nature. He is not shy in “taking the bull by the horns” because of his first example, following Paley’s lead, is the eye. Paley had argued that the human eye had the same basic parts as the telescope and that this invention had a maker so the eye, the far greater “invention”, had to have had a creator (See Natural Theology pp.20 – 28). Dawkins, after describing some of the wondrous advances in our understanding of how the eye works, said not so fast. He could explain the eye by appealing to slight modifications over time.
His reasoning goes like this: while it would be impossible to imagine an organ like the eye appearing all at once, it is conceivable that many very slight mutations of an organism’s DNA could lead from no eye to a fully functional eye if each mutation gave a slight advantage. (Blind Watch Maker pp 77 – 79). It sounds reasonable, and picking up on Darwin’s enthusiasm for unguided evolution Dawkins states there is “not a single case known to me of a complex organ that could not have been formed by numerous successive slight modifications. I do not believe that such a case will ever be found.” (Blind Watchmaker pg 128) I agree with Dawkins' statement but not his argument for the following reason.
He has just given his blind watchmaker not only sight but foresight. Let me explain. He asks us to imagine how a complex eye could evolve little by little over time. We think about it and find that it is actually quite easy to imagine such a scenario. But of course, what this actually does is to remove the blinders from the watchmaker. By asking us to imagine how an eye could form from nothing to what we see with today, he is asking us to fill the role of the watchmaker. His proof does not demand blind chance but an active imagination. In addition to this, by having us consider the origin of the eye, the watchmaker also has a target to aim for. Indeed, a remarkably precise target, a fully formed and functional eye. You can, therefore, see why Dawkins could never find a complex organ that “could not have” been achieved by slight modifications. His argument is based on engaging our minds in an exercise in intention and invention. But the result is not a blind watchmaker but a moot point.
The blind watchmaker he wants us to “believe in” has neither goal nor direction. In other words, he wants us to believe that the eye and all its nearly infinite presumed precursors came about, and were preserved, by accident. Further, the eye with its near-perfect functioning was entirely unintentional. In Dawkins’ own words:
“Natural selection is the blind watchmaker, blind because it does not see ahead, does not plan consequences, has no purpose in view.” (BW 28)
Can you believe that I wonder?