Re: "The Blind Watchmaker"

From: Stevan Harnad (
Date: Sun Nov 02 1997 - 20:30:08 GMT

> From: Jonathan Wright <>
> Evolution is not about chance happenings but about natural
> selection according to environmental adaptation. There can be nothing
> random about a species devlopment since no matter how low the
> probabilities are of given adaptation, it is the environment which
> "selects" successful traits and allows them to continue into future
> generations.

The reason Dawkins is stressing that evolution is not just random
variation is that the role of chance in evolution has been misunderstood
by many people: Yes, there is chance mutation and chance recombination,
but the driving force of evolution is success in surviving and
reproducing. So the environment "selects" the successful genes, and the
environment is anything but random.

> There is variation in species characteristics but if the
> conditions favour an extreme of this characteristic, the individuals at
> the other end of the scale are less likely to survive.

Because that's what it MEANS to say "conditions favour". Evolution
speaks the language of success (on the part of the selfish gene, in
coding for those traits that allow them to replicate successfully).

> Evolution cannot anticipate the future. It follows whatever
> adaption seems the best option at the time, without consideration of
> what problems may arise, later.

It's so easy to put more causes and designers into it than are needed:
To say "It follows whatever adaptation seems the best at the time" is
only to say that what is best at the time is best at the time! "Being
best at the time" means surviving and reproducing (at the time). Our
species' main time-slot for this was the EEA, hundreds of thousands of
years ago. Our adaptations were shaped by and for our EEA. If some of
them stand us in good stead now, it is not because anything anticipated
20th century life in the EEA; it just means that some of the general
cognitive capacities (including language and reasoning) shaped then
have proved useful now too, in an environment very different from
anything anticipated by our EEA genes.

Speaking of foresight: Evolution is not the only one that is blind to
the future: Our species is notable for its capacity to defer
gratification: That means our selfish genes have given us the capacity
to decide to pass up smaller immediate rewards for later, bigger ones.
We can even decide to endure hardships now, in exchange for a future

But this capacity to defer gratification may not prove to be enough: We
don't seem to have the related capacity to endure some hardship now to
FORESTALL even greater hardship later on, especially if the hardship
needs to be distributed among all of us and the future hardship looks
remote, possibly after our deaths.

I am thinking of the kinds of environmental problems our species'
selfish genes are confronting today: Their lack of foresight could do
us all in.

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