70 Reviews: 6. The View From Mount Improbable by Richard Dawkins (Pocket Penguins) #review


I’m so far out of my comfort zone with this one that the edge of the comfort zone is a dim hazy blur on the horizon. This, together with the fact that I suspect I have the ‘certain kind of literary mind’ that Dawkins takes a shot at in his second paragraph, means that I initially dragged my feet with No. 6 in the boxset. However, I’m glad I persevered – he’s a writer I’ve been meaning to read for a while and now I can say I have ticked that box, albeit in Pocket Penguin form.

The use of his extended metaphor (perhaps literary features do have some value?) of Mount Improbable works brilliantly to explore the slow but seemingly inevitable progress of evolution:

‘The message from the mountain is threefold. First, there can be no sudden leaps upward – no precipitous increases in ordered complexity. Second, there can be no going downhill – species can’t get worse as a prelude to getting better. Third, there may be more than one peak – more than one way to solving the same problem, all flourishing in the world.’

This volume looks specifically at the development of the eye, all the way back to when sections of body surfaces first became slightly sensitive to light. I’m quite squeamish20180709_112419-1-1 when it comes to eyes but I managed to quell my twitchiness and plough through it – and I’m glad I did. Apart from understanding why I need varifocal lenses now (my eyes are now like a Box Brownie, apparently), it is also a clear and illuminating (ahem – sorry) guide to just how bloody clever evolution is. I didn’t follow every sentence, I’ll admit, and I couldn’t skim read it, but I got a lot out of this slim volume that I didn’t know before. The diagrams helped.

Of course, this accessible dissemination of knowledge is partly what Allen Lane set out to do with his publishing company – make such writing widely available so that it’s picked up by anyone who’s interested, regardless of their background. My comfort zone edge may well be hazy in the distance, but at least I now know how I’m able to see it.

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