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The Story of Evolution, Spring 2005
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My Tryst with the Blind Watchmaker

A. Bose

The tram hurtles down Shakespeare Sarani. It leaves a trail of grease that glistens fluorescently in combination with water and melted ice-lollies that commuters have hurriedly spat out on their way to work. The autorickshaw drives up the road and children run into it, their school uniforms white and clean, reeking of bleach and detergent. Their hair is oiled down to two neat plaits, tied with ribbons and their lunchboxes swing lopsided as they hang from the railings of the autorickshaw and chatter their way to school. The dustbin by the sweet shop is spilling over. There are caterpillars on the underneath of newspapers, and the dung beetles and fire ants that scurry around in their home in rotten banana peels. The water buffaloes have almost made their way down to the Hooghly riverside. They lumber down the road, their backsides heaving from side to side. Monsoon bluebottle flies hum noisily around the ripened jackfruit trees and pepper vines snake up water pipes before they burst onto the little gullies aligning the wider, tarred main-roads.

The watchmaker walks along a mud road. His stark white hair is unkempt and his cloth bag hangs uncertainly from his left shoulder. His wooden chappals synchronize with the sound of his wooden walking stick against the edge of the footpath. In his mouth, the watchmaker holds a betel nut and the red juice stains his lips and leaks across the side of his chin. The watchmaker approaches an old, dilapidated shop, at the end of a two-foot wide pavement and constructed with terracotta tiles. The outer walls of the shop are streaked with rusty paint that has dripped off in the rain. The garden outside is wild and overgrown. In the undergrowth, a rat snake rubs itself against the cement water tank. A drenched mongoose runs along the gutters. The watchmaker pulls out a stool and sits on the shop's porch. He opens up his bag and pours the paraphernalia onto a washcloth on the ground. There are more watches than can be counted. Antique watches, analogs, ship clocks, pocket and wrist watches. Slowly, his fingers flip open the back coin of a watch. With precision, the watchmaker twists and turns the cogs and springs of the watch. He puts them together, aligns each intricate groove and each jagged edge with another. Strangers stop to talk to the watchmaker. They are amazed by the watch's complexity. Every unit seems immaculately constructed, like the cells in a paper wasp's nest. Every shape or patterns appears to repeat itself, like the fractals on the skin of monitor lizards. It is only inevitable that the watch has been created by a watchmaker. It seems unmistakable that like the watch, the natural world too has its creator: an intelligent artificer who formed it for a purpose, who comprehended its construction, and designed its use. It is impossible to believe that such complexity, such perfect interaction could have evolved without the intervention of an architect.

But imagine that the world's watchmaker is blind. Imagine that living systems were created by an engineer who could neither see ahead, nor have any biological purpose in his field of view. In fact, imagine that the watchmaker did not know any biology at all. And, the watchmaker asked what the appropriate physical conditions were for complex things to evolve. He asked what the minimum amount of design work that a lazy watchmaker would have to do, in order to see that the world, and later giraffes and other complex things, would one day come into existence. The answer was that he could be infinitely lazy. The fundamental forces needed in order to understand the origin of everything consisted of either nothing, or units far too simple to require the grandness of the creator. The only force required was the simple force of Physics. Biology was tantalizing but physics, the study of simple things did not tempt the watchmaker to invoke design. And so, the watchmaker rested. He had no mind and no mind's eye. He didn't plan for the future. The world's watchmaker had no vision, no foresight and no sight at all. And so, the blind forces of Physics filled up the deepest trenches and the narrowest corridors. Suddenly, chaos flushed into the world and took home in every tissue and fiber.

Yet, today, if you walk into the forest you will notice that the plants are not arranged at random. The dandelions are sometimes found miles away from other dandelions. But maple trees are always found in zones close to other maple trees. The dandelion and maple seeds have been sorted, arranged, selected. People living in the forest might wonder at this evidence of sorting or arrangement in the world, and might attribute it to the watchmaker, with a tidy mind and a sense of order. But our watchmaker is blind and his explanation is that the arranging was really done by the forces of physics, in this case the action of wind. The wind has no purpose, no intentions and no mind at all. The wind just energetically throws plant seeds around, and big maple seeds and small dandelion seeds, each respond differently to this treatment, and so they end up at different distances from where they were initially released. A small amount of order has come out of disorder, but no watchmaker planned it.

Natural selection is the blind watchmaker. It is blind because it does not see ahead, does not plan consequences and its impact on living things is almost unconscious. Evolution has no long-term goal. There is no long-distance target, no final perfection to serve as a criterion for selection. In real life, the criterion for selection is always short-term, either simple survival or, more generally, reproductive success (Dawkins 1986). Each change and step-by-step transformation has come into existence by accident. This process of change, crafting fit organisms with no plan is the outcome of no mechanisms more sophisticated than luck, coincidence and chance, or more specifically, random variation. In this purposelessness, are millions of organisms that have life. If this is true, then the diversity of life that surrounds us is not incredible, but almost inevitable.

The Indian Pitta calls to its mate in the stunted bamboo lining the neighborhood sidewalks. The street dogs chase occasional cyclists down the road in defense of their territories. The dogs move in packs, scavenging on the putrid pumpkins from the over spilling cement garbage wells. In the distance, there are the snores of families sleeping and fading in and out of dreams. The sky is clear of the low-lying, caliginous rain clouds and as the night progresses, the rising humid air will be gradually replaced by the newness of the morning.

Although not explicitly cited, this essay was conceptualized based on the following material:
Ahmad, Mirza Tahir (1995). The Blind Watchmaker Who Is Also Deaf and Dumb. Ahhamaddiya Muslim Community

Dawkins, Richard (1976). The Selfish Gene. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Dawkins, Richard (1986). The Blind Watchmaker. London: W.W. Norton & Company.
Ellis, Sean. Richard Dawkins' "The Blind Watchmaker" A Short Review. Accessed on 9 February, 2005

Johnson, Philip (1992). The Blind Watchmaker Thesis.

Mayr, Ernst (2001). What Evolution Is. New York: Basic Books.

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