River Out of Eden, A Darwinian View of Life
Richard Dawkins, 1995

Billions of billiard balls ricochet randomly until, by chance, a molecular combination occurs which can replicate itself. It makes duplicate copies, right down to copying the minor flaws which, by chance, occur. Never were so many facts explained by so few assumptions.

Chapter 1. The Digital River
Every organism that ever lived can make the following claim: No ancester of theirs ever died in infancy, none was ever felled by an enemy or a virus or misjudged a footstep on the edge of a cliff. Thousands of their contemporaries failed in each of these respects.

The genes of a single species flow like a river, down through the ages, sloshed and mixed within the banks, but utterly unable to mix with those of another species. Each gene must be good at being mixed and jostled with all of the other genes on the river.

When the river separates onto two streams, the two sets of genes begin to differentiate, to drift apart, until a time is reached when the genes from one stream will no longer be a good match to genes from the other stream. The splitting of streams that we now recognize as major branches in the tree of all life would have been seen at the time as no more than an average splitting of streams.

The DNA is a digital code and can therefor be copied and recopied countless times without degradation . An analog code would be hopelessly smeared out by noise after only a few generations of copying.

Chapter 2. All Africa and her Progenies

Chapter 3. Do Good by Stealth

Chapter 4. God's Utility Function
A female digger wasp not only lays her eggs in a caterpillar (or grasshopper or bee) so that her larva can feed on it, but she carefully guides her sting into each ganglion of the prey's central nervous system so as to paralyze it but not to kill it (Dawkins' emphasis). This way, the meat stays fresh. It is unknown whether the victim is also anethetized by the process. If not, the prey might be aware of being eaten alive from the inside but unable to move a muscle to do anything about it. This sounds savagely cruel but, as we shall see, nature is not cruel, only pitilessly indifferent.

We humans always have to look for purpose. Why did this happen? What is this for? We would ask the question of a screwdriver, a can opener, or a pitchfork. Our ancesters would also have asked the question of thunder, eclipses, rocks and streams. We pride ourselves on having shaken off such primitive animism, but it comes right back when tragedy strikes. The phrase itself says it, tragedy "strikes". "Why did the cancer/earthquake/hurricane have to strike my child?"

The illusion of purpose is so strong that biologists themselves use the assumption of good design as a working tool. Why do flowers go to great lengths to manufacture colored pigments? It must be because bees have good color vision. Let us test for color vision in bees. Ahaaa. Indeed they do.

Economists use the term "utility function" to mean "that which is maximized" by the process under study. If you reverse engineer a country's government, you may conclude that what is being maximized is employment and universal welfare. For another country, the utility function may turn out to be the continued power of the president, or the wealth of a particular ruling family, the size of the sultan's harem, the stability of the Middle East, or maintaining the price of oil. But it is probably safe to say they are maximizing something.

So what is the utility function of life?

Chapter 5. The Replication Bomb

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