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Richard Dawkins' watchmaker still has the power to open our eyes

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One sometimes forgets, given his recent combative secular humanism, just how warm and lyrical Richard Dawkins can be. This is a patient, often beautiful book from 1986 that begins in a generous mood and sustains its generosity to the end. It takes its title from a famous sentence in William Paley's Natural Theology (1802), which Dawkins calls "a book that I greatly admire..."

Not only does he profess admiration, he even concedes that he might once have been convinced by Paley. "I could not imagine being an atheist at any time before 1859, when Darwin's Origin of Species was published," he volunteers.

This generosity extends even to the "sincere and honest", but clearly somewhat confused, Church of England bishop Hugh Montefiore who could not believe (Dawkins calls this the Argument from Personal Incredulity) that natural selection explained, for instance, the whiteness of polar bears.

But most of all, Dawkins' generosity extends to the reader, who is confronted with meticulous reasoning, leavened by lyrical riffs upon metaphor that have always been his trademark.

Dawkins can hardly have been the first to propose the idea of "genetic space" in which "the actual animals that have ever lived are a tiny subset of the theoretical animals that could exist", but I cannot think of anybody else who would then go on to propose notional genetic engineers who could "move from any point in animal space to any other point" and then concede that, sadly, we might never know enough to navigate towards the "dear dead creatures" the dodo, T. rex and the trilobites, lurking forever "in their private corners of that huge genetic hypervolume".
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