Our greatest illusion is to believe that we are what we think ourselves to be. — Henri-Frédéric Amiel


The Blind Watchmaker is the title of Richard Dawkins’ 1986 book where he explains how the process of natural selection gives rise to living beings which appear to have been designed. Dawkins refers to the watchmaker analogy made famous by William Paley in his 1802 book Natural Theology. Writing long before Charles Darwin published On the Origin of Species in 1859, Paley held that the complexity of living organisms was evidence for the existence of a divine creator. He vividly made his point by drawing an analogy — the existence of an intricately designed watch compels belief in a conscious intentional watchmaker in the same way as existence of complex life forms compels belief in God. Then along came Darwin and showed us how the process of reproduction and natural selection can give rise to artifacts that appear to be intricately designed. There indeed is a creator, a watchmaker, and it is the process of biological evolution. But evolution is not conscious, has no foresight and no goal in mind, no purpose. Hence, in Dawkins’ words, evolution is the blind watchmaker.

This is how matters stand today. Biologists still argue that the word “design” should not be used in relation to biological artifacts, or used so only metaphorically. The only real designers, the only seeing watchmakers are humans, who are driven by conscious intent and purpose. Ironically, this view arises from the same way of thinking that Paley used. Paley failed to apply evolutionary framework to his subject, a biological being; we fail to apply it to our subject, human thinking and creative process. We think that humans design things by the power of their intellect, similar to God, when in reality the heavy lifting is done by evolutionary processes, similar to biological evolution. To paraphrase Dawkins, all watchmakers are blind.

Types of Watchmakers

In biblical creation myths God is said to have designed the whole world in 7 days. Designing humans took about one of those days. The whole shebang was also made with a certain purpose, a grand plan, that we do not yet understand. There was no design by evolution, God has no need for it. He could work everything out in his head, power of intellect + power of creation = boom, done.

Contrast that with evolution. The changes are made very slowly, most of them do not work out at all. The selection process happens not in someone’s head but in real life — if you survive and reproduce, you pass the beneficial changes. If the changes hold you back, you die with them. The process starts of incredibly slow, for billions of years nothing much happens at all, and only single celled organisms cover the face of the planet. But as complexity slowly increases, new options open up. We get multicellular organisms and explosion in variety. Evolution has no grad plan, no intentionality, it just happens.

There is no doubt that God and evolution go about designing things in very different ways. God can see the whole design space right from the start, he can create perfect blueprints of increasingly intricate design from nothing but the raw power of his intellect. While evolution can see nothing, it just blindly stumbles into different designs and natural selection kills off the uncompetitive ones. God can see, evolution is blind. God is considered the master watchmaker, grand designer, and we view ourselves in his image. We are seeing watchmakers, like God; not blind watchmakers, like evolution. But is that so?

Back to Our Roots

When I tell my mother that I think humans and apes aren’t that different except for one thing, she objects viscerally. “What about Mozart and Shakespeare, our culture and civilization!” she says. “Exactly” I reply. To see just how similar we are to other higher apes, it is a grave mistake to look at our civilization now. We should go back, way back. To the times before Shakespeare, before books, before writing, before cities, before agriculture, before culture. To the very dawn of Homo Sapiens, to the creatures who were genetically almost indistinguishable from us, and yet who lived in caves and who’s greatest technological achievement was making fire and who’s greatest work of art was tracing the shape of their hand on a rock. Are they so different from apes?

And yet they are us, the very beginnings of us. Once we look at things from this perspective, it is no longer so hard to believe that we are not so different from apes after all. Except for that one thing — brain capacity that enabled language and cultural evolution with it.

The Abstract Idea

The most fundamental feature of Darwin’s theory is its abstract nature. The entities in question can be anything, as long as they vary and reproduce. Genes, organisms, ideas, cultures. Both genetic, as well as cultural and behavioural, inheritance can generate the parent-offspring similarity needed for an evolutionary response to selection.

Take two earliest inventions — fire and stone tools. Both are imitations. Fire was observed in nature and it took close to a million years to cultivate. A million. And stone tools were at first simply stones picked up from the ground. As they were used, their shapes changed. This was observed, and shapes started changing intentionally. It could easily be the shaping of stone tools that made wide adoption of fire possible. Sparks and frictional heat were observed when working with tools, and at some point in time, after hundreds of thousands of years of tool making, stone age Albert Einstein put two and two together. Or maybe just started a fire simply by accident. A God-like designer indeed.

Once something has been imitated, it could be improved upon. Changes were made to basic designs, some of which fared better, others failed. Better designs survived and were copied. New designs were tinkered with in turn and sometimes combined with ideas coming from parallel technological developments. There was no single human being who sat down and designed a fire pit or a spear. These artifacts came into existence through gradual process of evolution. Humans, as well as nature, facilitated this process by tinkering with designs and by providing criteria for selection. Here is how Daniel Dennett likes to put it, citing Rogers and Ehrlich on boats in Brittany:

Every boat is copied from another boat.… Let’s reason as follows in the manner of Darwin. It is clear that a very badly made boat will end up at the bottom after one or two voyages and thus never be copied.… One could then say, with complete rigor, that it is the sea herself who fashions the boats, choosing those which function and destroying the others.

He adds: Traditional theorists of culture tend to overestimate the contribution of individual artificers, imagining that they must have had more comprehension of the designs they invent, transmit, and improve than need be the case. Comprehension is not even necessary for design improvement.

Watchmaking Evolution

Let us trace the evolution of a modern clock design and see how the process always starts off by imitation and then marches forward by gradual improvement. The first clock ever made was a sundial. A long object casts a shadow on the ground which traces a shape as the sun moves across the sky, much like an hour hand of a modern clock does. How the very first sundial appeared is anyone’s guess. A plausible story might go something like this. A hunter with a spear was roaming the prairies in search of small animals when he decided to take a poop. He shoved his spear into the ground near him and while he was doing his business he observed the shadow cast by his spear. Boom, Eureka! First sundial.

A more useful water clock appeared in first agricultural civilizations. Where and when they were first invented is not known, and given their great antiquity it may never be. The simplest designs used a container filled with water which slowly escaped through a small opening at the bottom. They are known to have existed in Babylon and in Egypt around the 16th century BC. Other regions of the world, including India and China, also have early evidence of water clocks, but the earliest dates are less certain. The fact that these clocks appeared only in agricultural societies with pottery is no coincidence. Once you crack a vessel filled with grains or liquids, it is now only a matter of observation and imitation before first water clocks and hourglasses appear. No design genius needed here.

Once the technology of wheels and gears have appeared, these were adapted to improve function and accuracy of water clocks. First Greeks, then Romans, incorporated gearing and feedback systems into their water clocks. Further advances were made in Byzantium, Syria and Mesopotamia, where increasingly accurate water clocks incorporated complex segmental and epicyclic gearing, water wheels, and programmability, advances which eventually made their way to Europe. In Europe, water was replaced with verge escapement mechanism and the first mechanical clock was born. Some three hundred years have passed before pendulum was incorporated into the design. This remained the most accurate clock design until the 20th century.

The moral of the story is this. There was no human being who designed the clock, there was no watchmaker who made the first watch. Designs were first copied from nature and then gradually improved upon as new technologies became available. The improvements happened by combining different ideas that were already hanging in the air. Selection happened based on real life performance. Improvements happened simultaneously in different parts of the world with no single human being making a leap from nothing to something. Humans tinkered with the design in the same way evolution does — by gradually making small changes to designs and by adapting old tricks from other technologies to new designs.

This is how we arrive at the humble watch. Excruciatingly slow progress from fire and agriculture to pottery, basic sundials and water clocks. As wheels and gears came online, new clock designs appeared. But wheels and gears improved not only our timekeeping devices but also transportation network, allowing bigger cities to form. Bigger cities created a fertile ground for intellectual firepower, which brought improved logic, arithmetics and engineering. These allowed the invention of gears and complex automation mechanisms. Which in turn got applied to clock designs. Clock designs were further used to improve productivity and bring in more ideas and technologies.

Thinking Tools

As new ideas are acquired they form thinking tools and generate new ideas. Once an idea of the wheel was in place, it allowed paths to slow evolution of the gear and the mechanical clock with it. In the times when there where no wheels and no metals, no one could even dream about a mechanical watch, much less make anything like it.

This is why it took so long for the wheel to appear. If we suppose that Homo Sapiens is around 200,000 years old, then first real wheels appeared during the last 2% of its history. Why? Simply because so few ideas and thinking tools where in place — you can’t think of anything when there is nothing to think with. As Bo Dahlbom puts it “You can’t do much carpentry with your bare hands, and you can’t do much thinking with your bare brain.”

The earliest wheels appeared almost simultaneously in different mediterranean civilizations around 5000BC. Invention of axels took another thousand years. And many civilizations, like the ones in South America, never even got to make wheels at all. Why? Because wheel design could not be copied from nature. The first precursors to wheels, known as tournettes, were used for pottery. From them, design evolved for 1500 years, turning into a proper spinning wheel used to make pots. The proto wheel appeared as a by-product of pot-making. Then it slowly evolved into a real wheel. Which then spread to vehicles and turned into gears. Civilizations that did not require extensive use of mass-produced pottery for storage and trade simply missed the boat on this one.

The way we recombine ideas depends on ideas already present. This is why earlier combinations took such excruciatingly long time. There simply were very few ideas circulating around. Thinking was very limited because of that. As cultural evolution marched forward, new thinking tools appeared that brought new technologies that brought new ideas. Compound rate of return.

Observation allows fire, fire allows cooking, cooking allows more observation, which brings more tools, more fire, more calories, more observation. Agriculture appears, brings even more calories, allows for more people, more people bring more ideas. Language becomes more complex, writing and logic appears. Logic allows mathematics, mathematics allows engineering, engineering allows irrigation and sewage, tall buildings and precise clocks. All of this allows more people to live in one place, which allows for accelerated evolution of ideas. More logic, more engineering, more people. More philosophy, more books, more art, more culture, more ideas. More, more, more.

It is easy to feel yourself as a God-like designer in the 21st century, when there are trillions of ideas and ways of thinking floating around. But were you to go back to prehistoric times, and degrade your mind accordingly, you would hardly think about designing anything at all. For the simple reason that the concept of design just didn’t exist back then. As our language became more complex, new words and ways of thinking started to form.

Our Very Minds

It is not only designs that we create that follow an evolutionary framework, it is our thinking itself, our very minds. Our minds themselves are the product of cultural evolution. What we think, how we think has evolved over hundreds of thousands of years, acquiring new concepts and ideas, new ways of perceiving and thinking about the world.

It is ironic in a way that we put God and purpose on the opposite side from evolution, when it is precisely evolution that created basic notions of gods and purposes. These are thinking tools that evolved as our culture became more complex. At the very dawn of Homo species and language, early hominoids had as much purpose as the ape sitting next to them. And these purposes were mainly given to them by evolution. “Be ye fruitful and multiply” is the commandment ingrained in all of us, living beings, by evolution. That, together with fighting and feeding — the three Fs of life — were the dominant imperatives of human life. They still are.

Most complex cultural and religious adaptations and elaborations that we came up with over the last 200,000 years have mainly evolved to make the three Fs more efficient and dominant in competition with other animals, then with other hominoids, then between ourselves.

Think of two tribes. One just lives as it does, while the other has in place a simple mythological system, where every tribe member believes in the same invisible hominid. That invisible hominid gives comfort of afterlife when going to battle, and it watches your every action so you don’t cheat on your tribesmen. There is little doubt as to the utility power of such adaptation and as to which tribe will exterminate the other, loot their goods and take their women. Arguably, this is the exact reason why Sapiens dominated over the Neanderthals.

The very act of referring to a higher purpose or goal is the act of using a thinking tool that has evolved to provide evolutionary advantage. The illusion of being God-like designers comes precisely from the thinking tools that we acquired in the process of natural selection, both on biological and cultural levels.

Blind Watchmakers

It is easy to think that we are a very different kind of creature to the cave dwellers that roamed the prairies 50,000 years ago. It takes deep knowledge of our history to unwind the ever-increasing cultural complexity and arrive at very humble beginnings of Homo sapiens. Those cave dwellers were us, they just didn’t have the cultural baggage to boot. It is not only our biological nature that is shared, but also our design abilities. No one would argue that a prehistoric hunter-gatherer was a God-like designer or a watchmaker. And yet today we denigrate evolution as being blind and proclaim our sight. When in fact the only thing separating a cave-dweller from a modern human is our culture — an evolutionary process itself.

We are evolutionary creatures through and through, not only in our biology but also in our minds. The illusion of sight that we have is enabled by evolution. There are so many ways of thinking, ideas and histories to learn from and recombine in the 21st century that it is easy to think that we he have become fundamentally different from those humble people from 50,000 years ago. Even that we gained sight. But we haven’t. All we can still do is reshuffle existing ideas and stumble luckily onto the immediately adjacent ones, just like cave-dwellers did, just like evolution does. Immense cultural evolution in general, and appearance of science in particular (note that the idea that the world can be studied and examined did not exist just a few thousand years ago), improves our proprioception immensely by providing exponentially more ways to stumble into new pathways, giving the illusion of sight. In a way, we are akin to a blind person, who has just learned to read braille and declares eagerly, yet in retrospect poignantly, “Ah, I can see now.”

Written by

Mathematician, philosopher, entrepreneur.

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