Growing up in the universe – Climbing Mount Improbable (1991)

Richard Dawkins

In his third lecture, Richard Dawkins uses the metaphor of a tall mountain to explain evolution.

Watch time: 57:51
Richard Dawkins speaking in front of a dark green backdrop
Credit: Royal Institution

Lecture 3 - Climbing Mount Improbable

In his third lecture, Richard Dawkins uses the metaphor of a tall mountain - Mount Improbable – to explain evolution. When we look at Mount Improbable, its peak seems insurmountable. We could never jump to the top by chance. But if we take a slow, gradual ascent around the outside, we are able to reach the summit. In the same way as a person climbing Mount Improbable would ascend by tiny steps, life on Earth has evolved through a series of small, gradual changes.  

 Some creatures have evolved to imitate their environment. In the insect world, leaf insects and thorn bugs protect themselves against predators by looking and behaving like leaves and rose thorns. Richard explores the idea that all creatures like these are the key, and nature is the lock. In the same way that a key exactly fits a lock, humans and animals alike have inherited improvements over time that enable us to ‘fit’ our environment. In a series of stages, we have all evolved to complement the natural world. 

 But if evolution has gone through intermediate stages, there must have been times when we were not a perfect fit. A leaf insect must have at one stage only half looked like a leaf, a thorn bug only half like a thorn. So how do organisms function when they’re only half a key? And how do they evolve their perfection?


The world-famous evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins presents the CHRISTMAS LECTURES on "our own growing knowledge of how life grows up in the universe."

Just as children grow up to be adults, so too does life gradually evolve on a planet over thousands of generations, to move from “nonliving simplicity” to become “living complexity”.

Combining beautiful writing with a range of illuminating demonstrations, the series featured a variety of wildlife, a virtual reality Lecture Theatre, and special guests – including the late Douglas Adams reading an excerpt from The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy.