So this claimed "greatest idea ever to occur to a human mind" is just that, an idea that was first proposed by the ancient Greek philosopher Empedocles in c. 400 BC, as a purely philosophical speculation, without any actual scientific evidence:
"However, similar ideas go back to ancient times; the Ionian physician Empedocles said that many races `must have been unable to beget and continue their kind. For in the case of every species that exists, either craft or courage or speed has from the beginning of its existence protected and preserved it'" ("Natural Selection: History of the Principle," Wikipedia).
That is, the scientific evidence came much later (by thousands of years) and was then retrofitted to this claimed "greatest idea ever to occur to a human mind"!
If we measure the power of a scientific theory as some sort of ratio of how much it explains divided by how much it needs to assume, the theory of natural selection surely stands alone. Agreed! According to Dawkins "the theory of natural selection": 1) "assumes" that the natural selection of random micromutations, the same process that explains minor changes like insect resistance to DDT, the size of finch beaks on the Galapagos islands and the relative frequency of light and dark peppered moths; 2) "explains' everything, i.e. "the whole of life, the diversity of life, the complexity of life, the apparent design of life" (my emphasis):
"Natural selection is a bewilderingly simple idea. And yet what it explains is the whole of life, the diversity of life, the complexity of life, the apparent design of life. It all flows from this one remarkably simple idea." (Dawkins, R., "Mechanisms of Evolution," in Campbell, N.A., Reece, J.B. & Mitchell, L.G., "Biology," , Benjamin/Cummings: Menlo Park CA, Fifth Edition, 1999, p.413).
Dawkins is probably right that "the theory of natural selection surely stands alone" by the "ratio of how much it explains divided by how much it needs to assume"! But Dawkins confuses purports to explain with actually explains. There is no hard scientific evidence that "the theory of" the "natural selection" of random micromutations did (or even could) actually explain major changes, including complex organs like the eye, let alone "the whole of life, the diversity of life, the complexity of life, the apparent design of life" (my emphasis)!
This is why it is so important to have his complete works available online, and free of charge. When you think about it, what other branch of science is still fixated on its 19th century founder's writings? As PBS interviewer Ben Wattenberg picked up, Dawkins "tonality" about Darwin says, "I found my God"!:
"MR. WATTENBERG: Well, now, you wrote in 'The Selfish Gene' this. 'Living organisms had existed on earth without ever knowing why for 3,000 million years before the truth finally dawned on one of them. His name was Charles Darwin.' [Dawkins, R., "The Selfish Gene," Oxford University Press: Oxford, 1989, p.1] That sounds to me like a religious statement. That is a - that is near messianic language. And you are making the case that these other people have this virus of the mind. That tonality says, I found my God. MR. DAWKINS: You can call it that if you like. It's not religious in any sense in which I would recognize the term. Certainly I look up to Charles Darwin." (Wattenberg, B., "Talking about Evolution with Richard Dawkins," Think Tank: PBS, November 7, 1996. Emphasis original)
Think of what it explains: your existence and mine; the existence, form, diversity and apparently designed complexity of all living things, not only on this planet but probably wherever in the universe organised complexity may be found. See above on the difference between purports to explain and actually explains! Again, quite clearly Dawkins is not relying on hard scientific evidence to support his claim that "the theory of" the "natural selection" of random micromutations can actually "explain" "the existence, form, diversity and apparently designed complexity of all living things, not only on this planet but probably wherever in the universe organised complexity may be found"! That is, in such grandiose claims, Dawkins is inadvertently showing that this claimed "greatest idea ever to occur to a human mind" is merely pre-scientific materialist philosophy!
I actually feel sorry for Dawkins. Imagine being reduced to exulting over "apparently designed complexity." It sounds like a thirsty man in a desert exulting over seeing a mirage of a lake!
The explanatory work that the theory does, then, is immense. Agreed. The key words are "that the theory does"! Dawkins forgets T.H. Huxley's rueful observation that it is "the great tragedy of Science--the slaying of a beautiful hypothesis by an ugly fact--which is so constantly being enacted under the eyes of [natural] philosophers" (i.e. scientists):
"In his Presidential Address, `Biogenesis and Abiogenesis' ('Collected Essays' 8 page 229), he discussed the rival theories of spontaneous generation and the universal derivation of life from precedent life, and professed his belief, as an act of philosophic faith, that at some remote period, life had arisen out of inanimate matter, though there was no evidence that anything of the sort had occurred recently, the germ theory explaining many supposed cases of spontaneous generation. The history of the subject, indeed, showed] `the great tragedy of Science--the slaying of a beautiful hypothesis by an ugly fact--which is so constantly being enacted under the eyes of philosophers,' and recalled the warning `that it is one thing to refute a proposition, and another to prove the truth of a doctrine which, implicitly or explicitly, contradicts that proposition." (Huxley, T.H., in Huxley, L., ed., "The Life and Letters of Thomas Henry Huxley," Macmillan & Co: London, 1903, Vol. 2, p.16).
And if there ever was an example of "a beautiful hypothesis by an ugly fact" (or rather lack of facts) the prime candidate would surely be this claimed "greatest idea ever to occur to a human mind," "the theory of" the "natural selection" of random micromutations.
Indeed, no better statement of the largely fact-free, Empedoclean/Epicurean materialist atomist philosophy-driven, nature of this theory was given by Dawkins himself, when he simply assumes that because "it is always possible to conceive of a series of infinitesimally graded intermediates between" any "large-scale change," which otherwise would be a "prodig[y] of apparent miracle," therefore such "a series of infinitesimally graded intermediates" must actually have existed in the real world of nature:
"To 'tame' chance means to break down the very improbable into less improbable small components arranged in series. No matter how improbable it is that an X could have arisen from a Y in a single step, it is always possible to conceive of a series of infinitesimally graded intermediates between them. However improbable a large-scale change may be, smaller changes are less improbable. And provided we postulate a sufficiently large series of sufficiently finely graded intermediates, we shall be able to derive anything from anything else, without invoking astronomical improbabilities. We are allowed to do this only if there has been sufficient time to fit all the intermediates in. And also only if there is a mechanism for guiding each step in some particular direction, otherwise the sequence of steps will career off in an endless random walk. It is the contention of the Darwinian world-view that both these provisos are met, and that slow, gradual, cumulative natural selection is the ultimate explanation for our existence. If there are versions of the evolution theory that deny slow gradualism, and deny the central role of natural selection, they may be true in particular cases. But they cannot be the whole truth, for they deny the very heart of the evolution theory, which gives it the power to dissolve astronomical improbabilities and explain prodigies of apparent miracle." (Dawkins R., "The Blind Watchmaker: Why the Evidence of Evolution Reveals a Universe Without Design," W.W. Norton & Co: New York NY, 1986, pp.317-318).
This is the very large numerator of the ratio. But the theory itself - the denominator - could hardly be smaller or more simple; you can write it out in a phrase: "Nonrandom survival of randomly varying hereditary elements."
This is Dawkins' "theory of everything," his "formula so elegant and simple that it will fit easily on the front of a t-shirt" (Lederman, L. ,"The God Particle," 1993, p.21). However, as with physics' quest for a theory of everything, even if one was found (and as yet it hasn't been) the more they explain in general, the less they explain in particular.
In the case of Dawkins' claimed "greatest idea ever to occur to a human mind," "the theory of natural selection," i.e. the theory of "Nonrandom survival of randomly varying hereditary elements," all it actually predicts is that there will be some "Nonrandom survival of randomly varying hereditary elements" not that everything, i.e. "your existence and mine; the existence, form, diversity and apparently designed complexity of all living things, not only on this planet but probably wherever in the universe organised complexity may be found" is the result of "Nonrandom survival of randomly varying hereditary elements."
The "randomly varying" (in the sense of undirected) is merely an assumption of Dawkins' materialist/naturalist philosophy. If matter/nature is all there is, then there can be nothing "that could guide mutation in directions that are non-random :
"There is a fifth respect in which mutation might have been nonrandom. We can imagine (just) a form of mutation that was systematically biased in the direction of improving the animal's adaptedness to its life. But although we can imagine it, nobody has ever come close to suggesting any means by which this bias could come about. It is only in this fifth respect, the 'mutationist' respect, that the true, real-life Darwinian insists that mutation is random. Mutation is not systematically biased in the direction of adaptive improvement, and no mechanism is known (to put the point mildly) that could guide mutation in directions that are non-random in this fifth sense. Mutation is random with respect to adaptive advantage, although it is non-random in all sorts of other respects. It is selection, and only selection, that directs evolution in directions that are nonrandom with respect to advantage." (Dawkins, Ibid., p.312. Emphasis original).
But that is only If materialism/naturalism (matter/nature is all there is) is true. As Phil Johnson observed, "An essential step in the reasoning that establishes that Darwinian selection created the wonders of biology ... is that nothing else was available" but "Theism is by definition the doctrine that something else was available" (my emphasis):
"Theists who accommodate with scientific naturalism therefore may never affirm that their God is real in the same sense that evolution is real. This rule is essential to the entire mindset that produced Darwinism in the first place. If God exists He could certainly work through mutation and selection if that is what He wanted to do, but He could also create by some means totally outside the ken of our science. Once we put God into the picture, however, there is no good reason to attribute the creation of biological complexity to random mutation and natural selection. Direct evidence that these mechanisms have substantial creative power is not to be found in nature, the laboratory, or the fossil record. An essential step in the reasoning that establishes that Darwinian selection created the wonders of biology, therefore, is that nothing else was available. Theism is by definition the doctrine that something else was available." (Johnson, P.E., "What is Darwinism?" Lecture at a symposium at Hillsdale College, November 1992. My emphasis)
Stephen E. Jones, BSc (Biol).
Genesis 7:1-5. 1The LORD then said to Noah, "Go into the ark, you and your whole family, because I have found you righteous in this generation. 2Take with you seven of every kind of clean animal, a male and its mate, and two of every kind of unclean animal, a male and its mate, 3and also seven of every kind of bird, male and female, to keep their various kinds alive throughout the earth. 4Seven days from now I will send rain on the earth for forty days and forty nights, and I will wipe from the face of the earth every living creature I have made."5And Noah did all that the LORD commanded him.