Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Dawkins On Darwin

Richard Dawkins' three part series on The Genius of Charles Darwin (C4) has all the padding and attention-grabbing images that one expects now in TV documentaries. In last night's programme he posed with an almost naked cowboy on a street in New York to illustrate a passing reference to sexual attraction.
But this is still one of the best documentaries of the year.

Evolution is one of the simplest scientific theories, far more accessible to the layman than most of the mind-boggling discoveries of physics and cosmology of the past hundred years. Yet evolution is also one of the most misunderstood theories, or perhaps I should say 'discoveries'. One often feels that it is wilful misunderstanding, particularly on the part of religious fundamentalists.
As Dawkins patiently explained to an African bishop, evolution does not say we are descended from monkeys but that we have a common ancestor. "Same thing", people have said to me. But of course it is not. To say we are descended from monkeys is like saying your are a descendant of your cousin. You would think that with all the interest today in genealogy people would comprehend that.

Then there's the misinterpretation of "survival of the fittest" as meaning the healthiest and most physically fit, when it actually means those best adapted to their environment.
"Fit for purpose", in the current buzz-phrase.

It's strange that Dawkins, having seen the extent to which Darwin has been misunderstood, should have laid himself open to the same misunderstanding with his book title "The Selfish Gene". Many people, even including some who read the book, believe he was arguing for the inherent and undiluted selfishness of human nature when he actually believes the opposite. Dawkins has written that he now regrets coining that phrase.

Dawkins has been subjected to an extraordinary degree of misrepresentation. Even the wonderful Nancy Banks-Smith could not resist describing him as a fiery-eyed atheist when what I see is a twinkly-eyed, warm and modest man with a sense of humour and a love of people.
A common accusation is that he is as much a fundamentalist as the religious fundamentalists that he criticises. People who say this have either never read his books or are too stupid to understand them.
One piece of evidence is sufficient to refute this accusation. Chapter Four of The God Delusion has the title "Why there almost certainly is no God" [my emphasis]. When have you ever read a religious book with a chapter titled "Why there almost certainly is a God"?

Evolution is incompatible with the biblical version of creation. However it does not in itself disprove the existence of a god. It leaves open the possibility, however implausible, that God, instead of cutting to the chase and creating mankind as a complete and finished product, created a single cell and let evolution take its course over billions of years. For some reason many, if not most, Christians seem to find that idea not just implausible but deeply offensive.
The case for there almost certainly being no God rests on the total lack of any evidence and the fact that all the well-known arguments for his existence are either illogical or circular in nature.

The existence of a non-religiously based morality or altruism was one of the subjects of last night's programme and is one of the most interesting aspects of Dawkins' work. To do it justice requires a series of its own.
In the context of 'reciprocal altruism' I didn't feel that the point was strongly enough made that it is only, in relative terms, during the last few minutes of our existence as a species that most of us have ceased living in very small and intimate communities. Yet in large, anonymous urban communities we continue, in many small ways, to do things that not only have no direct benefit to ourselves but carry little likelihood of reciprocal benefit. We hold doors open for people. Quite often, someone lets me go ahead of them in the supermarket queue because I have only one item. These tiny acts of altruism make life tolerable.

On a broader scale, if morality were impossible without religion, one would expect that in today's predominantly secular society, the non-religious would be raping, murdering and pillaging to a degree that would cause the complete collapse of civil society. That this is not the case is something to be celebrated. It is also one of the most intriguing subjects to be explored by both scientists and moral philosophers.

Another contemporary example of reciprocal altruism is the internet. In all the focus on the evils of the internet, what it has revealed to us about the positive aspects of human nature is often overlooked. It may be awash with pornography, spammers, hackers and con-men but it is also awash with altruism.
There are millions of websites that people have set up for no other reason than to help others and without any financial reward.
On countless occasions I have solved a computer problem with the help of a website on which someone has chosen to share their knowledge and expertise. Some of these saintly people will even deal with emailed questions and come back with a solution.
Then there are the vast numbers of websites that provide mutual support and advice for people suffering from every conceivable physical and mental illness.
What is absent from all these phenomena is any controlling authority, any competitive ethos, any financial reward or any profit motive. It is the exact opposite of the market-based model that is extolled by most politicians of every political party. It is a functioning, spontaneous infrastructure not just of reciprocal altruism but of egalitarian socialism and, for perhaps the first time, demonstrates the viability of some of the principles of that most utopian of political philosophies, anarchism.
So it's little wonder that the other internet phenomenon of file-sharing should be seen as such a threat by music and media companies, challenging as it does the very basis of the free market economy. Nor that the Inland Revenue should have their beady eye on skill-swopping websites where people exchange labour without exchanging any real-world money.

But back to the Dawkins programmes. In the first episode, he spoke to an African prostitute who had developed an immunity to HIV. She attributed this good fortune to God's intervention. Several people have said that this must have greatly annoyed Dawkins. But how much more infuriating must it have been to the religious?
God had intervened to allow her to safely have sex with up to ten different men a day, effectively suspending his rule that the wages of sin are death.
We know that he works in mysterious ways. But wouldn't that be downright bonkers?


At 5:37 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think quite a few creationists are descended from their cousins, actually.

At 7:19 AM, Blogger Willie Lupin said...

anon: I think I'd better just say 'LOL' to that one.

At 12:20 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Great post. Your arguments are always made very fluently and clearly. Hope someone somewhere is paying you to write (despite your altruism!)

At 3:58 PM, Blogger Willie Lupin said...

jwb: thank you.
Whilst it would be good to be paid to write, that brings the horror of the deadline and the irritation of having your prose hacked about by editors. I know because I did it once.
Blogging is more self-indulgence than altruism but the freedom it gives you is wonderful.

PS: lovely foxglove on your blog. I had a self-seeded one bloom this year. If only they bloomed for longer.

At 5:07 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Ah, yes - hence the recent Giles Coren episode. Can't help thinking he'd be happier just blogging. Re the foxglove, cut the main flower and you'll get lots more secondary flowers further down the stem. Mine are still going (just).


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