Life results from the
non-random survival of randomly varying replicators.
- An attempt to explain the universe in one line
Life, anywhere it is found in the universe, will be a product of Darwinian natural selection.
~ The Extended Phenotype
~ Climbing Mount Improbable
~ Unweaving The Rainbow
~ River Out Of Eden
~ The Beauty Of The World
~ The Genetic Book Of The Dead
~ Asides On Society
~ Quotes About Professor Dawkins
~ Page for "The Selfish Gene"
~ Page for "The Ancestor's Tale"
# THE BLIND WATCHMAKER
We animals are the most complicated things in the known universe. Complicated things, everywhere, deserve a very special kind of explanation. We want to know how they came into existence and why they are so complicated.
This book is written in the conviction that our own existence once presented the greatest of all mysteries, but that it is a mystery no longer because it is solved. Charles Darwin and Alfred Wallace solved it, though we shall continue to add footnotes to their solution.
I want to persuade the reader, not just that the Darwinian world-view happens to be true, but that it is the only known theory that could, in principle, solve the mystery of our existence. A good case can be made that Darwinism is true, not just on this planet but all over the universe wherever life may be found.
For reasons that are
not entirely clear to me, Darwinism seems more in need of advocacy than
similarly established truths in other branches of science. Many of us have
no grasp of Einstein's theories of special and general relativity, but
this does not lead us to oppose these theories.
Darwinism is a remarkably simple theory, childlishly so, in comparison with almost all of physics and mathematics. But we have good reason for believing that this simplicity is deceptive. Simple as the theory may seem, nobody thought of it until Darwin and Wallace in the mid-19th century. How could such a simple idea go so long undiscovered by thinkers of the calibre of Newton, Galileo, Descartes, Hume and Aristotle? What was wrong with philosophers and mathematicians that they overlooked it?
It is almost as if the human brain were specifically designed to misunderstand Darwinism, and to find it hard to believe.
One way in which we seem predisposed to disbelieve Darwinism is that our brains are built - ironically, by evolution itself - to deal with events on radically different timescales from those that characterize evolutionary change. We are equipped to appreciate processes that take seconds, minutes, years, or, at most, decades to complete. Darwinism is a theory of cumulative processes so slow that they take between thousands and millions of decades to complete. It requires effort of the imagination to escape from the prison of familiar timescale.
The analogy between telescope and eye, between watch and living organism, is false. All appearances to the contrary, the only watchmaker in nature is the blind forces of physics, albeit deployed in a very special way. A true watchmaker has foresight: he designs his cogs and springs, and plans their interconnections, with a future purpose in his mind's eye. Natural selection, the blind, unconscious, automatic process which Darwin discovered, and which we now know is the explanation for the existence and apparently purposeful form of all life, has no purpose in mind. It has no mind and no mind's eye. It does not plan for the future. It has no vision, no foresight, no sight at all. If it can be said to play the role of watchmaker in nature, it is the blind watchmaker.
The world becomes full of organisms that have what it takes to become ancestors. That, in a sentence, is Darwinism. Each generation is a filter, a sieve; good genes tend to fall through the sieve into the next generation; bad genes tend to end up in bodies that die young or without reproducing... you need more than luck to navigate successfully through a thousand sieves in succession.
However many ways there may be of being alive, it is certain that there are vastly more ways of being dead.
Thus the creationist's favourite question "What is the use of half an eye?" Actually, this is a lightweight question, a doddle to answer. Half an eye is just 1 per cent better than 49 per cent of an eye, which is already better than 48 per cent, and the difference is significant.
Words are our servants, not our masters. For different purposes we find it convenient to use words in different senses.
I think it is not helpful to apply Darwinian language too widely. Conquest of nation by nation is too distant for Darwinian explanations to be helpful. Darwinism is the differential survival of self-replicating genes in a gene pool, usually as manifested by individual behavior, morphology, and phenotypes. Group selection of any kind is not Darwinism as Darwin understood it nor as I understand it. There is a very vague analogy between group selection and conquest of a nation by another nation, but I don't think it's a very helpful analogy. So I would prefer not to invoke Darwinian language for that kind of historical interpretation.
We are lucky to have fossils at all. It is a remarkably fortunate fact of geology that bones, shells and other hard parts of animals, before they decay, can occasionally leave an imprint which later acts as a mould, which shapes hardening rock into a permanent memory of the animal. We don't know what proportion of animals are fossilized after their death but it is certainly very small indeed. Nevertheless, however small the proportion fossilized, there are certain things about the fossil record that any evolutionist should expect to be true. We should be very surprised, for example, to find fossil humans appearing in the record before mammals are supposed to have evolved! If a single, well-verified mammal skull were to turn up in 500 million year-old rocks, our whole modern theory of evolution would be utterly destroyed. Incidentally, this is a sufficient answer to the canard, put about by creationists and their journalistic fellow travellers, that the whole theory of evolution is an 'unfalsifiable' tautology.
Natural selection is the blind watchmaker, blind because it does not see ahead, does not plan consequences, has no purpose in view.
# THE EXTENDED PHENOTYPE : THE LONG REACH OF THE GENE
The belief that if adaptations are to be treated as 'for the good of something', that something is the gene was the fundamental assumption of my previous book, 'The Selfish Gene'. The present book goes further. To dramatize it a bit, it attempts to free the selfish gene from the individual organism which has been its conceptual prison. The phenotypic effects of a gene are the tools by which it levers itself into the next generation, and these tools may 'extend' far outside the body in which the gene site, even reaching deep into the nervous system of other organisms.
# CLIMBING MOUNT IMPROBABLE
Mount Improbable rears up from the plain, lofting its peaks dizzily to the rarefied sky. The towering, vertical cliffs of Mount Improbable can never, it seems, be climbed. Dwarfed like insects, thwarted mountaineers crawl and scrabble along the foot, gazing hopelessly at the sheer, unattainable heights. They shake their tiny, baffled heads and declare the brooding summit forever unscalable.
Our mountaineers are too ambitious. So intent are they on the perpendicular drama of the cliffs, they do not think to look round the other side of the mountain. There they would find not vertical cliffs and echoing canyons but gently inclined grassy meadows, graded steadily and easily towards the distant uplands. Occasionally the gradual ascent is punctuated by a small, rocky crag, but you can usually find a detour that is not too steep for a fit hill-walker in stout shoes and with time to spare. The sheer height of the peak doesn't matter, so long as you don't try to scale it in a single bound. Locate the mildly sloping path and, if you have unlimited time, the ascent is only as formidable as the next step. The story of Mount Improbable is, of course, a parable. We shall explore its meaning in this and the next chapters.
It is grindingly, creakingly,
crashingly obvious that, if Darwinism were really a theory of chance, it
couldn't work. You don't need to be a mathematician or physicist to calculate
that an eye or a haemoglobin molecule would take from here to infinity
to self-assemble by sheer higgledy-piggledy luck. Far from being a difficulty
peculiar to Darwinism, the astronomic probability of eyes and knees, enzymes
and elbow joints and the other living wonders is precisely the problem
that any theory of life must solve, and that Darwinism uniquely does solve.
It solves it by breaking the improbability up into small, manageable parts,
smearing out the luck needed, going round the back of Mount Improbable
and crawling up the gentle slopes, inch by million-year inch.
Only God would essay the mad task of leaping up the precipice in a single bound. And if we postulate him as our cosmic designer we are left in exactly the same position as when we started. Any Designer capable of constructing the dazzling array of living things would have to be intelligent and complicated beyond all imagining. And complicated is just another word for improbable - and therefore demanding of explanation...
... if your god is capable of designing and doing all the other godlike things, in which case he needs an explanation in his own right.
And what corresponds to inching up the kindly, grassy slopes on the other side of the mountain? It is the slow, cumulative, one-step-at-a-time, non-random survival of random variants that Darwin called natural selection. The metaphor of Mount Improbable dramatizes the mistake of the sceptics quoted at the beginning of this chapter. Where they went wrong was to keep their eyes fixed on the vertical precipice and its dramatic height. They assumed that the sheer cliff was the only way up to the summit on which they are perched eyes and protein molecules and other supremely improbable arrangements of parts. It was Darwin's great achievement to discover the gentle gradients winding up the other side of the mountain.
The height of Mount Improbable stands for the combination of perfection and improbability that is epitomized in eyes and enzyme molecules.
The Darwinian explanation for why living things are so good at doing what they do is very simple. They are good because of the accumulated wisdom of their ancestors. But it is not wisdom that they have learned or acquired. It is the wisdom that they chanced upon by lucky random mutations, wisdom that was then selectively, non-randomly, recorded in the genetic database of the species.
What are bees good for, from the point of view of the flowers? They are guided missiles for firing pollen from one flower to another.
For whose benefit are
mice and elephants and flowers put into the world?
We are closing in on a definitive answer to all questions of this kind. Flowers and elephants are 'for' the same thing as everything else in the living kingdoms, for speading Duplicate Me programs written in DNA language. Flowers are for spreading copies of instructions for making more flowers.
# UNWEAVING THE RAINBOW
Presumably there is indeed no purpose in the ultimate fate of the cosmos, but do any of us really tie our life's hopes to the ultimate fate of the cosmos anyway?
We are going to die, and that makes us the lucky ones. Most people are never going to die because they are never going to be born.
Moralists and theologians place great weight upon the moment of conception, seeing it as the instant at which the soul comes into existence. If, like me, you are unmoved by such talk, you must still regard a particular instant, nine months before your birth, as the most decisive event in your personal fortunes. It is the moment at which your consciousness suddenly becomes trillions of times more forseeable than it was a split second before.
... It is overwhelmingly probable that you are dead. In spite of these odds, you will notice that you are, as a matter of fact, alive.
... Far from the rainbow being rooted at a particular 'place' where fairies might deposit a crock of gold, there are as many rainbows as there are eyes looking at the storm. Different observers, looking at the same shower from different places, will piece together their own separate rainbows using light from different collections of raindrops.
... There is no particaular
reason to think that the human brain will go on swelling. In order for
this to happen, large-brained individuals have to have
more children than small-brained individuals. It isn't obvious that this is now happening. It must have happened during our ancestral past, otherwise our brains would not have grown as they did. It also must have been true, incidentally, that braininess in our ancestors was under genetic control. If it has not been, natural selection would have had nothing to work on, and the evolutionary growth of the brain would not have occured. For some reason, many people take grave political offence at the suggestion that some individuals are genetically cleverer than others.
# RIVER OUT OF EDEN
"The total amount of suffering per year in the natural world is beyond all decent contemplation. During the minute that it takes me to compose this sentence, thousands of animals are being eaten alive, many others are running for their lives, whimpering with fear, others are slowly being devoured from within by rasping parasites, thousands of all kinds are dying of starvation, thirst, and disease. It must be so. If there ever is a time of plenty, this very fact will automatically lead to an increase in the population until the natural state of starvation and misery is restored."
"If the universe were just electrons and selfish genes, meaningless tragedies like the crashing of a bus (full of children from a Roman Catholic school and for no apparent reason but with wholesale loss of life) are exactly what we should expect, along with equally meaningless good fortune. Such a universe would be neither evil nor good in intention. It would manifest no intentions of any kind."
"In a universe of electrons and selfish genes, blind physical forces and genetic replication, some people are going to get hurt, other people are going to get lucky, and you won't find any rhyme or reason in it, nor any justice. The universe that we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil, no good, nothing but pitiless indifference."
If there is only one Creator who made the tiger and the lamb, the cheetah and the gazelle, what is He playing at? Is he a sadist who enjoys spectator blood sports? ... Is he maneuvering to maximize David Attenborough's television ratings?
A lion wants to eat an antelope's body, but the antelope has very different plans for its body. This is not normally regarded as competition for a resource, but logically it is hard to see why not.
Arms races probably account for the spectacularly advanced engineering of eyes, ears, brains, bat "radar" and all the other high-tech weaponry that animals display.
Orgel's second rule
is : 'Evolution is cleverer than you are.'
Never say, and never take seriously anyone who says, 'I cannot believe that so-and-so could have evolved by gradual selection.' I have dubbed this kind of fallacy 'the Argument from Personal Incredulity.' Time and again, it has proven the prelude to an intellectual banana-skin experience.
# QUOTES ON RELIGION
It is a telling fact
that, the world over, the vast majority of children follow the religion
of their parents rather than any of the other available religions. Not
the religion that has the best evidence in its favour, the best miracles,
the best moral code, the best cathedral, the best stained glass, the best
music: when it comes to choosing from the smorgasbord of available religions,
their potential virtues seem to count for nothing, compared to the matter
No doubt soaring cathedrals, stirring music, moving stories and parables help a bit. But by far the most important variable determining your religion is the accident of birth.
This is an unmistakable fact; nobody could seriously deny it. Yet people with full knowledge of the arbitrary nature of this heredity, somehow manage to go on believing in their religion, often with such fanaticism that they are prepared to murder people who follow a different one.
Truths about the cosmos are true all around the universe. They don't differ in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Poland, or Norway. Yet, we are apparently prepared to accept that the religion we adopt is a matter of an accident of geography.
The meme for blind faith secures its own perpetuation by the simple unconscious expedient of discouraging rational inquiry.
Like computer viruses, successful mind viruses will tend to be hard for their victims to detect. If you are the victim of one, the chances are that you won't know it, and may even vigorously deny it.
The patient typically finds himself impelled by some deep, inner conviction that something is true, or right, or virtuous: a conviction that doesn't seem to owe anything to evidence or reason, but which, nevertheless, he feels as totally compelling and convincing. We doctors refer to such a belief as 'faith'.
It is often said, mainly by the "no-contests", that although there is no positive evidence for the existence of God, nor is there evidence against his existence. So it is best to keep an open mind and be agnostic. At first sight that seems an unassailable position, at least in the weak sense of Pascal's wager. But on second thoughts it seems a cop-out, because the same could be said of Father Christmas and tooth fairies. There may be fairies at the bottom of the garden. There is no evidence for it, but you can't prove that there aren't any, so shouldn't we be agnostic with respect to fairies?
If, on the other hand, there are no traces of God's involvement in the universe; if God did indeed set things up so that life would evolve, but covered His tracks so brilliantly that no clues remain; if He made the universe look exactly as it would be expected to look if He did not exist, then what we have is not an argument from design at all. There can be no argument from design if the universe is expertly designed to look undesigned. All we are left with, in this case, is the feeble, though strictly valid, argument that just because we can't find any evidence for a God, this doesn't prove that there isn't one. Of course we can't prove that there isn't a God.but, as has been said sufficiently often before, exactly the same can be said of fairies and Father Christmas.
Either admit that God is a scientific hypothesis and let him submit to the same judgement as any other scientific hypothesis. Or admit that his status is no higher than that of fairies and river sprites.
The virtue of using evidence is precisely that we can come to an agreement about it. But if you listen to two people who are arguing about something, and they each of them have passionate faith that they're right, but they believe different things - they belong to different religions, different faiths, there is nothing they can do to settle their disagreement short of shooting each other, which is what they very often actually do.
There's only any point in believing something if it's not true. And it's not just faith itself: it's the idea that faith is a virtue and the less evidence there is, the more virtuous it is. Things for which there is mere evidence are just too easy, and it's no test of faith. In order to have a test of your faith, you must be asked to believe really daft things like the transubstantiation, you know, the blood of Christ turning into wine, and stuff. That is so manifestly absurd that you've got to be a really great believer in order to believe it. You're actually showing off your believing credentials by the ability to believe something like that. If it were an easy thing to believe, substantiated by facts, then it wouldn't be any great achievement.
Science offers us an explanation of how complexity (the difficult) arose out of simplicity (the easy). The hypothesis of God offers no worthwhile explanation for anything, for it simply postulates what we are trying to explain. It postulates the difficult to explain, and leaves it at that. We cannot prove that there is no God, but we can safely conclude the He is very, very improbable indeed.
I do not say that science knows everything, but I most certainly say that religion knows nothing.
The God of the Old
Testament himself, with his pitilessly vengeful jealousy, his racism, sexism,
and terrifying bloodlust, will not be adopted as a literal role model by
anybody you or I would wish to know. Yes, of course it is unfair to judge
the customs of an earlier era by the enlightened standards of our own.
But that is precisely my point! Evidently, we have some alternative source
of ultimate moral conviction that overrides Scripture when it suits us.
- When Religion Steps on Science's Turf , "Free Inquiry"
I have found an amusing
strategy when asked whether I am an atheist to point out that the questioner
is also an atheist when considering Zeus, Apollo, Amon-Ra, Mithras, Baal,
Thor, Wotan, the Golden Calf and the Flying Spaghetti Monster. I just go
one god further.
- from "The God Delusion"
The God of the Old
Testament is a sheer monster. Anyone who denies that simply hasn't read
the Old Testament. In chapter two of the book, I describe him as a "petty,
unjust, unforgiving control-freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser;
a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, genocidal, capriciously malevolent
bull." I defy anybody to disagree with any of those epithets... For example,
in the book of Joshua, the story of the children of Israel taking over
the Promised Land has one genocide after another. Tribe after tribe are
wiped out with great gore, blood and glee with direct orders from God.
"Thou shalt not kill" really means "Thou shalt not kill another Jew".
- discussing "The God Delusion" in "The Metro"
"There is a sophisticated
form of religion which, well one form of it is Einsteinís which wasnít
really a religion at all. Einstein used the word God a great deal, but
he didnít mean a personal God. He didnít mean a being who could listen
to your prayers or forgive your sins. He just meant it as a kind of poetic
way of describing the deep unknowns, the deep uncertainties at the root
of the universe. Then there are deists who believe in a kind of God, a
kind of personal God who set the universe going, a sort of physicist God,
but then did no more and certainly doesnít listen to your thoughts. He
has no personal interest in humans at all. I donít think that I would use
a word like delusions for, certainly not for Einstein, no I donít think
I would for a deist either. I think I would reserve the word delusion for
real theists who actually think they talk to God and think God talks to
- Richard Dawkins, interviewed on the Ryan Tubridy Show
"You describe God as
a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal,
pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent
"That seems fair enough to me, yes."
"Okay. There are those who would think thatís a little over the top."
"Read your Old Testament, if you think that. Just read it. Read Leviticus, read Deuteronomy, read Judges, read Numbers, read Exodus."
- Richard Dawkins, interviewed by Ryan Tubridy
[The following are excerpted from a debate between Dawkins and David Quinn on the Tubridy Show]
RT: "Is it your contention,
that these elements of the God as described by yourself are what has not
helped matters in terms of, say, global religion and the wars that go with
RD: "Well, not really because no serious theologian takes the Old Testament literally anymore, so it isnít quite like that. An awful lot of people think they take the Bible literally but that can only be because theyíve never read it. If they ever read it they couldnít possibly take it literally, but I do think that people are a bit confused about where they get their morality from. A lot of people think they get their morality from the Bible because they can find a few good verses. Parts of the Ten Commandments are okay, parts of the Sermon on the Mount are okay. So they think they get their morality from the Bible. But actually of course nobody gets their morality from the Bible, we get it from somewhere else and to the extent that we can find good bits in the Bible we cherry pick them. We pick and choose them. We choose the good verses in the Bible and we reject the bad. Whatever criterion we use to choose the good verses and throw out the bad, that criterion is available to us anyway whether we are religious or not. Why bother to pick verses? Why not just go straight for the morality?"
RT: "Do you think the
people who believe in God and in religion generally who you think that
have, you use the analogy of the imaginary friend, do you think that the
people who believe in God and religion are a little bit dim?"
RD: "No, because many of them clearly are highly educated and score highly on IQ tests and things soÖ"
RT: "Why do you think they believe in something you think doesnít exist?"
RD: "Well I think that people are sometimes remarkably adept at compartmentalizing their mind, at separating their mind into two separate parts. There are some people who even manage to combine being apparently perfectly good working scientists with believing that the book of Genesis is literally true and that the world is only 6000 years old. If you can perform that level of doublethink then you could do anything."
DQ: "Myself and Richard
Dawkins have a clearly different understanding of the origins of morality.
I would say free will. If youíre an atheist, if youíre an atheist logically
speaking you cannot believe in objective morality. You cannot believe in
free will. These are two things that the vast majority of humankind implicitly
believe in. We believe for example that if a person carries out a bad action,
we can call that person bad because we believe that they are freely choosing
those actions. Ö And just quickly an atheist believes we are controlled
completely by our genes and make no free actions at all."
RT: "What evidence do you have, Richard Dawkins, that youíre right?"
RD: "I certainly donít believe a word of that. I do not believe we are controlled wholly by our genes. Let me go back to the really important thing that Mr. Quinn said."
DQ: "How are we independent of our genes by your reckoning? What allows us to be independent of our genes? Where is this coming from?"
RD: "Environment for a start."
DQ: "Well hang on but that also is a product of if you like of matter. Okay?"
RD: "Yes but itís not genes."
DQ: "What part of us allows us to have free will?"
RD: "Free will is a very difficult philosophical question and itís not one that has anything to do with religion, contrary to what Mr. Quinn saysÖbutÖ"
DQ: "It has an awful lot to do with religion because if there is no God thereís no free will because we are completely phenomena of matter."
RD: "Who says thereís not free will if there is no God? Thatís a ridiculous thing to say."
RD: "Stalin was a very,
very bad man and his persecution of religion was a very, very bad thing.
End of story. Itís nothing to do with the fact that he was an atheist.
We canít just compile lists of bad people who were atheists and lists of
bad people who were religious. I am afraid there were plenty on both sides."
DQ: "Richard you are always compiling lists of bad religious people. I mean you do it continually in all your books, and then you devote a paragraph to basically trying to absolve atheism of all blame for any atrocity throughout history. You cannot have it both ways! ...Every time you are on a program talking about religion, you bring up the atrocities committed in the name of religion. And then you try to minimize the atrocities committed by atheists because they were so anti-religious and because they regarded it as a malign force in much the same way you do. You are trying to have it both ways."
RD: "Well, I simply deny that. I do think that there is some evil in faith because faith is belief in something without evidence."
Professor Dawkins presented the first athiest "Thought for the Day" on the long-running BBC Radio program.
# THE BEAUTY OF THE WORLD
The level of awe that you get by contemplating the modern scientific view of the universe: deep time (by which I mean geological time), deep space, and what you could call deep complexity, living things..... that level of awe is just orders of magnitude greater and more awe-inspiring than the sort of pokey medieval world-view which the church still actually has. I mean, they sort of pay lip-service to the scientific world-view, but if you listen to what they say on Thought For The Day [a religious radio program] and things like that, it is medieval. It's a small world, a small universe, with the sky up there, very little advance since that time. So I yield to nobody in my awe for the universe and for life, but I also have a deep desire to understand it, in terms of what makes it work, what makes it tick, and not to take refuge in spurious non-explanations like "I just believe it because I believe it," that sort of thing.
The universe is a strange and wondrous place. The truth is quite odd enough to need no help from pseudoscientific charlatans. It is an extremely beautiful place, and the more we understand about it the more beautiful does it appear. It is an immensely exciting experience to be born in the world, born in the universe, and look around you and realize that before you die you have the opportunity of understanding an immense amount about that world and about that universe and about life and about why we're here. We have the opportunity of understanding far, far more than any of our predecessors ever. That is such an exciting possibility, it would be such a shame to blow it and end your life not having understood what there is to understand.
You could give Aristotle a tutorial. And you could thrill him to the core of his being. Aristotle was an encyclopedic polymath, an all time intellect. Yet not only can you know more than him about the world. You also can have a deeper understanding of how everything works. Such is the privilege of living after Newton, Darwin, Einstein, Planck, Watson, Crick and their colleagues.
I believe natural selection represents a truly hideous sum total of misery. When you look at something like a bounding lion, a sprinting cheetah, and the antelopes they are bounding and sprinting after, you're seeing the end product of a long, vicious arms race. All along the route of that arms race lie the corpses of the antelopes that didn't make it, and the lions and cheetahs that starved to death. So it is a process of vicious misery that has given rise to the immense beauty, elegance, and diversity that we see in the world today. Nature is beautiful. Even a cheetah as a killing machine is beautiful. But the process that gave rise to it is, indeed, nature red in tooth and claw. If nature were kind, she would at least make the minor concession of anaesthetising caterpillars before they are eaten alive from within.
It's often said that people 'need' something more in their lives than just the material world. There is a gap that must be filled. People need to feel a sense of purpose. Well, not a bad purpose would be to find out what is already here, in the material world, before concluding that you need something more. How much more do you want? Just study what is, and you'll find that it already is far more uplifting than anything you could imagine needing.
After sleeping through
a hundred million centuries, we have finally opened our eyes on a sumptuous
planet, sparkling with colour, bountiful with life...
Isnít it a noble, an enlightened way of spending our brief time in the sun, to work at understanding the universe and how we come to wake up in it? That is how I answer when I am asked Ė as I am surprisingly often Ė why I bother to get up in the mornings. To put it the other way round, isnít it sad to go to your grave without ever wondering why you were born? Who, with such a thought, would not spring from bed, eager to resume discovering the world and rejoicing to be part of it?
The new soup is the soup of human culture. We need a name for the new replicator, a noun which conveys the unit of cultural transmission, or a unit of imitation. "Mimeme" comes from a suitable Greek root, but I want a monosylable that sounds a bit like "gene." I hope my classicist friends will forgive me if I abbreviate mimeme to "meme."
Examples of memes are tunes, ideas, catch-phrases, clothes, fashions, ways of making pots or of building arches. Just as gene types propogate themselves in the gene pool by leaping from body to body via sperms or eggs, so memes propogate themselves in the meme pool by leaping from brain to brain via process, which, in the broad sense, can be called imitation. If a scientist hears or reads about a good idea, he passes it on to his colleagues and students. He mentions it in his articles and his lectures. If the idea catches on, it can be said to propogate itself, spreading from brain to brain.
For more than three thousand million years, DNA has been the only replicator worth talking about in the world. But it does not necessarily hold these monopoly rights for all time. Whenever conditions arise in which a new kind of replicator can make copies of itself, the new replicators tend to take over, and start a new kind of evolution of their own. Once this new evolution begins, it will in no necessary sense be subversient to the old. The old gene-selected evolution, by making brains, provided the "soup" in which the first memes arose. Once self-copying memes had arisen, their own, much faster, kind of evolution took off. We biologists have assimilated the idea of genetic evolution so deeply that we tend to forget that it is only one of the many possible kinds of evoluton.
Some memes, like genes, achieve brilliant short term success in spreading rapidly, but do not last in the meme pool. Popular songs and stilletto heels are examples. Others such as the Jewish religious laws, may continue to propogate themselves for thousands of years, usually because of the great potential permanence of written records.
Consider the idea of
God. We do not know how it arose in the meme pool. Probably it originated
many times by independent 'mutation.' In any case, it is very old indeed.
How does it replicate itself? By the spoken and written word, aided by
great music and great art.
Why does it have such high survival value? Remember that 'survival value' here does not mean value for a gene in a gene pool, but value for a meme in a meme pool. The question really means: What is it about the idea of a god that gives it its stability and penetration in the cultural environment? The survival value of the god meme in the meme pool results from its great psychological appeal. It provides a superficially plausible answer to deep and troubling questions about existence. It suggests that injustices in this world may be rectified in the next. The 'everlasting arms' hold out a cushion against our own inadequacies which, like a doctor's placebo, is none the less effective for being imaginary.
These are some of the reasons why the idea of God is copied so readily by successive generations of individual brains. God exists, if only in the form of a meme with high survival value, or infective power, in the environment provided by human culture.
# THE GENETIC BOOK OF THE DEAD
Living organisms are
beautifully built to survive and reproduce in their environments. Or that
is what Darwinians say. But actually it isnít quite right. They are beautifully
built for survival in their ancestorsí environments...
And that is tantamount to saying that modern DNA is a coded description of the environments in which ancestors survived. A survival manual is handed down the generations. A genetic Book of the Dead.
In many religious cults
around the world, ancestors are worshipped. And well they may be, for ancestors,
not gods, hold the key to understanding why living things are the way that
they are. Of all organisms born, the majority die before they come of age.
Of the minority that become parents, an even smaller minority will have
descendants alive 1,000 years hence.
A tiny minority are the only ones that future generations will be able to call ancestors. This minority had what it takes to be successful.
Every organism alive can look back at its ancestors and say the following: Not a single one of my ancestors was killed by a predator, or by a virus, or by a misjudged footstep on a precipice, or a mis-timed handhold on a high tree branch, before begetting or bearing at least one child.
Not a single one of my ancestors was too unattractive to find at least one copulation partner, or too selfish a parent to nurture at least one child through to adulthood.
Thousands of my ancestors' contemporaries failed in all these respects, but not a single, solitary one of my ancestors failed.
# VARIOUS ARTICLES
In the excessive quantities that many of us enjoy it, sugar is a slow poison. So why do we overeat the stuff? Because through most of our ancestral history it was impossible to procure more than the small doses in which sugar is good for you. People who liked sugar became ancestors, and it is from ancestors that we get our genes. So we like sugar whenever we can get it - and suffer dental caries and diabetes.
We lust, because our ancestors' lust helped pass their lustful genes on to us. Here, as it happens, Darwinism agrees with commonsense: the convention works. But sometimes the convention breaks down. If we are on the Pill, or know that our sexual partner is, it doesn't diminish our desire. We still inherit the ancient rule of thumb, now out of date. As Steven Pinker says, in his splendid book How the Mind Works, "Had the Pleistocene contained trees bearing birth-control pills, we might have evolved to find them as terrifying as a venomous spider."
Today the theory of evolution is about as much open to doubt as the theory that the earth goes round the sun.
A Zahavi suggests that peacocks, for instance, evolve their absurdly burdensome fans with their ridiculously conspicuous (to predators) colors, precisely because they are burdensome and dangerous, and therefore impressive to females. The peacock is, in effect, saying: "Look how fit and strong I must be, since I can afford to carry around this preposterous tail."
It seems to follow that there is no general reason to expect evolution to be progressive--even in the weak, value-neutral sense. There will be times when increased size of some organ is favoured and other times when decreased size is favoured. Most of the time, average-sized individuals will be favoured in the population and both extremes will be penalised.
But the likelihood is that, in 100,000 years time, we shall either have reverted to wild barbarism, or else civilisation will have advanced beyond all recognition--into colonies in outer space, for instance. In either case, evolutionary extrapolations from present conditions are likely to be highly misleading.
We admit that we are like apes, but we seldom realise that we are apes. Our common ancestor with the chimpanzees and gorillas is much more recent than their common ancestor with the Asian apes--the gibbons and orangutans. There is no natural category that includes chimpanzees, gorillas and orangutans but excludes humans.
Living organisms are
supremely improbable. They look as if they have been designed. They are
very, very complicated. They are very good at doing whatever it is they
do, whether it's flying or digging or swimming. This is not the kind of
thing that matter just spontaneously does. It doesn't fall into position
where it's good at doing anything. So the fact that living things are demands
an explanation, the fact that it's improbable demands an explanation.
Mount Improbable is a metaphorical mountain. The height of that mountain stands for that very improbability. So on the top of the mountain, you can imagine perched the most complicated organ you can think of. It might be the human eye. And one side of the mountain has a steep cliff, a steep vertical precipice. And you stand at the foot of the mountain and you gaze up at this complicated thing at the heights, and you say, that couldn't have come about by chance, that's too improbable. And that's what is the meaning of the vertical slope. You could no more get that by sheer chance than you could leap from the bottom of the cliff to the top of the cliff in one fell swoop. But if you go around the other side of the mountain, you find that there's not a steep cliff at all. There's a slow, gentle gradient, a slow, gentle slope, and getting from the bottom of the mountain to the top is an easy walk. You just saunter up it putting one step in front of the other, one foot in front of the other.
"Evolution has been
observed. It's just that it hasn't been observed while it's happening."
"What do you mean it's been observed?"
"The consequences of. It is rather like a detective coming on a murder after the scene. And youÖ the detective hasn't actually seen the murder take place, of course. But what you do see is a massive clue."
- from an interview for PBS
"I've a very big fan
of intelligent design for man-made things... I'm not a fan of intelligent
design for natural things."
- interviewed on "The Colbert Report"
If only Stephen Jay
Gould could think as clearly as he writes.
- from his review of rival Gould's "Wonderful Life"
# ASIDES ON SOCIETY
Along with Bach's music, Shakespeare's sonnets and the Apollo Space Programme, the Human Genome Project is one of those achievements of the human spirit that makes me proud to be human.
It is an article of passionate faith among "politically correct" biologists and anthropologists that brain size has no connection with intelligence; that intelligence has nothing to do with genes; and that genes are probably nasty fascist things anyway.
It's been suggested that if the supernaturalists really had the powers they claim, they'd win the lottery every week. I prefer to point out that they could also win a Nobel Prize for discovering fundamental physical forces hitherto unknown to science. Either way, why are they wasting their talents doing party turns on television?
We should take astrology seriously. No, I don't mean we should believe in it. I am talking about fighting it seriously instead of humouring it as a piece of harmless fun.
Aquarius is a miscellaneous set of stars all at different distances from us, which have no connection with each other except that they constitute a (meaningless) pattern when seen from a certain (not particularly special) place in the galaxy (here).
I think we must beware
of a reflex and unthinking antipathy to everything "unnatural". Certainly
cloning is unnatural. We haven't bred without sex for perhaps a thousand
million years. But unnatural isn't a necessary synonym for bad. It's unnatural
to read books, or travel faster than we can run, or scuba-dive, or fly.
It's unnatural to wear clothes, but we do. Indeed, the people most likely
to be scandalised at the prospect of human cloning are the very people
most outraged by lack of human clothing.
I think it would be mind-bogglingly fascinating to watch a younger edition of myself growing up in the twenty-first century instead of in the 1940's.
At the very least, people ought to think twice before throwing up their hands in horror at manipulating genes to, say, make a child good at music while approving sending a child to a school that is especially good at music. These are the same kinds of things. The genetic equivalent of sending your child to Eton is going to be expensive, too. There is no obvious distinction between spending your money on one kind of child manipulation and the other... You will immediately see the oddness in what you have just said. You are saying that one works and the other doesn't. It's odd to take refuge in lack of efficiency as a defence.
How should scientists
respond to the allegation that our 'faith' in logic and scientific truth
is just that - faith - not 'privileged' (the favorite in-word) over alternative
truths? A minimal response is that science gets results.
As I put it in River Out of Eden : "Show me a cultural relativist at 30,000 feet and Iíll show you a hypocrite... If you are flying to an international congress of anthropologists or literary critics, the reason you will probably get there, the reason you donít plummet into a ploughed field, is that a lot of Western scientifically trained engineers have got their sums right."
It is simply true that the Sun is hotter than Earth, true that the desk on which I am writing is made of wood. These are not hypotheses awaiting falsification; not temporary approximations to an ever-elusive truth; not local truths that might be denied in another culture. They are just plain true.
I am sometimes accused of arrogant intolerance in my treatment of creationists. Of course arrogance is an unpleasant characteristic, and I should hate to be thought arrogant in a general way. But there are limits! To get some idea of what it is like being a professional student of evolution, asked to have a serious debate with creationists, the following comparison is a fair one. Imagine yourself a classical scholar who has spent a lifetime studying Roman history in all its rich detail. Now somebody comes along, with a degree in marine engineering or mediaeval musicology, and tries to argue that the Romans never existed. Wouldn't you find it hard to suppress your impatience? And mightn't it look a bit like arrogance?
Scientists are sometimes suspected of arrogance. Carl Sagan commends to us by contrast the humility of the Roman Catholic Church which, as early as 1992, was ready to grant a pardon to Galileo and admit publicly that the Earth does indeed revolve around the Sun. We must hope that this outspoken magnanimity will not cause any offence or "hurt" to "the supreme religious authority of Saudi Arabia, Sheik Abdel-Aziz Ibn Baaz" who, according to Sagan, in 1993 "issued an edict, or fatwa, declaring that the world is flat. Anyone of the round persuasion does not believe in God and should be punished." Arrogance? Scientists are amateurs in arrogance.
The fury with which untenable beliefs are defended is inversely proportional to their defensibility.
# ENEMIES OF REASON
therapeutic stabs in the dark."
- Richard Dawkins, describing Alternative Medicine
"Could it be that interaction
with any kind of a healer helps to focus our own immune systems?"
- Richard Dawkins, on the placebo effect of faith healers
Wielding his sword
of reason in one hand and shield of acerbic scepticism in the other, Professor
Richard Dawkins rides out against the forces of faith, superstition and
New Age nonsense. It's hardly a fair fight, Dawkins easily destroys the
arguments of astrologers, dowsers and the tricks behind the trade of mediumship.
His manner may be off-putting but Dawkins' message is clear ó when science
had brought you everything from TV to paracetamol, why put your faith in
the movement of the planets?
- Dublin's Metro on "Enemies Of Reason"
Welcome to a dangerous
new era - the Unlightenment - in which centuries of rational thought are
overturned by idiots. Superstitious idiots. They're everywhere - reading
horoscopes, buying homeopathic remedies, consulting psychics, babbling
about "chakras" and "healing energies", praying to imaginary gods, and
rejecting science in favour of soft-headed bunkum. But instead of slapping
these people round the face till they behave like adults, we encourage
them. We've got to respect their beliefs, apparently. Well I don't... Maybe
you've put your faith in spiritual claptrap because our random, narrative-free
universe terrifies you. But that's no solution. If you want comforting,
suck your thumb. Buy a pillow. Don't make up a load of floaty blah about
energy or destiny. This is the real world, stupid. We should be solving
problems, not sticking our fingers in our ears and singing about fairies.
Everywhere you look, screaming gittery is taking root, with serious consequences.
The NHS recently spent £10m refurbishing the London Homeopathic Hospital.
The equivalent of 500 nurses' wages, blown on a handful of magic beans.
That was your tax money. It was meant for saving lives.
- Charlie Brooker, reviewing "Enemies of Reason", "The Guardian"
# QUOTES ABOUT DAWKINS
"Others lived beyond
his means : A giver, not a taker.
He was less selfish than his genes; More blind than his watchmaker."
- Richard writes his own epitah
The sort of popular
science writing that makes the reader feel like a genius
- New York Times review of The Selfish Gene
The most brilliant
contemporary preacher of Charles Darwin's theory of evolution.
- The Daily Telegraph
There is not a scientist
writing today who expounds his subject for the lay reader with such scintillating
clarity and sheer politesse for the limits of the non-specialist.
- John Cornwell, "The Times"
One of the most gifted
storytellers of our generation ... he is a missionary who writes like an
angel. He is to Darwinism what Saint Paul is to Christianity.
- Mike Maran in Scotland on Sunday, review, Climbing Mount Improbable
For Richard Dawkins
there is more poetry, not less, in the rainbow because of Newton... He
weaves rainbows of wonder from the provinces of science.
- Matt Ridley in 'The Sunday Telegraph'
One of the most outstanding
intelligences in modern British science. Richard Dawkins climbs mental
Grave wit and thrilling
- Martin Amis, on "The Blind Watchmaker"
Alas, if Richard Dawkins
was ever issued a baloney-detection kit, he lost it when he started writing
- David Frum, "The Daily Telegraph"
A chicken is just a
way an egg makes another egg
- Samel Butler
We are nothing but
expressions of our selfish genes in the process of making more selfish
- One personís view of Dawkinís theories
The Blind Watchmaker
by Richard Dawkins is the sort of book that makes you want to find a creationist
to argue with.
- Sci.Skeptic FAQ
The Root of All Evil?
Religion, of course. Says Richard Dawkins, who perhaps wasn't designed
for television. I mean he didn't naturally evolve into a natural television
presenter. He emerges, blinking in the light in front of the camera, from
the murky gloom of academia, a bit ratty. Unable to hide behind his printed
word, he is now faced with real people who disagree with him. And he gets
riled by the evangelical pastor with hotlines to George Bush and God, and
the secular Jew who became a fundamentalist Muslim. He's cross with these
idiots for being so blind. He does, however, have the advantage of being
- Sam Wollaston, reviewing documentary series "The Root of all Evil", in "The Guardian"
"There are very good
grounds to believe there is no actual truth in the claims of religion.
I rather liken it to a child with a dummy in its mouth. I do not think
it a very dignified or respect-worthy posture for an adult to go around
sucking a dummy for comfort," said Richard Dawkins, perpetuating a common
but gross misunderstanding of why people need religion. Some of us, I suspect
quite a lot, are not religious for comfort. It is because we need to be
battered, reduced, to have our monstrous egos squashed so we can control
them properly. Speaking entirely for myself here of course.
- Ruth Gledhill, watching Richard Dawkins debate for "The Times"
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