Friday, 22 May 2009

The Dawkins paradox.

Dear Reader,

After having been a Dawkinsian atheist for many a long year, I was powerfully touched by the love of God on April 12th 2008.
There have been many changes in my life since that date, but I am perplexed by a question which has been intriguing  me, and which won't go away. 

"How can we have out-evolved evolution?"
Let me try to explain. I have Googled the contents of this question until my cordless mouse crept under the keyboard and begged for mercy.
I have Googled in English, French, Welsh and Brazilian Portuguese, wishing to cast my net as widely as possible.
But I have found nothing.
At least nothing satisfying.
So here's hoping you can help me out. 


Perhaps this question could be a subject of discussion, debate, or even an award-winning article in the category "Natural theology for the under-fives."
My problem is that either I am seeing something that isn't there (in which case I will immediately reduce my coffee intake) or I am seeing something that others don't deem worthy of comment – which I would find surprising, and I need to know why.
As a card-carrying RDNet atheist I had successfully acquired almost all the necessary "blind spots" (intellectual and emotional) in order to join in the merry but merciless sport of "believer-bashing".
The blind spots, of course, concerned such questions as "Why is there something rather than nothing" (Our answer, naturally, being "Who are you to decide that "nothing" is the default state?") and the Pinker "hard problem" concerning the nature of consciousness (our answer being "We don't fully understand yet but we will one day soon. In the meantime just keep buying the DVD's and get on with being rude to theists! What is wrong with you?)
Today I am in the totally thrilling position of rediscovering everything in the light of the love of God, but I have the impression that one of the Dawkinsian blind spots seems to pass unnoticed by Christian authors.
I am probably mistaken.
I would love to be shown that I am mistaken.
(The last time I was shown to be in the wrong, it changed my life.)

Allow me to sketch out a summarised time-line of Life, the Universe and Everything as seen by Atkins, Dawkins and my postman. (French postmen can be very talkative, and very opinionated. They have also been known to deliver the mail. The Quantum Delivery Service - both my neighbour and I receive my letters.)
In the beginning there was nothing. (An RDNet mathematician once tried to explain to me that mathematical nothing, or zero, was "unstable" and bound to become something sooner or later. Well, that reasoning didn't work with my bank manager, so it won't work with me either.)
Then there was a Bang and it was very Big. (We don't know why, but that doesn't matter. Get yourself a life.)
Perhaps three minutes later there was a generalised baryon, invitation-only knees-up which led to the appearance of helium and hydrogen.
The grand cosmic Dance of the Particles continued,  yielding atoms, molecules, galaxies, stars and eventually – perhaps ten billion years later - life.
When life was only beginning to flex its muscles, it was just a question of some complex molecules accidentally acquiring the capacity for self-replication which required their eating each other from time to time then going to pieces and falling apart.
Simultaneously, evolutionary mechanisms kicked in, and it was just a matter of time (about 3.5 billion years, give or take a few nano-seconds, but who's counting?) before the appearance of Manchester United supporters, Dawkins and me.
So far so good.
Evolution explains everything about Life.
Whatever shows up, if it favours survival and replication, Evolution invites it to the party.
Sooner or later.
Usually several magnitudes of later.
Except for the occasional surprise, open-air concert given by The Saltation Army.
(Sorry - I digress. Normal service will be resumed as soon as probable.)
The human being is an example of evolution in its most staggeringly complex, tax-paying form.
The human brain evolved leaving the brawn with flat feet, inguinal hernias, and chronic back pains (none of which apparently hinder reproduction. Well, that's what they say in the books.)
Ah, the human brain.
That's where things start to get messy for the Dawkinsian atheist.
In RD's own words: 

"The brain exists originally as a device to aid gene survival; the ultimate rationale for the brain’s existence and very large size in our own species is, like everything else in the living world, gene survival, which tends to imply short-term selfishness. "
BUT
as part of this the human brain has been equipped by the natural selection of genes with the power to make its own decisions, which can override the ultimate goals which were originally used to programme it."
(Keep your Prozac handy.)

Elsewhere Dawkins has said:
“Our brains are flexible enough to be reprogrammed away from the goals that are directly concerned with gene survival, and toward a new and competent purpose, led by a religion, by patriotism, or a sense of duty or loyalty to a party or faith.”
Faith?
Well, hallelujah, brother!
Er, no, not exactly.
But almost.
"We need to rise above our Darwinian heritage," he says.
In what way? "Well, we devote our lives to writing books, composing music, creating poetry — all higher functions of the brain. If we were following Darwinian dictates, we males would be spending all our time fighting other males to get females, and screwing them all over the place in order to have lots of children and grandchildren. I'm very glad we have risen above all of that."
Hang on a sec, what is going on here?
Evolutionary forces have allowed us to rise above.....evolutionary forces?
OK. Let's accept that for a moment.
We'll move into our "Willing suspension of disbelief Happy-Hour."
What do we get when our brain has out-evolved evolution?
Books, music and poetry.
Patriotism, a sense of duty, loyalty to a party or faith.
Religion and God.
Brotherly love.
Self-sacrifice.
And a whole truck-load of other non-essential stuff.
(I sense myself reaching for my coffee at this point – my disbelief suspenders are being stretched to their limits.)
Do our evolutionary gurus have an explanation for any of this noble silliness?
Well, yes, actually.
Things like brotherly love, symphonies, a sense of humour, condoms, child adoption and God are:
"evolutionary misfiring",
"spandrels",
"exaptations",
"by-products"
and more recently "neo-purposes "
or "neo-goals" as an accidental extension of "archi-purposes".
I'll bet that makes you feel better, mate!
(Just don't make the same mistake as I did last Valentine's Day. I sent my significant other a card with the message: 


"My evolutionary survival mechanisms are powerfully misfiring in your direction.
You are the spandrel of my dreams.
Let us exapt together forever"
 


She put salt in my coffee.)

As I consider all this, I am tempted to paraphrase Shakespeare and say, "There is something mad-bad-or-stupid in the kingdom of Dawkins."
Humankind's finest aspirations are simply evolution gone wrong? (including Dawkins himself, who shamelessly cherry-picks his exaptations, his ability to exercise this choice being another exaptation of course. Like the legendary turtles, it's exaptations all the way down.)
"I am a passionate Darwinian," he tells us, " in the academic sense that I believe that Darwinism is the main ingredient in our understanding of our own existence and that of all life, I am a passionate Darwinian in that sense, yet I am a passionate anti-Darwinian when it comes to human social and political affairs and political planning for the world."
So, Darwinianism got us into all this mess, and it will take anti-Darwinianism to get us out.
Darwinian in order to make a living and sell books.
Anti-Darwinian when he gets the chance to rule the world.

One of Dawkins' chums, the biologist and blogger, P Z Myers, in a lecture to the Minnesota Atheists on the brain said, "It is not idiotic to be religious".
He also devotes a lot of his time to calling religious people "idiots" and proving his superior intelligence by doing clever things like stealing communion bread and doing silly things with it.
That must be misfiring in spades!

So - has the blind watchmaker's watch stopped telling the time?
Has the selfish gene become the accidentally repentant gene?
Have Dawkins and his pals arrived at the summit of Mount Improbable and fallen over the edge?

Dear reader – this has been a long letter because I tend to get carried away and anyway I am Welsh (never use three words when thirty will do).
But I would appreciate your feed-back.
Or a nomination for the 2009 LHC (Large Hermeneutic Collider) Literary Award in the category, "Evolutionary Cordon-bleu Cuisine : things are seldom what they meme."
(You will remember that last year it was won by the MIT chef for his best-selling: "A hundred ways to prepare tasty unicellular kebabs: beyond the primordial broth.") 

So, did Evolution score an own goal when it allowed the human brain to get up to non-survival-friendly tricks like condoms and God?
Or is there something else going on?
Thank you for patiently reading this letter. I look forward to your reply.
Have a great spandrel today,


Richard O.Morgan
(Toulouse, France)

PS I notice that Steven Pinker (The Moral Instinct) is also rejoicing that evolution has out-evolved evolution : "Far from debunking morality, then, the science of the moral sense can advance it, by allowing us
to see through the illusions that evolution and culture have saddled us with and to focus on goals we can share and defend. As Anton Chekhov wrote, “Man will become better when you show him what he is like.”
God's love will show you what you are like.

8 comments:

Chris Sissons said...

I'm not sure I fully understand the question but that won't stop me from attempting an answer. I don't expect to arrive at a definitive answer in one go but at least head in the right direction.

I have a problem with Dawkin's selfish gene. It doesn't seem to me to fit what I understand to be Darwinian evolution as I learned it at school or in my first degree in biology in the 1970s (pre-Dawkins).

Genes are not the subject of natural selection. Phenotypes are subjected to selection. (Phenotype = Genotype + Environment) is what we had drilled into us. On average foxes eat the weakest rabbits so overall faster rabbits will get away more often and so rabbits will tend to evolve faster. The problem is the expression of genes is mediated through the environment. Biometrical genetics was a big thing in those days and is probably even bigger now with the advent of computers - the aim was to attempt to attribute the proportions attributable to genes and the environment.

It seems to me the selfish gene comes crashing down when you add in environment.

If you had a sequence of genes that coded for the best living organism ever, extracted from its cell and placed in a bottle you would have a bottle of DNA - that's all. Natural selection acts on layers of interaction between gene and environment starting with the proteins in the cell and building up to organelles, cells, tissues, organs, organisms and then populations of organisms. Species don't eveolve on their own but in interaction with populations of other species. You can't talk of the evolution of rabbits without also talking about the evolution of foxes and grass and lots of other things.

The selfish gene idea is an error in logical typing. Darwinian evolution acts on organisms in eco-systems, not on sequences of DNA.

Another problem is a natural but erroneous tendency to talk of natural selection as if it has a plan. When you write of a 'truck-load of non-essential stuff' - what do you mean? How can the attributes of an organism be essential or non-esseintial to natural selection. The point of NS is that it is blind - it doesn't have a plan so nothing can be essential to it.

So, if we are talking of evolution how can we possibly determine what is 'noble silliness'. It seems to me we have 2 options:

1. We can say everything we see has evolved, we can't say how everything evolved because we don't know but this is the best explanation we have.

2. Or we can say that evolution goes so far as to explain living things and we need something in addition that we don't yet know about.

To me the selfish gene is reductionist and erects a smokescreen that conceals the inadequancies of natural selection as a full explanation of evolution.

As a theist I am very cautious of seeking explanations via God because they are vulnerable to the next development in science and so I think it is still worth seeking a scientific explanation.

Theologically I would add that I see no reason why evolution needs to be explained solely in terms of matter. Why shouldn't consciousness be a foundational principle of the universe alongside of matter? How on earth this can be studied scientifically I don't know but it can't be studied if scientists can't see it.

Am I heading in the right direction? Give me a steer and I'll have another go.

PS I've written extensively on my blog about evolution which in my mind has something to do with ecumenism. You might find some stuff of interest there, even if ecumenism makes you wake up at night in a cold sweat.

Richard Morgan said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Richard Morgan said...

Thank you for this comment, Chris.
Also I am now enjoying reading your Blog.
As you may have noticed, my problem is not concerned with the basic iuudes of evolutionary processes.
It is rather the amazing, hypocritical paradox of Dawkins' attitude toward Darwinism.
Without batting an eyelid, he dismisses all the higher aspirations of mankind as "misfirings" of evolutionary strategies by saying, in a word, the evolved human brain has risen above the evolutionary principles by which it came into being!

Chris Sissons said...

Thanks Richard, I'm not sure which word you intended when you mistyped 'iuudes' but I hope you didn't think I was assuming you didn't understand the basics.

One of my points is the 'selfish gene' is actually not consistent with Darwinism or natural selection as I was taught it many years ago. Indeed I don't see the logic of it even in the light of modern advances. As a theory it doesn't stack up. Consequently it is hardly a surprise Dawkins finds things he cannot explain.

It seems to me reasonable to take an atheist (or theist) position so long as you are consistent in your arguments from there on in. Darwinism makes sense as far as it goes whichever aximomatic position you take about God.

Dawkins' problem is he's trying to use Darwinism to prove there is no God. It reads as if he is giving the gene a purpose.

The problem for the atheist is that if you start from atheism and work things out logically you will find God. Atheists like all good Christians reject idols, once you've done that you have to deal with what is left! Dawkins doesn't go far enough and so makes a God of his selfish gene. It is another idol and should be rejected as such because it devalues all those 'misfirings' whereas they are evidence of values that really matter.

Lee said...

Erm... I can type in this book - but I cannot cut and paste.

I wonder why?

I will e-mail you my little reply - maybe you can post it up.

Lee

Lee said...

Hey, I can now cut and paste?

Weird

So, here goes...

---------------

Hi Richard,

Erm… so what was your question again?

Is it the ‘inconsistency’ of Richard Dawkins et al when applying ‘Darwinism’?

Not sure I see the problem as you do.

Evolution (as it should be put – not the nasty ‘Darwinism’ which is normally spat out from the tongue of a young Earth creationist) got us to where we are today.

Once life got started, the theory is pretty good at explaining things

However, if you think about it – dog eat dog isn’t the life of choice.

Mankind has thought about it, so can, if it chooses, raise above.

So – where is the problem?

Lee

Anonymous said...

Your question is why have (some) humans stopped placing mating at the top of their to-do list despite evolutionary derived mechanisms urging them to do so?

Well I think brains have a way of demanding pleasure; which is used to get you to eat and mate and now also create music and shelter and technology. Evolution likes to explore all variations and repurposes for any part, brain included. But it's not as if no one cares for sex anymore right?

The other things you mentioned actually do have evolutionary explanations. Brotherly love for example: Isn't it advantageous for humans to live, travel, and hunt together? Hunting in packs dramatically ups the success rate, so evolution leads male hunters to prefer hunting together. But worried your compatriots might sleep with the women while you're hunting? not if we evolve pair-bond relations with mates, letting all males go hunt without fear (admitedly, the one mate instinct like in swans is not complete since it descended from loveing like a forest monkey) and how will the small hunter tribe survive if its members were unequally treated? So we evolved the sense of justice to keep the society cohesive. (One reason you believe in a god of justice when the universe just laughs uproariously at the concept)

mating is just one aspect of evolution

Richard Morgan said...

Anon - please forgive my delay in replying. I hdn't noticed that you had been good enough to leave a comment.
You comment that "mating is just one aspect of evolution". Well, I had in fact noticed that! LOL
but I understand your general point. My humourous enquiry concerns the apparent progressive predominance of non-survival traits, not just their accidental presence alongside those which keep the genes moving along.
Yes, it does seem as if "the universe just laughs uproariously at the concept" doesn't it?
But fortunately Bible-believers have been facing up to that problem for over two thousand years : check out the Book of Ecclesiates.
Take care and God bless.