Mr. Dawkins misfires

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Reviewers have not been kind to The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins, professor of something called “the public understanding of science” at Oxford. Critics have found it to be the atheist’s mirror image of Ann Coulter’s Godless: The Church of Liberalism – long on in-your-face rhetoric and offensively dismissive of all those holding an opposing view.

Princeton University philosopher Thomas Nagel found Dawkins’s “attempts at philosophy, along with a later chapter on religion and ethics, particularly weak.” Prof. Terry Eagleton began his London Review of Books critique: “Imagine someone holding forth on biology whose only knowledge of the subject is the British Book of Birds, and you have a rough idea of what it feels like to read Richard Dawkins on theology.”

Dawkins’s “central argument” is that because every complex system must be created by an even more complex system, an intelligent designer would have had to be created by an even greater super-intellect.

New York Times reviewer Jim Holt described this argument as the equivalent of the child’s question, “Mommy, who created God?”

Nagel provides the grounds for rejecting this supposed proof. People do not mean by God “a complex physical inhabitant of the natural world” but rather a Being outside the physical world – the “purpose or intention of a mind without a body, capable nevertheless of creating and forming the entire physical world.”

He points out further that the same kind of problem Dawkins poses to the theory of design plagues evolutionary theory, of which Dawkins is the preeminent contemporary popularizer. Evolution depends on the existence of pre-existing genetic material – DNA – of incredible complexity, the existence of which cannot be explained by evolutionary theory.

So who created DNA? Dawkins’s response to this problem, writes Nagel, is “pure hand-waving” – speculation about billions of alternative universes and the like.

As a charter member of the Church of Darwin, Dawkins not only subscribes to evolutionary theory as the explanation for the morphology of living creatures, but to the sociobiologists’ claim that evolution explains all human behavior. For sociobiologists, human development, like that of all other species, is the result of a ruthless struggle for existence. Genes seek to reproduce themselves and compete with one another in this regard. In the words of the best-known sociobiologist, Harvard’s E.O. Wilson, “An organism is only DNA’s way of making more DNA.”

THAT PICTURE of human existence, argues the late Australian philosopher of science David Stove in Darwinian Fairytales: Selfish Genes, Errors of Heredity and Other Fables of Evolution, constitutes a massive slander against the human race, as well as a distortion of reality.

The Darwinian account, for instance, flounders on widespread altruistic impulses that have always characterized humans in all places and times. Nor can it explain why some men act as heroes even though by doing so they risk their own lives and therefore their capacity to reproduce, or why societies should idealize altruism and heroism. How, from an evolutionary perspective, could such traits have developed or survived?

The traditional Darwinian answer is that altruism is but an illusion, or a veneer of civilization imposed upon our real natures. That answer fails to explain how that veneer could have come about in the first place. How could the first appeal to higher moral values have ever found an author or an audience? David Stove offers perhaps the most compelling reason for rejecting the views of those who deny the very existence of human altruism: “I am not a lunatic.”

IN 1964, biologist W.D. Hamilton first expounded a theory explaining how much of what appears to us as altruism is merely genes’ clever way of assuring the propagation of their type via relatives sharing that gene pool. The preeminent defender of Darwin – Dawkins – popularized this theory in The Selfish Gene.

Among the predictions Hamilton made is: “We expect to find that no one is prepared to sacrifice his life for any single person, but that everyone will sacrifice it for more than two brothers [or offspring], or four half-brothers, or eight first cousins,” because those choices result in a greater dissemination of a particular gene pool.

To which Stove responds: “Was an expectation more obviously false than this one ever held (let alone published) by any human being?” Throughout history, men have sacrificed themselves for those bearing no relationship to them, just as others have refused to do so for more than two brothers.

Here is a supposedly scientific theory bearing no relationship to any empirical reality ever observed. Stove offers further commonsense objections: Parents act more altruistically toward their offspring than siblings toward one another, even though in each pair there is an overlap of half the genetic material. If Hamilton’s theory were true, we should expect to find incest widespread. In fact, it is taboo. Finally, the theory is predicated on the dubious proposition that animals, or their genes, can tell a sibling from a cousin, and a cousin from other members of the same species.

SOCIOBIOLOGY, Stove demonstrates, is a religion and genes are its gods. In traditional religion, humans exist for the greater glory of God; in sociobiology, humans and all other living things exist for the benefit of their genes. “We are… robot-vehicles blindly programmed to preserve the selfish molecules known as genes,” writes Dawkins. Like God, Dawkins’s genes are purposeful agents, far smarter than man.

He describes how a certain cuckoo parasitically lays its eggs in the nest of the reed warbler, where the cuckoo young get more food by virtue of their wider mouths and brighter crests, as a process in which the cuckoo genes have tricked the reed warbler. Thus, for Dawkins, genes are capable of conceiving a strategy no man could have thought of and of putting into motion the complicated engineering necessary to execute that strategy. In one passage, Dawkins even describes genes as immortal: “[Genes] leap from body to body down the generations, manipulating body after body in its own way and for its own ends . . . The genes are the immortals . . . .”

Writing in 1979, Prof. R.D. Alexander made the bald assertion: “We are programmed to use all our effort, and in fact to use our lives, in production.”

And yet it is obvious to any child that most of what we do has nothing to do with reproduction, and never more so than at the present, when large parts of the civilized world are becoming rapidly depopulated.

Confronted with these obvious facts about human nature and behavior, sociobiologists respond by ascribing them to “errors of heredity.”

As Stove tartly observes: “Because their theory of man is badly wrong, they say that man is badly wrong; that he incorporates many and grievous biological errors.” But the one thing a scientific theory may never do, Stove observes, is “reprehend the facts.”

It may observe them, or predict new facts to be discovered, but not criticize those before it.

The only question that remains is: How could so many intelligent men say so many patently silly things? For Dawkins, the answer would no doubt be one of those evolutionary “misfires,” such as that to which he attributes religious belief.

Published in Jerusalem Post, December 14, 2006.

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Baruch
8 years 8 months ago

How nice to see all the biology experts pronouncing Dawkins and evolution to be foolhardy. Have any of you completed a graduate-level biology course? Your opinions about the truth of the Torah do not make something as complex as evolution fair game for just any biology “am ha’aretz.”

I guarantee you are doing more chillul than kiddush HaShem with these comments and the initial post, if it matters to you. Learn the sugya, even if it takes years, then let’s see how dismissive you are.

SM
8 years 8 months ago

Dawkins is as worried by the existence of God as some Jews are worried by evolution. Dawkins would rather be the result of some billions to one chance than part of a plan. Jewish worriers would (it sometimes apperas) rather be the result of a fairy story than a remotely provable version of events.

I can understand Dawkins – someone who elevates human consciousness to godhead doesn’t want to share. He has a classic idol worshipper’s perspective – the only god he recognises is one he can control.

But I don’t understand us. The difference between me and an ape is obvious. At some stage God breathed a soul into that ape and in doing so He utterly changed it. Whilst all the other apes (who, if evolution is correct, our ape closely resembled at that stage) sat around aspiring to be like our ape, they could not make it on their own. Or perhaps they didn;t even notice. Either way our ape didn’t become simply another species of ape – he became a man.

Part of becoming a man is an ability to recognise the Creator. Dawkins is a bundist – instead of fasting on Yom Kippur he has a banquet and eats ham sandwiches. In doing so he makes the argument for us. We don;t have to be frightened by science – we only have to understand where scientific knowledge actually ends and speculation begins.

Toby Katz
8 years 8 months ago

“Critics have found it to be the atheist’s mirror image of Ann Coulter’s Godless: The Church of Liberalism – long on in-your-face rhetoric and offensively dismissive of all those holding an opposing view.”

Hey, I love Ann Coulter! The real difference between Ann and Dawkins is that she argues with verve, wit and panache, while he argues with a kind of dull world-weariness, “Do I have to explain all this to those morons all over again?” Thus, agree with her or not, her books are a lot more fun to read.

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Eliezer wrote: “Incest being widely taboo can be understood for three very clear genetic reasons.” Yes, incest taboos do make sense for genetic reasons — and yet AFAIK humans are the ONLY species, out of millions of extant species, that have incest taboos. As Eliezer himself said about his pet mice, no other animal avoids incest or would have a clue who to include on the guest list at a family reunion.

Since humans avoid incest and other animals engage in incest, you have here a pretty common scenario in the evolutionary drama: absolutely EVERYTHING could possibly have survival benefits. It’s all a series of “just-so” stories, bed-time stories for believers in evolution. In reality, these varying reproductive strategies prove nothing about evolution one way or another.

Au fond, all Darwinian science boils down to “We exist, ergo evolution works.”

Justin
8 years 8 months ago

Shlomo:

1) Please explain Vietnam, the Bolshevik revolution, or the Civil war as a defense of ones genetically similar? Vietnam had at best an abstract strategic importance, but average individuals weren’t fighting for that reason… most faught only because they were told to. Bolshevik revolution was led, largely, by upper middle class and those who had little incentive to opt out of the current system. The Civil war was billed at the time as a war on slavery… of which most of the soldiers were eligible as slaves, and it involved huge numbers of people

2) If ‘nature’ is always what we define as being to the benefit of our DNA, than any one who ‘overcomes’ his ‘nature’ is acting foolishly against not only his life but those who are like him (ie family). I see no reason to respect a person who acts essentially insane.

1&2) regardless of argument, both points you chose still show a large amount of aberration. The fact that sociobiology (as opposed to classic biology) fails to predict or even resolve existing data suggests a need for a major revision of the theory. People like Dawkins taking it up with religious fervor (ironically) while there are still so many holes in the theory seems very non-scientific.

Shlomo
8 years 8 months ago

Justin:

1) Human psychology is complicated; don’t be so confident that behavior cannot be understood in evolutionary terms. For example, fighting for an idea may often be psychologically similar to fighting to defend your tribe, which of course is evolutionarily advantageous.

2) The fact that “fighting for other people’s freedom” is rare in fact is evidence for the evolutionary approach – most people are not willing to do the morally correct thing if it threatens their survival. Of course, this should only increase our respect for those people who overcome their natural urges and do endanger themselves to help others.