Mr. Dawkins misfires

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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11 comments to Mr. Dawkins misfires

  • Eliezer

    This article makes some weak leaps, and in attempting to score a slam dunk, makes the same errors as the author of the criticized material is accused of making.

    Examples:

    “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?”

    Counter-arguments are readily present. Look at the insect world. The individual ready sacrifices itself for the survival of the group, especially the queen (bearer of genetic diversity). It makes perfect sense that an individual would sacrifice itself of the survival of the diverse species gene pool as a whole. Indeed, there are many examples of this of this ready found in nature.

    Another:

    “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.”

    Incest being widely taboo can be understood for three very clear genetic reasons. Firstly – it generally produces comparatively unhealthy offspring with reinforced dangerous recessive genes, with diminished capacity to survive to reproduce. Such an effect would be counter to the genetic of goal of reproduction, evolution, and diverse dispersal (i.e. avoiding the “eggs in one basker” disaster). Secondly – in-breeding would fail to produce sufficiency diverse and hardy genetic combinations. This is hardly counter to the theory. Indeed – the reason hypothesized why virtually all complex orgasms engage in sexual versus asexual reproduction, even when they posses asexual reproduction capability, is because the diversity introduced by sexual reproduction creates a stronger line of organism overall. Thirdly – we do, in fact, find that socially, that while incest may have been less desirable, endogamy certainly has not been. Thus – if on claims that lack of incest proves there cannot be genetic basis, one would almost forced to conclude that the very push for endogamy in virtually all culture argues just the opposite, if taken to a more macro scale. Genetically speaking – such an arrangement makes logical sense based on the above principles. Does the social argument.

    BTW – if anyone has ever had animals (say, mice) – one can also point out that they will readily resort to incest, if there are no other breeding partners available during breeding periods. This would seems to argue less towards the social, and strengthen the genetic arguments.

    As for parents reacting more altruistically for their own offspring than for that of others – that assumes that, in all cases, it is more beneficial for the overall genetic goal that ones personal genes perish and the genes of others survive. An answer is surprisingly obvious in this regard. The parent organism is aware that it will die, and its unique genetic contribution will be lost, unless it produces viable offspring that survive to continue the breeding. Putting the offspring of others above its own would ensure the loss of its own genetic heritage – the author assumes this is of no consideration or ignores it to make his argument about altruism.

    There are other examples – but, in short, the article’s author cannot be taken seriously as studied critique. At the very least, it demonstrates the same short-comings and deftness of hand as the work it criticizes. It, does, however make fine reading, for those looking for who don’t wish to dig too deeply beneath the surface and enjoy commentary the reinforces their own beliefs.

    Perhaps Cross-Current might consider soliciting an article by an actual scientist to address these topics in their next regeneration.

  • suzan

    Firstly, in regards to DNA, people argue that the strands came together over billions of years. However, if they think about it, DNA needs to be exact in it’s constuction for it to work and so it came with a set of instructions. The question is, where did the instructions come from?

    Secondly, I see that they think that people and animals are the same. While yes they are very similar, people have free choice and can choose to go beyond human nature. For example, when a person is upset, s/he can choose to Not loose his/her temper and just stay calm.

  • Baruch

    Mr. Rosenblum seems to equate bad reviews with bad ideas/books. Well, then, I assume that you are as impressed with Dawkins’ classic The Blind Watchmaker, which exploded the argument from design and received glowing reviews from none other than Sir Francis Crick and lo and behold, The New York Times Book Review, which you cite above. The LA Times and Isaac Asimov endorse the book emphatically as well.

    http://www.simonyi.ox.ac.uk/dawkins/WorldOfDawkins-archive/Dawkins/Work/Books/blind.shtml

  • Baruch

    Also, you and the staff at Cross-Currents ought to get it right out in the open, that no matter how convinced you are of Intelligent Design, or how unconvinced you remain about Darwin’s Theory of Evolution, you have no support for your belief that the God of the Torah is the God that made things the way they are- other than the Torah itself.

    In other words, it doesn’t follow that simply because there is or may be a creator, that that creator is the God of the bible. I hope you agree with that statement.

  • Shlomo

    Eliezer – good post. Someone who is secure in their faith shouldn’t feel the need to desperately search for explicit proofs, which depending on the circumstances will not always be obtainable. Anyway, the fact that certain emotions are innate or evolutionarily driven does not mean that moral standards for behavior cannot exist. It shouldn’t be necessary to state this.

    Regarding parents preferentially helping their offspring – I think you’re wrong on this though. As the article correctly stated, your sibling has just as much of your DNA as your child does, and there is no “unique genetic contribution” which goes specifically to your kids. However, the preference could perhaps be explained through different evolutionary logic: your kids are generally more IN NEED of help than your siblings, so your altruistic responses evolve to be stronger towards the people who need your help more (your siblings’ DNA will probably survive even if you don’t help them, not so for your kids).

  • Justin

    Shlomo: “Counter-arguments are readily present. Look at the insect world. The individual ready sacrifices itself for the survival of the group, especially the queen…”

    The difference here being that insects which demonstrate self sacrifice are themselves incapable of reproduction. Most bees or ants in any given colony do not possess individual reproductive capacities equivalent to mammals. If, for the purposes of DNA being passed on, we equate ‘life’ with reproduction than any single ant or bee colony represents a single organism, not the individual insects. The so called altruism of these insects is no more altruistic than me fighting to save my own life.

    More over in our particular genetic branch on the tree of life, no mammal or primate demonstrates the kind of self sacrifice humans do. Humans line up to fight and die for IDEAS, like monetary or political ‘freedom’. Some Humans line up to fight for other peoples freedoms (though more rare), that share no link with them at all.

    It’s one thing to make a monkey out of man, quite another to make him an insect.

    Also observe that the more ‘wealth’ an individual earns, the less likely he is to reproduce (in greater numbers). Wealth being a modern measure of an individuals productivity and ability to sustain both himself and his community. This runs contradictory, unless we assume a bell curve, but we have no other examples of such a bell curve being associated with successful mutations in nature.

  • Shlomo

    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.

  • Justin

    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.

  • Toby Katz

    “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.

    =====

    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.”

  • SM

    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.

  • Baruch

    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.