“Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic” – Arthur C Clarke
“Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic” – Arthur C Clarke
Richard Dawkins – evolutionary biologist, popular science writer, professional atheist and all round very clever person. I’ve read a number of Dawkins’ books; he is a very entertaining writer. He talks knowledgably about biology and general science and delights in the hypocrisy and irrationality of the modern religions. He also invented one of my favourite pseudo-sciences – memetics. In theory he should be my hero, today he’s going to be the opposite. Mister Dawkins, j’accuse – you are the man who gave atheism a bad name.
I hate organized religion as much as the next son of an evangelist. It is no secret that irrational belief has done more damage to human society than anything else in history. We spent 1,000 years in the “Dark Ages”, when an out of control hyper-meme called ‘Christianity’ almost extinguished the wisdom of the Ancients Greeks, and probably successfully eradicated many more fragile ideologies (we have no way of knowing). The amount of blood shed in religious wars, and the amount still to be shed, appalls me, but no longer surprises me. Organised religion is the worst of tribal mentality, and we of the Age of Reason should be above that.
Richard Dawkins writes upon this subject in his most recent book, The God Delusion. He correctly points out that the human mind is vulnerable to certain types of memetic viruses, those that play on our fear of death, the unknown, and our arrogance as a species. Religions are the most sophisticated and resilient of these memes. But there is hypocrisy to his message, because while he writes eloquently of atheism, he doesn’t acknowledge that he has his own belief system, one that he clings to as desperately, and espouses as vocally, as any evangelical Christian.
Richard Dawkins has been the loudest prophet of Darwinism the world has ever known. He is Saul level. He has been perhaps the most significant single influence in the current popularity of the Theory of Evolution since Darwin himself. He calls Evolution a science, but this is a common misconception. It is a faith.
Darwin’s great theory is most probably right on the mark, there is a lot for evidence for it. But Evolution is not the kind of theory that can be conclusively proved in the same way gravity, heliocentricism, or a round earth can be proved. You cannot make a prediction of a state that can be measured after time t, which can then be tested at time t to see if it meets the prediction. The fossil record is very incomplete (representing less than 1% of all species who have lived on our planet), so if you were to look at time t for a fossil, it is very unlikely you would find it there.
The Theory, while a wonderful idea, and a beautifully elegant explanation for the question of how we got here, does not fit the bill of a conventional scientific theory. It also still has a few gaps in it’s explanation, gaps that requires a faith they will one day be filled. Evolution is a wonderful, elegant and popular idea, but we still have to choose whether we believe it or not.
In The Origin of Species, Darwin worried that Evolution was without sufficient proof, but held tightly to the belief that one day the fossil record would provide it. But Dawkins simply believes the theory to be ‘the truth’, i.e. beyond questioning, which is why his writings, entertaining though they are, always remind me of theological conversations with my Dad, who dismisses any viewpoint that doesn’t include the existence of God as simply irrelevant. Evolution is Dawkins ideology, and he suffers the same problem. Dawkins is an Evolutionary Fundamentalist.
But one advantage an Evolutionary Fundamentalist has over a Christian Fundamentalist is that Dawkins’ belief is in line with the zeitgeist right now, just as Creationism was only 90 years ago (prior to the Scopes trial in 1925). So he will sell a lot of books, because he is telling us what we want to hear. Whereas I won’t. But it’s nice to think that, what would have got you burned at the stake a 1000 years ago, can make you a multi-millionaire these days, so good on him.
Faith is the great cop-out, the great excuse to evade the need to think and evaluate evidence. Faith is belief in spite of, even perhaps because of, the lack of evidence.
- Richard Dawkins
“Just because some of us can read and write and do a little math, that doesn’t mean we deserve to conquer the Universe” – Kurt Vonnegut, Hocus Pocus 1990
In 1940 in Lascaux, France, four schoolchildren accidentally stumbled upon the hidden entrance of a cave system when, apocryphally, their dog got stuck in a hole. These children became the first humans in 17,000 years to set eyes upon the cave paintings that were discovered within, depicting prehistoric beasts and hunting frescos. The paintings, it is estimated, had been produced sometime between 13,000 – 15,000 BC. This, I probably don’t need to emphasise, is a very long time ago.
The paintings had survived so long because the caves had provided a perfectly balanced natural conservation area. The local council decided the caves could be opened to the public as a tourist attraction, and it was thought more modern conservation methods might be necessary if they were to accommodate the change in environment the visitors would cause. The walls of the cave were treated with modern chemicals manufactured to kill fungi.
Twenty years later it was observed that the colour of the frescos had began to visibly alter, and moss begun to grow there. So in 1963 the caves were closed to the public, and only scientists were allowed access from then on. In 1968 a state of the art air conditioning system was installed. To continue the tourist trade, a replica of the frescos was installed nearby.
After closing the caves to the public, the frescos continued to deteriorate further. In 2001, soon after installation of an updated air-conditioning system, scientists reported a ‘snow’ of white mould on the floor and walls. It was originally claimed that it was the increased carbon dioxide levels caused by the visitors that was damaging the walls, but it has since become apparent that it was the scientists that had caused the most damage, not the public.
It seemed the fungi suppressing chemicals applied in the name of conservation had seriously unbalanced the ecosystem. They had successfully killed off weaker fungi, but in doing so they had created an environment which was more accommodating to the most robust varieties of fungi, which could now dominate the environment and thrive.
Drawings that had been conserved by natural means for 20,000 years had been destroyed in less than 40 by a few meddling ‘conservationists’. It was a mundane, but colossal, cock-up of science, rooted in the misassumption that modern science could improve on nature’s methods.
Humankind (yes I’m talking about YOU) has a serious arrogance issue. We really think we’ve conquered the natural world, that we’re smarter, more resourceful and more deserving that the rest of the inhabitants of our planet. We think we’re pretty damn special. It is not enough for us to obey the same rules as the rest of the biosphere; we are the masters of our environment. We’ve tamed it. It is ours.
It’s not of course. It only takes a hurricane, epidemic or any other type of “natural disaster’ to prove that. If you live in Britain you’ll know it often only takes is a light snowfall to bring us all to our knees.
I despair at the sheer arrogance of Man and his scientific theories. But you also have to laugh at a self-delusion of this magnitude (what else can you do?). So, for your delight, here are the top three most arrogant Man-made theories of all time (in reverse order):
In the beginning God created the world and everything in it, then created Mankind and ordered us to “be fruitful and multiply, fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth.”
In short, God made everything, and then he made us to be the boss of it all. So, by divine order, we can do whatever we damn-well please to our environment because we’ve got more right to be here than everything else on the planet. This is all fine, because God says so.
This proved an immensely popular theory for a few thousand years. Not surprising, because it’s a brilliant bit of logic – we invented God, so he could invent everything, and then give it to us. Thanks God.
Later, we invented the telescope and the science of astronomy and in doing so discovered a magnificent universe, infinite in its wonder, 45 billion years old. Obviously, faced with such a phenomenon, we decided it was only logical that the whole thing revolved around us.
This was another hugely popular theory. Galileo spent the last days of him life in prison for daring to suggest otherwise. Fortunately this theory has been satisfactorily disproved now and Galileo got an apology from the Pope, in … um … 1992. Unfortunately he’d been dead 350 years.
So how do you top Genesis for a human-centric explanation for life? How about the current most popular theory of creation. Imagine a system whereby all the species on earth have been in competition with each other for 4.5 billion years, where a process of ‘survival of the fittest’ has wheedled out all the lesser, weaker species, leaving only the finest specimens, the most perfectly adapted. And who is the pinnacle of this billion year long process of incremental perfection? Who are the most perfectly adapted creatures at the end of this esteemed lineage?
Oh, that’d be us.
I have a favourite thought experiment I like to try. Stepping outside of my dominant ideology, the one I have been bought up believing, and seeing what the world looks like from out there. It is a slightly scary place.
It is perfectly acceptable these days, indeed positively de rigueur in bohemian circles, not to believe in God nor insist the human race is descended from two nudists and a talking snake. Yet, if I tell people in polite conversation that I don’t believe the Theory of Evolution, I always get that look, the one where they narrow their eyes and look at you slightly sideways, to see if you’re joking or not.
Don’t worry, I’m not thinking of becoming a creationist – they really are mental – but I’ve found that the Theory of Evolution, when examined, is actually much more complicated than it first appears, and requires quite a degree of faith in it’s details. It worries me that the majority of people who believe it unquestioningly, don’t even know exactly what they believe, they just trust the ‘experts’, who have probably worked it all out for them.
It is, after all, only a theory. And just because it is taught in schools doesn’t necessarily mean it is correct. Once we were taught to believe in Phlogiston, Aether, the Steady State theory, the Four Humours and a load of other great sounding theories that unfortunately turned out to be completely bonkers. When I was in school I remember being taught that goldfish had 10-second memories, which would be really cool, if it wasn’t just lies, lies, lies.
It’s called the Aunt Jobiska syndrome, one of Haldene‘s three theorems of bad science. The name comes from the Edward Lear poem The Pobble Who Has No Toes, in which Aunt Jobiska insists that “It’s a fact the whole world knows, That Pobbles are happier without their toes!” i.e. just because the whole world believes something it doesn’t mean it makes any sense.
History, as we know, is written by the winners, which is why today we all know Darwin’s theory, but very few of us know Lamarck, Darwin’s main rival of his time. But Darwin’s victory was not because his theory was ever proved (indeed, it is inherently unprovable), but because it was the most popular. And being popular, as we know from the career of Jeremy Clarkson, does not make something right.
Mary Midgley called Darwinism “the creation myth of our age”, as it has now replaced creationism, which was unquestioned belief throughout what we now, perhaps rather hypocritically, call the “Dark Ages’. I’m not saying I have a better theory, or that the Christians, Buddhists, Scientologists, Daniken or Icke are any nearer the mark, but I worry that if we, as a species, just continue to blindly accept whatever is the most easily digestible theory around at the time, we’re never going to make much progress towards actually answering any of the big questions in life.