Richard Dawkins is the high priest of popular science, this country’s unofficial scientist laureate. His theories have helped to form the generally accepted scientific ‘rational’ worldview of our culture, which most of our institutions, our media, and our respected intellectuals accept as ‘reality’. The main tenets of this worldview can perhaps be summarised as follows:
• Life came into being by accident, through the interactions of certain chemicals. Once it had come into existence, it evolved from simple to more complex forms through randomly occurring genetic mutations acted on by natural selection.
• Living beings consist of ‘selfish genes’ whose mission is to replicate themselves. Human beings are merely vehicles for the propagation of our genetic material. The desire for genetic replication is the main motivation of everything we do.
• All of our instincts, emotions and behavioural traits are related to certain genes. These characteristics exist in us because they had survival value for our prehistoric ancestors. As a result the genes they are related to were ‘selected’. For example, it was genetically beneficial for men to be polygamous, since this meant that their genetic material could be replicated more frequently, and so men have a natural tendency to be unfaithful. According to some advocates of evolutionary psychology, rape may also have a genetic basis; it can be seen as a desperate to attempt to replicate their genes by men who cannot attract willing sexual partners.
• Since living beings are nothing more than their physical or chemical components, there can be such thing as a ‘soul’ or ‘life-force’. What we experience as ‘consciousness’ is produced by the working together of the billions of neurons in our brains.
• As a result there can’t be any life after death. Our consciousness dies with our brains, and nothing survives our bodies.
• Paranormal, ‘mystical’ or ‘spiritual’ phenomena cannot be genuine because they contravene the fundamental laws of nature. For example, there is no known energy field which could link one mind to another and make telepathy possible, and no known force which could account for the ability to move objects by mental effort.
The Neo-Darwinist Dogma
These tenets are so familiar and so widely accepted that one might assume that that they are undisputed ‘truths’ with enormous evidence behind them, which all scientists accept. But if you dig a little deeper you find that this isn’t the case at all. These tenets are closer to beliefs or assumptions than actual truths, and there are many scientists who dispute them. In fact, it’s interesting that most of the prominent supporters of Dawkins’ views are not biologists – for example, Daniel Dennett is a philosopher, while Steven Pinker is a cognitive psychologist. Amongst biologists themselves, there is a great deal more scepticism about his views.
We also tend to forget that Neo-Darwinism is to a large extent an Anglo-American phenomenon. Many continental scientists have been less impressed with it. One problematic aspect of the Neo-Darwinism is that mutations only occur at a rate of about one per several million cells in every generation. Since only a tiny number create beneficial traits which give a survival advantage, some scientists doubt that this frequency is enough to give rise to the amazing variety of life forms the world contains. The French anti-Darwinist scientist Andree Tetry pointed out that it’s not just a question of mutations being beneficial, they also have to be cumulative. Each mutation has to relate to the previous one, and occur at exactly the right place and time. Imagine the thousands of separate genetic mutations which would be needed to produce birds’ wings, for example. Each one would have to be exactly the right kind of mutation in terms of the previous one, to create the next step along the line of development to wings, and each time the odds against these occurring accidentally would increase massively.
There is also the problem that favourable mutations would soon be lost by interbreeding with non-mutated members of a species. Darwin himself saw this as the biggest problem of his theory. It’s easy to see how this ‘crossing’ might be avoided with animals – they might just physically move away from the species, for instance – but not with the vegetable kingdom. One of France’s other most prominent 20th century anti-Darwinists, Pierre Paul Grasse, pointed out that mutations can only cause trivial changes. There are invisible boundaries between species which mutations cannot cross, so that they can cause variation but never true evolution.
Other arguments against Neo-Darwinism will be more familiar to SMN members. For example, biologists such as Lynn Margulis and James Lovelock have argued that the driving force of evolution is not competition but co-operation. Living beings do not survive by fighting against one another, but by interaction and mutual dependence. Strictly speaking, ‘the survival of the fittest’ does not mean the survival of the strongest or the most selfish, but the survival of those who interact most effectively. Systems theorists have shown that natural systems and organisms have an innate tendency to move towards complexity, creating structures which are more than the sum of parts. Apparent order and complexity are not created by genetic mutations, but by the innate ‘emergent’ properties of matter.
In addition, the developing recent field of epigenetics suggests that genes may be switched on and off by environmental factors, and that once genes are ‘switched on’, they may continue to be active for descendants. For example, if someone experiences malnutrition or stress, this can cause changes which are passed down through future generations. In a 2006 study in Sweden, the scientists Marcus Pembrey and Lars Olav Bygren found that if a 19th century person experienced famine in their life, it has an effect on the life expectancy of their 20th century grandchildren. Research at Washington State University has shown that if rats are exposed to toxic substances like fungicides or pesticides, it causes biological changes which last for at least four generations, and possibly more. Similarly, after the 9/11 disaster, the psychologist Rachel Yehuda studied the effects of stress on pregnant women in or near the World Trade Center. Her results suggested that the effects were passed on to the women’s children. In other words, this suggests that the much maligned early French biologist Lamarck – who suggested that evolution proceeds through the ‘inheritance of acquired characteristics’ – may not have been completely wrong.
Anthropological Evidence against the Selfish Gene
Dawkins’ own most prominent contribution to the Neo-Darwinist paradigm, the concept of the selfish gene, leads to a host of pernicious assumptions about human nature. If ultimately all that matters for us is the survival of our genes, then it’s inevitable that human beings – and all other living beings – should be competitive, greedy, aggressive and war-like. It’s inevitable that different human groups fight over territory. It’s inevitable that societies consist of different classes and that the powerful oppress the weak. It’s inevitable that we all look after number one and keep all our millions of dollars in the bank instead of giving them to starving people on the other side of the world. As we saw earlier, some evolutionary psychologists see rape as an inevitable consequence of our selfish genes’ desire for replication. Racism is also ‘inevitable’. The evolutionary psychologist Pascal Boyer, for example, sees racism as ‘a consequence of highly efficient economic strategies’, enabling us to ‘keep members of other groups in a lower-status position, with distinctly worse benefits.’(1) In other words, we keep people from other groups away from our resources and treat them badly so that we can decrease their chance of genetic survival and increase our own. The ‘selfish gene’ theory denies the most noble of human characteristics – our capacity for self-sacrifice, compassion and altruism – or else ingeniously explains them away as ‘mistakes’ or ‘disguised self-interest’ or ‘recipocral altruism’.
However, from an anthropological perspective, there are some serious objections to this view of human nature. It’s completely wrong to assume that all human societies are – or have been – competitive and hierarchical. In fact anthropologists and archaeologists generally agree that the most prehistoric human societies were extremely egalitarian and democratic. Until about 10,000 years ago, all human beings lived as hunter-gatherers, in small groups, moving from site to site every few months. Typically, contemporary hunter-gatherer societies do not have leader figures. They might have a nominal chief, but their power is very limited, and they can easily be deposed if the rest of the group aren’t satisfied with their leadership. Decisions are usually arrived at by group discussion, and food is never hoarded individually but always shared amongst the group. There are no status or wealth differences. As the anthropologist Christopher Boehm summarises, ‘This egalitarian approach seems to be universal for foragers who live in small bands that remain nomadic, suggesting considerable antiquity for political egalitarianism’. (2) The anthropologist James Woodburn speaks of the ‘profound egalitarianism’ of foraging hunter-gatherer groups, noting that no other way of human life ‘permits so great an emphasis on equality.’ (3)
One possible argument here might be that these groups are effectively extended families, and so by being egalitarian they’re effectively ensuring the survival of their common genetic material. As Dawkins explains the occasional altruistic behaviour of animals, ‘altruism at the level of the individual organism can be a means by which the underlying genes maximise their self interest.’ (4) However, we would still expect there to be some expression of selfishness and competitiveness, at times when the interest of their selfish genes is better served by individualistic and non-cooperative behaviour. But such behaviour very rarely occurs.
Another argument might be that, although they may work co-operatively as individuals, as groups these peoples might be extremely competitive. All of their competitive instincts might go into fighting with other groups. After all, haven’t all human groups always fought tooth and nail and done their best to exterminate each other? But this isn’t true either. Hunter-gatherer groups are generally (with a few exceptions) strikingly peaceful, and when conflicts do occur they are often ritualised into less dangerous forms. For example, if Australian aborigine tribes had a potential conflict, one person from each tribe would be chosen, and, standing stationery around thirty metres apart, would throw spears at each other. When one of them was wounded the conflict would be over and the other tribe would be seen as the winner. One anthropologist, J.M.G. van der Dennen, surveyed over 500 of the world’s remaining native peoples, and found that the vast majority of them are ‘highly unwar-like’, with ‘war reported as absent or mainly defensive,’ while the others only had ‘allegedly mild, low-level and/or ritualised warfare.’ (5) In 2013, the anthropologists Douglas Fry and Patrik Soderberg published a study of violence in 21 modern day hunter-gatherer groups, and found that, over the last two hundred years, lethal attacks by one group on another were extremely rare. They identified only 148 deaths by violence amongst the groups during this period, and found that the great majority were the result of one-on-one conflict, or family feuds.
And this doesn’t just apply to hunter-gatherers. There have been many sedentary tribal peoples who were strikingly un-warlike and egalitarian. There are also examples of ancient towns and even whole cultures which appear to existed without any significant degree social inequality or warfare. This is true of the ancient Turkish city of Catal Huyuk, for example, which existed for 2000 years with no evidence of damage through warfare, and also the Minoan culture of ancient Crete. According to the archaeologist Nicolas Platon, the ancient Cretans were ‘an exceptionally peace-loving people’ who showed no evidence of warfare either at home or abroad for over 1,500 years, until the latter stages of their culture, when they started to be affected by developments on mainland Greece (6). Their towns had no military fortifications, their villas were built facing the sea (showing that there was no danger of attack by pirates or invaders) and there is no sign that the islands’ different city-states fought against each other. The Cretans also had, in the words of Riane Eisler, ‘a rather equitable distribution of wealth’, the result of which was an apparent lack of poverty and a high standard of living for peasants (7).
Neo-Darwinists and evolutionary psychologists generally don’t attempt to deal with these issues, showing little interest in anthropology or archaeology. They speak of an ‘environment of evolutionary adaptation’ (EEA), usually locating this on the African Savannah, but rarely attempt to investigate who these early humans were, or how they might have lived. From their point of view, this ignorance is advisable, since the evidence contradicts their theories.
As mentioned above, Dawkins doesn’t believe that altruism contradicts the ‘genetic selfishness’ of living beings. After all, it’s usually directed towards people who share the same genes as us, members of our own families or communities, so that when we sacrifice ourselves for them this may mean actually perpetuating our own genes. And even when this isn’t the case, there may still be some benefits to us. Altruism makes us feel good about ourselves, it makes other people respect us more, or it might (so far as we believe) increase our chances of getting into heaven. Or perhaps altruism is an investment strategy – we do good deeds to others in the hope that they will return the favour some day, when we are in need. (This is known as reciprocal altruism.) According to evolutionary psychologists, it could even be a way of demonstrating our resources, showing how wealthy or able we are, so that we become more attractive to the opposite sex, and have enhanced reproductive possibilities.
Finally, evolutionary psychologists have also suggested that altruism towards strangers may be a kind of mistake, a ‘leftover’ trait from when human beings lived in small groups with people we were genetically closely related to. Of course, we felt an instinct to help other members of our group, because our own survival depended on the safety of the group as a whole, and because, more indirectly, this would support the survival of our genes. We don’t live in small tribes of extended family anymore, but we habitually behave as if we are, helping the people around us as if we are related to them.
These explanations may account for many acts of altruism, but I don’t think they can account for all. ‘Pure’ altruism exists too – a simple, direct desire to alleviate the suffering of other human beings or other living beings, based on our ability to empathise with them. This is suggested by the psychologist Daniel Batson’s ‘empathy-altruism’ hypothesis, which has been validated by many experiments. Because we can ‘feel with’ other people, we are motivated to help them when they are in need. It’s true that this may bring additional benefits – it may make us feel good about ourselves afterwards, or increase our chances of being helped back – but these aren’t the primary motivation. It’s possible that our primary motivation is an impulsive unselfish desire to alleviate suffering.
Years ago a friend of mine went to India for a holiday and was so affected by the poverty he saw that he decided to go back and spend a year working at Mother Teresa’s hospital in Calcutta. His desire to help was so pure and unconditional that it’s difficult to understand how – even on an unconscious or instinctive level – it might have been part of security policy to try to ensure that he was helped back if he ever fell into poverty himself, or even a way of increasing his status amongst his peers.
The other day, I was about to have a shower, and saw a spider near the plug hole of our bath. I got out of the shower, found a piece of paper, gently encouraged the spider on to it, and scooped it out of danger. Why did I do this? Perhaps in the hope that a spider would do the same for me in the future? Or that the spider would tell his friends what a great person I am? Perhaps there are some spider genes inside me from way back in my ancestry. Or, more seriously, perhaps it was the result of moral conditioning, a respect for living things and an impulse to ‘do good’ which was ingrained in me by my parents? (Although come to think of it, my parents didn’t teach me those things…)
No, I think this simple act was motivated by empathy. I empathised with the spider as another living being, who was entitled to stay alive just as I was.
I’m being a little facetious, but the question of altruism to members of other species is an important one, since it can’t be explained in genetic terms, or in terms of ‘reciprocal altruism.’ If I donate money to an animal charity, stop to pick up an injured bird on the road and go 10 miles out of my way to take it to the nearest vet, am I really doing it to look good in other people’s eyes, or to feel good about myself? Again, that could be the case, but it’s also possible that these are acts of pure altruism – responses to the suffering of another living being, arising out of empathy.
As a more general point, it’s also worth remembering for a moment that genes are nothing more than chemicals. According to Neo-Darwinist ideology, these chemicals actually have control over me. I am completely subservient to them. Neo-Darwinism takes away all the autonomy, free will and intelligence which I thought I had and gives them to my genes.
Neo-Darwinism and the Farther Reaches of Human Nature
Some of the most absurd applications of Neo-Darwinism are its attempts to explain the ‘farther reaches of human nature’ (in Abraham Maslow’s phrase), such as human creativity, the appreciation of beauty, the urge for self-actualisation or for spiritual growth.
According to Neo-Darwinism, everything we do is motivated by a desire for survival and genetic replication, and all our characteristics and habits were developed because they helped us to survive in the past. Steven Pinker has suggested, for example, that our sense of beauty is always directed towards natural phenomena which represented survival to our ancestors. This is why scenes of streams, trees, lush fields, fruit trees and flowers appear beautiful to us. And this does seem to make some sense – after all, we do generally find sterile and barren environments unattractive. As with evolutionary psychology in general, there’s definitely something in it. The problem is that that ‘something’ is taken too far, and is meant to account for the whole spectrum of human behaviour, ignoring myriad other factors. And there are, of course, all kinds of natural phenomena which we find beautiful despite the fact that they could have had no survival value for our ancestors whatsoever. One of the sights which human beings find most beautiful is a clear sky at night, with the velvet blackness and the stars and the moon. But the night environment has no survival value for us whatsoever – in fact, darkness was dangerous to our ancestors. Desert environments could hardly be more inimical to human survival prospects, but many of us find them beautiful too. For example, the explorer William The singer ‘fell in love’ with the desert, writing of the Sahara: ‘I was exhilarated by the sense of space, the silence, and the crisp cleanness of the sand.’ (8)
In his book How the Mind Works Pinker also mulls over what he calls the ‘puzzle’ of human creativity. Why is it that so many people are driven to pursue artistic activities such as poetry, painting or composing music when these activities seem to have little survival value? The conclusion Pinker reaches is that creativity is linked to a desire for status. We write poems and novels and symphonies because we want to make a name for ourselves so that we can attract women and spread our genes as far and wide as possible. This might be true of a few rock musicians, but every creative person knows himself or herself that there are much deeper motivations – a desire to capture and communicate ideas and emotions, to inspire and influence others, and so on. If novelists and poets were really just seeking status then they would surely give up after their first year or so of rejection slips and become businessmen or drug dealers instead. And there are, of course, many artists who are completely unconcerned with recognition. A friend of mine has been writing poems prolifically for over 30 years and has never tried to get any of them published.
Paranormal Phenomena and Quantum Physics
In Unweaving the Rainbow Dawkins shows a laudable willingness to accept that human understanding of the world might be limited, and that science cannot give us the answer to everything. He discusses the idea that time began with the Big Bang, and writes that this is impossible for us to understand due to the limitations of our minds, which ‘were only ever designed to cope with slow, rather large objects on the African savannahs.’ (9). He makes a similar point in his collection of essays, A Devil’s Chaplain, when discussing Quantum physics. He writes that ‘modern physics teaches us that there is more to truth than meets the eye, than meets the all too limited human mind’ (10).
In view of this, Dawkins’ closed-minded attitude to ‘paranormal’ phenomena seems puzzling. After all, isn’t it possible that phenomena such as telepathy or pre-cognition might work in ways which are beyond our understanding as well? However, Dawkins vehemently dismisses the possibility of such ‘supernatural’ phenomena. As he sees it, belief in such things is the result of a desire to regress to the comforting and colourful illusions of childhood. It’s the result of a failure of nerve, a failure to develop a true, objective, rational vision of the world. This hypocrisy suggests that Dawkins’ attitude here is itself irrational, a dogmatic reaction to phenomena which potentially threaten the foundations of his worldview.
Perhaps even stranger though, is the wilful blindness of Dawkins and other mechanistic scientists towards the implications of modern physics. Dawkins has said – as many sceptics do – that if phenomena such as telepathy and pre-cognition exist, this would contravene the present laws of physics. But this isn’t the case. It may be true of classical Newtonian physics (although even this is debatable) but certainly not of modern physics. There are many aspects of modern physics which are compatible with pre-cognition, for instance. If the universe exists in four-dimensional space-time, the idea that time flows in a linear direction, from the present to the future, makes no sense. Time is static, in the same way that space is, so that the whole of the past and the whole of the future are here now, existing side by side with the present. And even if we presume that time does flow, there is nothing in the laws of physics that suggests that it can only flow in a forward direction. As Stephen Hawking notes, ‘the laws of science are unchanged’ when particles are changed to anti-particles, when their ‘left’ and ‘right’ sides are swapped, and when their motion is reversed (in other words, when they move backwards in time). (11)
It is certainly not true that telepathy and pre-cognition contravene the ‘laws’ of microcosmic quantum physics. The quantum phenomenon of backwards causation’ (or retro-causation) is clearly compatible with pre-cognition, since it suggests that, under certain circumstances, cause and effect can be reversed, so that an event can literally take place before its cause. And in relation to telepathy, quantum entanglement shows that seemingly ‘separate’ particles are interlinked, reacting to each other’s movements, so that they can’t be treated as independent units but only as a part of a whole system. That suggests that, on the microcosmic level, all things are interconnected – which would also offer the possibility of an exchange of information via telepathy. More generally, these quantum phenomena – and others, such as particle/wave duality – make it clear that (as Dawkins agrees) our understanding of the universe is limited, and there must be a multitude of forces and phenomena beyond our present awareness. They demonstrate that, in William James’ phrase, we cannot ‘close our accounts with reality.’ It is therefore irrational to state with certainty that paranormal phenomena are impossible – and even more so, when one considers the significant empirical evidence for phenomena such as precognition and telepathy which has been amassed over recent years. (12)
Sceptics like Dawkins often attempt to separate off the sub-atomic world from the macrocosmic world, try to convince themselves that the strangeness of the sub-atomic world doesn’t affect their ordered Newtonian world. But this is nonsense, of course. The sub-atomic world is this world, in the same way that the tiny black dots with different shades are the photo. What is the case (or appears to be the case) for the quantum world is also the case for the macrocosmic world we live in. The quantum world informs the macrocosmic world.
The idea that there might be much more to reality than we can conceive of breaks one of the assumptions at the heart of mechanistic science: the assumption that the world as it appears to us is the world as it is; that the human mind – or human consciousness – has access to absolute truth. (To his credit, Dawkins doubts that this is the case.)
It’s this assumption which makes some scientists sure that one day we will understand the universe completely, uncover all of its laws and explain all its phenomena. If we have access to absolute reality, then understanding the world is simply a question of investigating it in as much detail as we can. We just need to keep examining it, and eventually all our discoveries will add up into a ‘theory of everything’, and the great enterprise of scientific discovery will be complete.
This assumption is also the basis of some sceptics’ certainty that paranormal phenomena cannot exist, and that other unusual phenomena such as near-death experiences, spiritual experiences or out of body experiences can be explained away in materialistic terms. These phenomena lie beyond our normal understanding; they are not a part of our normal, tangible everyday reality. And so to accept them would mean that there is more to the world than everyday reality.
But for any human being to believe that they have access to absolute truth is anthropocentric arrogance. We are not aware of reality through an objective, camera-like vision. As Kant suggested, our awareness is mediated by our psychological structures; we don’t just observe reality, we co-create it, and cannot know reality as it is in itself. To assume that we’re capable of being aware of absolute reality is to assume that human awareness is absolute. But human beings are part of a whole spectrum of awareness which moves through the most basic to the most complex life forms. All living beings have a certain degree of awareness and, generally speaking, the more physically complex a living being is, the more intense and expansive its awareness is. An insect has more awareness of reality than an amoeba; a bird probably has more awareness than an insect, and a human being has a more intense and expansive awareness of reality than a bird. This makes sense, since we have the most complex brains.
But evolution doesn’t end with human beings, of course. At some point in the future other beings will come into existence, with more consciousness than us in the same way that we have more awareness than birds or insects. And with their more intense awareness, they will perceive a different reality than us – a wider reality, including forces and fields and other phenomena which we can’t conceive of, but which may explain some of the strange goings on in our world.
The Neo-Darwinist Ideology
The fact that, despite their shaky foundations, the tenets of mechanistic science are clung to so tightly and presented so aggressively as ‘the truth’ suggests that what we’re really dealing with is not objective science so much as an ideology.
The mechanistic view of the world has an enormous appeal because it has great explanatory power. To possess a complete and coherent picture of the world, which explains where we came from, who we are and what the world is, is a deep-rooted human need. On the one hand it gives us a sense of orientation and order, of knowing where we’ve come from and where we’re going. And on the other hand it gives us a sense of power over the world. Knowledge is power, as Francis Bacon said, and to feel that you completely understand nature and the world provides a satisfying sense of control, a feeling of superiority and dominion. Not knowing means living in uncertainty and confusion, and being subordinate to the mysterious forces of nature.
This is part of the reason why religious sects such as Jehovah’s Witnesses or the Church of Scientology are so appealing to many people. They offer a complete, watertight, self-sufficient view of the world which banishes any sense of existential confusion and doubt. As Erich Fromm pointed out, ‘man’s awareness of himself as being in a strange and overpowering world’ creates an intense need for a ‘cohesive frame of orientation’ to explain the world (12). Until recent centuries religion provided this frame of orientation. The rise of science at the time of renaissance was so fiercely resisted partly because it blew apart the ‘complete explanation of everything’ which the Christian worldview provided, and therefore threatened people’s sense of orientation and power over the world.
Ironically, in this respect the Neo-Darwinist Dawkinsian worldview functions in a similar way to the Christian worldview of 500 years ago, or the present day religious fundamentalism – precisely the worldview Dawkins attacks so vigorously in The God Delusion. Both perform the same psychological function, satisfying the same psychological need. As Dorothy Nelkin pointed out, ‘Evolutionary psychology is a quasi-religious narrative, providing a simple and compelling answer to complex and enduring questions. While represented as a scientific theory, [it] is rooted in a religious impulse to explain the meaning of life.’ (13) Similarly, Lynn Margulis described Darwinism memorably as ‘a minor twentieth-century religious sect.’ (14) This makes it clear why many adherents of scientific materialism react with such hostility to studies suggesting evidence for phenomena such as telepathy and precognition. (15) They’re reacting in a similar way to the popes and church leaders who tried Galileo and Giordano Bruno for heresy, trying to keep the ‘frame of orientation’ which gives them a sense of meaning and security intact. The admission that telepathy or precognition might exist would destroy this, and leave them disoriented and impotent in the face of the world.
Dawkins and ‘Bad Faith’
This might seem strange after spending the last few thousand words criticising him, but it wouldn’t seem fair to end this essay without mentioning the things I admire about Richard Dawkins.
I admire his clear and fluent prose style and his ‘no bullshit’ approach to his subject matter. I admire his attempts to debunk religious beliefs and the vacuous intellectual posturing of post-modernist academics. And most of all, I admire his attempts to convince us that, in spite of the apparent bleakness of the mechanistic worldview, life is still full of meaning and worth living.
For him meaning comes from the very fact that we are alive at all, when the odds against any of us coming into being in the first place are so massive. As he writes stirringly, ‘After sleeping through a hundred million centuries we have finally opened our eyes on a sumptuous planet, sparkling with colour, bountiful with life’ (16). His second source of meaning is the wonder of existence itself, the awe-inspiring complexity and intricacy of the world. Most of the time what he calls the ‘anaesthetic of familiarity’ dulls our minds to this, but if we could look at the world with ‘first-time vision’ we would be continually amazed by its richness and strangeness. Dawkins believes that the purpose of our lives should be to contemplate and to study this wonder, to spend our ‘brief time in the sun’ working towards ‘understanding the universe and how we have come to wake up in it.’ (17) Again, this is a very inspiring sentiment.
In these passages Dawkins has a tone of stoic existentialism. He’s like Sartre encouraging us to value our freedom even though life is meaningless, or the German poet Rilke encouraging us to ‘praise in spite of.’ But even here his attitude is dubious. He appears not to be facing up to the full consequences of his own view of the world; in fact, he is guilty of what Sartre called ‘bad faith’.
If we are nothing more than ‘throwaway survival machines’, if our lives have no other consequence than the replication of our genes, if life is just a ‘brief spotlight’, then we’re nothing for the rest of eternity. If the universe is empty and cold and purposeless, if (as Dawkins has written elsewhere) the ‘natural state’ of the world is one of ‘starvation and misery’(18) and there’s no other causal force in the universe except blind chance – if this is all true, then no amount of complexity and intricacy can compensate us for it. To tell us to ‘count our blessings’ and look at how intricate everything is like asking a prisoner in solitary confinement to look around in awe at the walls of his cells and feel grateful because they’re painted with bright colours. The most honest reaction to Dawkins’ view of the world – and to the worldview of materialistic science in general – would be not to bother getting out of bed in the morning, to commit suicide, or to try to escape from the bleak reality by taking drugs or chasing after ego-gratification and sensory thrills (which, of course, is what many people try to do).
But fortunately we don’t have to do any of these things, since it is very unlikely that ‘bleak reality’ is the truth.
Beyond Mechanistic Science
A sceptic might justifiably ask: if you’re saying that evolution didn’t just happen by random mutations and natural selection, that consciousness isn’t just a product of the brain, or that telepathy or precognition are more than just wishful thinking, and so on, then how else are you going to explain these things?
The most sensible way of looking at all of these problems is to accept that we may not be able to answer them satisfactorily, because of the limitations of our intellect and our awareness. As I’ve suggested, it’s anthropocentric arrogance to believe that we can fully understand or explain the universe. Perhaps all we can do is to make pick up hints of an answer and make suggestions based on them.
If random mutations and natural selection don’t seem capable of explaining evolution, we may have to speculate – as Pierre-Paul Grasse did – that evolution is not wholly random, but directed by a self-organizing principle, an inherent tendency to move towards increasing complexity. Evolution can be pictured as a process of unfolding along predetermined lines, like the development of a human being from conception through to birth and then adult maturity.
One of the cornerstones of the mechanistic worldview is that what appears to us as consciousness is a product of brain activity. However, partly as a result of neuroscientists’ and philosophers’failure to explain how the brain might be able to give rise to consciousness, some philosophers have suggested that consciousness may be, in essence, outside the brain. As David Chalmers suggests, we should perhaps see consciousness as a fundamental force of the universe, like gravity. According to this view, consciousness (or experience) may be essentially everywhere around us, at least in potential. As another philosopher, Robert Forman, has suggested, it may be that, rather than actually producing our awareness, the human brain – or the brain of any living being – acts as a kind of receiver or transmitter of awareness. It translates the raw essence of universal consciousness into an individuated awareness.
According to this view, evolution is a process by which organisms becoming more and more physically complex and in the process becoming capable of receiving and transmitting more consciousness. A speculative view of the origin of life, in these terms, would be that it occurred when inanimate matter became complex enough to act as a transmitter for consciousness– i.e. when the first single-celled organisms began to ‘receive’ consciousness and as a result became aware of, and capable of reacting to and interacting with, their environment.
This could explain the puzzle of altruism too. If the essence of all living beings is the same universal consciousness then it’s not surprising that we have the ability to empathise with each other’s suffering and are prepared to sacrifice our own well-being for others’. Empathy and altruism are the consequence of our shared consciousness, which enables us to experience each other’s suffering and joy as if they are our own. As the philosopher Schopenhauer put it, ‘My own true inner being actually exists in every living creature, as truly and immediately known as my own consciousness in myself…This is the ground of compassion upon which all true, that is to say unselfish, virtue rests, and whose expression is in every good deed.’(19) And all of this fits closely with what quantum physics tells us, of course: that we are all part of a single system, that we are all interconnected.
But these are just speculations and suggestions, which will probably never be confirmed. Ultimately we have to accept that we can only know so much, and perhaps not very much at that. We have to remember that we are still in Plato’s cave, looking at the shadows on the wall and mistaking them for reality.
1. Boyer, P. (2001). Religion Explained. London: Vintage, p. 299.
2. Boehm, C. (1999). Hierarchy in the Forest. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, p.69
3. Woodburn, J. (1982). “Egalitarian Societies.” Man, 17, 431-51, p. 432
4. Dawkins, R. (1998). Unweaving the Rainbow. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, p. 212.
5. van der Dennen, M.G. (1995). The Origin of War. Groningen: Origin Press, p. 595.
6. Platon, N. (1966). Crete. Geneva: Nagel Publishers, p. 56.
7. Eisler, R. (1987). The Chalice and the Blade. London: Thorsons, p.32
8. Glancey, J. (2002). ’Wild at Heart: A Profile of Wilfred Thesiger.’ Retrieved from http://www.theguardian.com/books/2002/jun/29/featuresreviews.guardianreview6
9. Dawkins, R. (1998). Unweaving the Rainbow. Boston:Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, p. 60
10. Dawkins, R. (2004). The Devil’s Chaplain. London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, p.19.
11.Hawking, S. (1996). A Brief History of Time. London: Transworld , p.126.
12. For example, see Parker. A. & Brusewitz, G. (2003). A compendium of the evidence for psi. European Journal of Parapsychology.18: 33-51. Or more recently, Mossbridge J, Tressoldi, P & Utts, J. (2012) Predictive physiological anticipation preceding seemingly unpredictable stimuli: a meta-analysis. Frontiers of Psychology 3: 390.
13. Fromm, E. (1974). The Anatomy of Human Destructiveness. London: Jonathan Cape, p. 264.
14. Nelkin, D. (2000) ‘Less Selfish than Sacred: Genes and the Religious Impulse in Evolutionary Psychology.’ In Alas, Poor Darwin, Rose, H. & Rose, S. (Eds.), London: Jonathan Cape, p. 22.
15. For instance, see the response to Daryl Bem’s research paper ‘Feeling the Future’ http://dbem.ws/FeelingFuture.pdf
16. Mann. C. (1991). ‘Lynn Margulis: Science’s Unruly Earth Mother.’Science 252 (5004): 378–381.
17. Dawkins, R. (1998) Unweaving the Rainbow. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, p. 6.
19. Dawkins, R. (1995) River Out of Eden. New York: Basic Books, p. 133
20. Schopenhauer, A. (2015). ‘On the Basis of Morality.’ Retrieved from http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/44929
By Steve Taylor
Steve Taylor PhD is senior lecturer in psychology at Leeds Beckett University. His books include Back to Sanity and The Fall. His website is www.stevenmtaylor.com
The Editors invite readers’ comments on this article. To join the discussion Please follow the Evolution Forum Link