grandeur, without delusion: dawkins

Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion

Think ‘primal urges’, and a picture of greed, hunger, fear, and sexual lust bounds readily from the cave of our imagination. Indeed, Natural Selection easily and readily accounts for our early survival instincts, writes biologist and author Richard Dawkins. Through The God Delusion, Dawkins also explores evolutionary explanations for our higher moral codes – common values like compassion, giving and the care we extend beyond the bounds of our immediate family. How did these seemingly unselfish traits arise in furthering survival?

Richard Dawkins, ‘The God Delusion’

The human origins beneath our developing moral codes are among many scientific questions tackled by Dawkins’ The God Delusion. All known human societies for example, have extended beliefs in a supernatural order, of spiritual beings and divine punishments. Many religionists argue for this reason that without faiths, humans would be without moral compunction.

Arising across different cultures, races and geographic origins, religious beliefs, with the usual aim of benefitting a particular ‘in-group’, carry similar and often repeated patterns of ritual and belief. These suggest the powerfully reinforced behaviours designed with benefit to mutually excluding groups. They may have genetic origins that furthered early group survival.

As Dawkins argues in The God Delusion however, these offer a poor basis for moral decision making.

[This book] is intended to raise consciousness- raise consciousness to the fact that to be an atheist is a realistic aspiration, and a brave and splendid one. You can be an atheist who is happy, balanced, moral, and intellectually fulfilled.

Science now offers a logically simpler origin story that takes into account the multitude of solar systems and galaxies, replacing the mythically central human position in the cosmos. By decentering the human from cosmology, many of the divine claims of race and subjugation are revealed to be false and damaging.

Rembrandt, (1634) Abraham and Isaac.

Genetics have linked us within the animal kingdom, and debunked racial justifications in the Torah, Holy Bible and Quran for genocide and tribal exclusion. Biological recognition has similarly allowed feminism and tolerance to replace patriarchy and the scripturally codified values of the tribe.

Given the religious claims of moral guidance, it would be expected that various religious and non-religious people would act differently in moral situations. Scientific study does however support Dawkins’ contention that “our sense of right and wrong can be derived from our Darwinian past”. Thought experiments have shown underlying moral universals do cross seemingly disparate ethnic, religious and geographical lines.

The subjects were asked to choose in various hypothetical situations which actions were morally ‘obligatory’, ‘permissable’ or ‘forbidden’…The main conclusion of Hauser and Singer’s study was that there were no statistically significant difference between atheists and religious believers in making these judgments.

In a generously referenced, orderly and readable prose, Dawkins offers an alternative cosmological grandeur. The God Delusion not only measures the improbability of a designer more complex than our own universe, but illustrates an historical pattern of human movement – albeit with periods of regression – toward a more modern liberal behaviour. As scientists unravel the natural workings of the human brain, they find a morally urgent being capable of goodness without fear. That too, is a basis for not only our own guidance, but genuine optimism aswell ♦

Richard Dawkins has been previously reviewed in imodernreview’s ‘a new turing test’ (The Oxford Book of Modern Science Writing) and ‘genesis and the genius’ (documentary, The Genius of Charles Darwin ).

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genesis and the genius

This series is about perhaps the most powerful idea ever to occur to  a human mind. The idea is Evolution-by-Natural-Selection, and the genius who thought of it was Charles Darwin.

Richard Dawkins

The Genius of Charles Darwin, Channel 4 series presented by Richard Dawkins

Incredible though it may seem, with the weight of evidence accumulated since Darwin wrote On the Origin of Species over 150 years ago, 4 out of every 10 British people still believe a god created every species as you see them today. It is with this daunting task of re-education that popular biologist Richard Dawkins presents a modern and exciting first hand look into Charles Darwin’s discovery in the Channel 4, 3-part TV series The Genius of Charles Darwin. 

Richard Dawkins, Presenter. Dawkins is an evolutionary biologist and author of ‘The Selfish Gene’ and most most recently, ‘The Magic of Reality’.

Author of The Selfish Gene, which built on Darwin’s theory with more recent discoveries and proof of genetic evolution, Dawkins is a uniquely credible source of certainty. More than a theory, “Evolution is a fact.” The viewer is transported with Dawkins as he travels around the world, from the modern English classroom, to the Galapagos and Kenya, in search of the same clues and evidence by which Darwin discovered Evolution.

Galapagos marine iguana (Amblyrhynchus cristatus) Photo by Laura Nunes.

It is, in Dawkins’ words, “nothing less than a complete explanation of the complexity and diversity of human life”.

The series offers fascinating insight into Darwin’s personal life, the genius’ personal struggles and reluctance to spread a knowledge that would undo centuries of belief in a supernatural order. Born in 1809, science could not as yet supply Darwin the proof we have today, the genetic coding of our species’ ancestors and relations. By naked observation however, Darwin’s five year round-the-world voyage yielded  samples of hundreds of species, where tiny differences among sub-species in neighbouring islands yielded huge heretical questions. Lifeforms were not fixed, but changed over Time and circumstance. On the Origin of Species was the result of 20 years’ research, combining the best scientific opinion from geologists such as Charles Lyle, and the study of fossils dating specie developments over millions of years.

Dawkins takes us through the historic collections of Darwin’s studies. A ‘pigeon fancier’ Darwin could observe first-hand how characteristics in the species could be bred out or encouraged, demonstrating the ‘plasticity’ of a species over generations. Similarly, chance cycles of variation occurred in Nature over an extended period, and favoured those variations most successful in being reproduced.

In Kenya, Richard Dawkin’s birthplace, Dawkins shows that there is “nothing orderly about the relations between predator and prey”. Nature leads animals in a generational “arms race” to greater speed and physical weaponry in the pursuit of finite resources. As Darwin wrote in On the Origin of Species,

Natural Selection is daily and hourly scrutinizing the world every variation and even the slightest, neglecting that which is bad and preserving all that is good, silently and insensibly working. We see nothing of these slow changes in progress until the hand of Time has marked the lapse of Ages.

 

In 1859, the possibility another biologist named Wallace might ‘scoop’ his discovery finally encouraged Darwin to publish his findings and its explosive implications. Still timidly afraid of presenting the mountain of evidence gathered, observed and deliberated before him, Darwin’s book was finally released to the public, selling out in its first two days of release. 152 years later, it has never again been out of print.

The genius of Charles Darwin, his personal struggles and domestic losses, are presented against a viewer backdrop of Darwin’s own home and grounds, lending elegant and historic setting to Darwin’s step by step development as biologist and author. Dawkins’ own genius has been to present the soundness of this at once complex and “elegantly simple” solution to the origin and diversity of lifeforms inductively. That is, we are lead through each stage to observe as Darwin did, the sameness and variety by which variation led from prehistory to the present.

Popularly conceived as a dry theory devoid of moral import, Dawkins’ feat of genius is to present to the layperson the grandeur of the evolutionary world view. We humans are the result of a long line of millions of the most successful pairings of gene and generation, developing brains that can examine our self origin like no other species can. We are a ‘nervous system’ for a planet at last waking up. Over 150 years old, evolution-by-natural-selection represents the most modern and genius of ideas. What’s more, Dawkins shows, it’s true ♦

[Charles Darwin’s complete works are now available online. imodernreview has previously reviewed Richard Dawkin’s editorship of The Oxford Book of Modern Science Writing in a new ‘turing test’. The TV series The Genius of Charles Darwin is available to order on DVD]

a new ‘turing test’

Alan Turing [Photo from mark_am_kramer]

Away from the front lines of the world’s deadliest conflict, a quiet math genius was busy making the calculations to save the lives of millions.

During WWII, Alan Turing’s logic broke apart the seemingly impenetrable random code messages of the Nazi ‘Enigma’ device, and thus delivered into the hands of Allied forces intelligence in numerous battles. Much of our knowledge of ‘machine intelligence’ can also be attributed to Turing’s pioneering theories and development of Pilot Ace, the world’s first multi-task computer.

In 1950, Alan Turing posed the question, ‘Can Machines Think?’ He proposed the key to achieving a thinking machine was not to replicate the adult mind, but that of the child-learning mind. A process somewhat akin to evolution could be imitated, gradually mutating a device through ‘education’, that is, overlaying new programming by introducing algorithms of increasing complexity. In this way, connections established from base knowledge, adjusted by mutation and selected on a basis of success would achieve the best approximation of human thought, teaching a machine to think.

Alan Turing, ‘Computing Machinery and Intelligence’ (1950) in Richard Dawkins (Ed) The Oxford Book of Modern Science Writing (2008)

He would devise an experiment referred to as the ‘Turing Test’ for theoretically evaluating machine intelligence.

These ideas are presented chapter-form in Richard Dawkins’ superbly edited collection, The Oxford Book of Modern Science Writing.

For his weighty contributions, Alan Turing might justly have held a position of wide fame and honour today. The tragic story of Turing’s own life and the circumstances of his suicide however, reflect a new challenge for the modern age.

As Richard Dawkins writes,

After the war, when Turing’s role was no longer top secret, he should have been knighted and feted as a saviour of his nation. Instead, this gentle, stammering, eccentric genius was destroyed for a ‘crime’, [homosexual activity] committed in private, which harmed nobody.

Turing was arrested, forced in 1952 to undertake ‘chemical therapy’ for his homosexuality and was removed from any official position. He died 2 years later, aged 41, in circumstances ruled as suicide.

Just 2 years ago, a petition in Britain lead to a full apology from the British government for its treatment of Turing, delivered September 2009 by then UK Prime Minister Gordon Brown.

The upcoming centenary of Turing’s birth has brought a new focus to honouring his legacy to modern innovation. The University of Auckland, and the UK Newton Institute will both be devoting entire lecture programs to his mathematical and computing legacy. He is already the subject of a play, an opera, and a new film focussing on his important work.

A new UK petition seeks to posthumously pardon Turing of his criminal record. As of this writing, the petition has already garnered 15,000 UK signatures. If successful, the petition would be a fitting symbol,  if only a symbol, for a greater modern challenge for society, a new ‘Turing Test’ if you will.
The ‘test’ would be to discover and reward the eccentric innovators in our midst, while developing more complex programming to successively overlay and cancel our own obsolete ‘programming’ – our prejudices. In so doing, we may hope to evolve our own human intelligence, ironically like one of Turing’s machines:
We may hope that machines will eventually compete with men in all the intellectual fields…We can only see a short distance ahead, but we can see plenty there that needs to be done.
Alan Turing
When they do, this competition will form a fitting test. We need only think ♦

Trailer for upcoming ‘Alan Turing Decoded’ viewable hereThe Oxford Book of Modern Science Writing (2008) Richard Dawkins (Ed.) is available from Oxford University Press. [Turing photo attributed and sourced from Flickr Creative Commons]