Sunday, August 17, 2008

Richard Dawkins on Darwin

Here's my review of the program:

Part 1

I thought Dawkins did an excellent job explaining both the significance of evolution and the life of Darwin.

Evolution is a remarkable theory because it explains the tremendous variety of life on Earth as a step-by-step process of accumulated genetic change. From this relatively simple process, you get every species that has ever existed on Earth. It can't be overstated how amazing a discovery that was.

But, I do have one eensey weensey gripe: he could have been a little more diplomatic about evolution and atheism. There was this aggressive "evolution disproves your God" streak throughout - he says, "this book [Origin of Species] made it possible no longer to feel the necessity of believing in anything supernatural". This was particularly jarring during his talks with the students. Granted, of course, the students defense of their religious beliefs were absolutely abysmal (and thankfully, later said they were more interested learning about evolution).

But rather than get in people's faces about religion, it would be more productive simply to describe how evolution works and how well-supported it is, and then describe the religious objections to evolution and how one's beliefs don't change the reality of an evolving world. Instead of getting dragged into theological debate, the focus should be on the scientific facts. People are fairly astute and will figure out on their own that there isn't much future for beliefs that oppose facts.

Personally, I don't espouse much of a connection between atheism and evolution, since I was never indoctrinated against it in my theistic youth as a United Methodist. So, in my opinion, evolution is about as innately god-discrediting as atomism or heliocentrism. (I note that interestingly enough, all 3 of them angered religious authorities) While it does set the stage for theists who believe in creationism to for a nasty brush with reality, theists who accept evolution remain unaffected. It doesn't remove "the necessity of believing in anything supernatural" for them.

Part 2

He talks about the "dark side" of evolution - the fact that nature is a disturbing, violent place and that the process of evolution in nature involves a great deal of danger and inevitably, death. And the implications of evolution for us humans - why we exhibit altruism and the realization that humans are apes in the taxonomic sense (our connection to the animal world that's routinely denied in favor of a preferred "special" status).

His talk with the reverend was hilarious, quickly dispatching creationist-style talking points: "why are chimps still around?" and "what's the goal of evolution?". I liked Dawkins' retort that there is no real goal to evolution. It's ironic that religious people try either to denounce evolution as evil or try to deify it as some Victorian ladder of progress when in actually, our shifting genes are no more purposeful than our shifting continental plates. And thinking about it, our genetic code (filled with such undesirables as pseudogenes and ERVs) is a pretty silly place to go looking for teleology in the first place.

He then discusses social darwinism and eugenics - evolution used to justify cutthroat business practices and racism. A very good part on sexual selection, altruism, and his selfish gene idea, which prompted some discussion from a friend of mine.

He wondered why individuals of many species, including our own, sometimes adopt the young of other species even though it does nothing for our own selfish genes. For example, when people see an abandoned deer fawn that's unlikely to survive in the wild, they're likely to take it in and feed it as if it were one of our own. My guess is that it's a byproduct of our paternal instincts towards our young; we're liable to treat the young of other species as if they were our own on occasion.

My friend grimaced at that explanation and insisted that it was unsatisfactory because we can obviously tell that a deer fawn is not a human baby.

I replied that we have some survival instincts which are definitely rooted in evolution, like fear of spiders and snakes. When we see a large snake nearby, we instinctively recoil in fear. But we equally fear rubber snakes and harmless animals that look like snakes. I think a similar thing happens with our love of young animals (and incidentally, ones that are more related to us are more likely to be adopted - adopted animals tend to be almost exclusively mammals; it seems that few people are very sympathetic towards young worms or insects). We "know" that the object of our altruism isn't our own species, but our instincts (and the genes behind them) don't seem to care.

Part 3

Finally, the good stuff - the crusade against evolution in all its nutty glory. I love the expression on his face while patiently dealing with the idiots (vigorous blinking is definitely his tell).

Then it goes through his deconversion story, which I thought was rather strange, since my own experience was so totally different, dealing with poorly supported claims of knowledge of the supernatural (i.e. "because the Bible says so") rather than the argument of design.

Nutbag #1 - the "you can't see evolution" guy (who presumably spends the rest of his time arguing with weathermen that seasonal changes don't happen because no one witnesses the exact instant that summer turns into autumn). Dawkins at least gave him a handshake and parted amicably, which was far more diplomatic than I would have been in his place.

The part where he reads out his barely literate hate-mails (including the cuss words) was absolutely priceless.

Nutbag #2 - "teach the controversy" lady. Such a viper. She pleads for evidence, but she's already ruled ahead of time that there isn't any; so nothing's ever going to convince her - all while arguing that Dawkins is the closed minded one. What a waste.

Nutbag #3 - the chemistry teacher who uses his position to spread creationist material to the kiddies. Claims that "scientists weren't there" and that God's Word trumps all.

Darkins talks about the various imperfections inherent in our species - blind spot, appendix, wisdom teeth, etc. My personal favorite in that vein is our vestigial nictating membrane, that little pink fold in the corner of our eyes. Sure, it doesn't actually harm us in any way, but it's such an obvious leftover from a previous age that it's impossible to claim that man was created from scratch. It's like having a portable cd-player powered by a car adapter sitting on top of the disused tape deck - you can tell it's jury-rigged like crazy.

Dawkins asked the salient question of how we should deal with conflicts of religion and science in schools. My opinion (and sadly, it's probably the minority view) is for educators to unabashedly teach the facts and if students can't handle that due to religious brainwashing, well that's too bad - one shouldn't shy away from teaching knowledge or whitewash it simply because some people don't like it. That's their problem, not the teacher's.

In his discussion with the teachers about this issue, the teachers shy away from overtly challenging creationist views (which is understandable given the fury of zealous parents), but at least they support making the scientific case for evolution. Dawkins caught one of them in an interesting slip of the tongue. He said that evolution is "one way of interpreting" and that "we believe it because we're scientists" unintentionally reinforcing creationist ideas that creationism and evolution are only a matter of opinion and that scientists believe evolution on faith.

Deny - Attack - Absorb: a excellent summary of religious strategies in dealing with conflicts with science.

Finally, Dawkins summaries the epiphanies of evolution: that all life on Earth is related and that we are evolved to survive. In my view, it also means that the earliest life has ceaselessly spread from something you could hold in a thimble to covering the entire Earth; from a few simple cells to an unimaginable variety of forms. Life itself is an unbroken chain of chemical reactions constantly occurring for billions of years. That's ridiculously cool.

No comments: