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Richard Dawkins - Gratitude Evolution & Vice Versa

Readers and Writers Week - Richard Dawkins

Review by Alastair Thompson

Image NZ Festival of the Arts
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A packed Michael Fowler Center was filled with fans of rational thought, many carrying copies of books by their hero in the battle against evolution deniers and woolly thinking.

As Richard Dawkins took the stage applause echoed around the cavernous venue which had been upgraded to enable more people to attend the most popular event in this year's Festival of the Arts.

Dawkins was introduced in glowing terms by his interviewer - a teacher (presumably of Science) who did not give his name. The introduction listed Dawkins' many best selling books lavishing praise on several of them.

Dawkins then moved to the podium to deliver a lecture entitled "Gratitude for evolution and the evolution of gratitude." The theme of this address was essentially that "our atheist, scientific, skeptical world view" need not lead to people being "joyless and dull". He concluded that indeed we should be grateful to be alive, and indeed that have probably evolved to "lust" to be grateful (which in part explains the human desire for religion).

In the end he only had sufficient time to deliver the first half of his thesis which was essentially a rapid romp through evolutionary science and philosophy emphasising two central points, that:
- the beginning of life at all in the primeval soup was a remarkable and so far unexplained phenomena - his "gut feeling" is that life is extremely rare in the universe but he does not put a lot of store in "gut feeling"
- secondly, once started evolution is the "fact" that enabled life to progress from bacteria through to human beings and other high level life forms - he emphasised that evolution is "not chance" rather its a highly predictable process driven by natural selection, and in particular freak accidents causing separation of populations.

Within the evolutionary milieu there is a "predictable sameness", Dawkins said. Eyes, ears and large complex brains for example have evolved dozens of times independently. Dawkins even said he had some sympathy with the view that if the evolutionary tape were re-run it would result again with bi-pedal upright creatures with large brains, hands and opposing thumbs. This should not be mistaken however for evidence of a creator - but rather simply that there are better paths that evolution can and does take.

Dawkins then moved onto a discussion of the cleverness of enzymes, protein and DNA, clearly delighting in the detail which he could only briefly touch upon.

He then moved on to a philosophical discussion of the origins of life. Life was either hopelessly unlikely - so much so to be effectively impossible - or relatively common. His "gut feeling" was that it was probably somewhere in between. However dealing with the extreme case it was possible to logically come to some conclusions.

If life's existence is so improbable that it is nearly impossible then it is almost certain that we will never find the origin of life as we will be seeking for an impossibly implausible explanation.

A discussion of the Big Bang then followed. Some physicists had argued that the Big Bang was too finely balanced to be true. This had led some people to believe that the fact that the six universal constants which organise how the universe expanded after the big bang were so finely balanced - that there must be a god.

However this notion required the existence of a being which was so clever that it is "not a logical starter".

(As an aside, in the festival play "11 and 12" a Muslim teacher is asked "What is God" by one of his pupils, he answers that "God is the embarrassment of man's mind" and then explains that because God cannot be defined, any attempt to do so inevitably leads to disappointment and embarrassment.)

Various philosophical contortions followed including the idea that there may be billions of universes and clearly in order for a universe to be successful and contain observers it must be correctly balanced.

Either way we are most certainly very lucky to be here and thefore we should be grateful.
He concluded is address saying "life is wonderful".

In the Q&A he answered several fairly leading questions from his interviewer.

"What is it about evolution that causes such angst?"
"Are the deniers of evolution deluded or cynically manipulative?"
"Do we find it hard to understand the huge numbers and long time periods involved in evolution?"

All of which had somewhat predictable answers.

The final interviewers question asked for Dawkins' opinion on the controversy around the role of natural selection in evolution, and cited philosophers such as Jerry Fodor who were leading the charge to relegate the role of natural selection (Note: Scoop has recently published a book on this subject - see… )

Dawkins' answer was comprehensive:

"Natural selection is by no means the only driving force of evolution," he said. Random chance was important, but the bits of evolution concerned with adaptive change are now known to be only the tip of the iceberg of evolutionary change.

Science now understood that the vast majority of evolutionary change was neutral, i.e. it had no impact on behaviour or adapability of organisms. These non adaptive changes were now able to be researched in detail by genetic scientists.

"But if you are interested in animals then it’s the adaptive stuff you are interested in. I don't know why there is an ideological preference to downplay natural selection, but if you think you can downplay adaptation and explain the flight of a swift by random drift then you are barking mad."

The presentation concluded with a bunch of public questions the first of which - "why are we so religious" enabled Dawkins to return to his thesis about the evolution of gratitude.

In humanity, Dawkins said, we can see that it is very important for us to calculate the relative level of indebtedness we have to one another. This in turn leads to a human lust to be grateful on the one hand and to hold grudges on the other. And when you are grateful for a sunset or a lovely day then it begs the question of whom you are grateful to - and this gives rise to the god belief.

Another questioner asked him whether fear of a god's vengeance was in fact a useful societal adaptation as it encouraged moral behaviour among believers?

Dawkins' response was to say that if so it was a deeply ignoble reason to be moral. That said, there was approximately 1/5th of the population who felt they could do whatever they wanted but for the risk of being caught and it was to control these people that the UK had introduced surveillance cameras all over London, and obviously belief in an omnipresent being watching everything could perform a useful function in relation to these people.

"Funnily though criminals are nearly all religious. Look at the mafia. Look at the Roman Catholic church."

Laughter and applause followed before a fairly diffident Dawkins moved off the stage, seemingly uncertain as to whether he should bow to the audience in recognition of the applause.

Dawkins was a very charming presenter and clearly wowed his audience of believers. This observer - admittedly somewhat religious in leaning - however found the arguments made by Dawkins, and the tone of the presentation and audience, almost religious itself.

It has been said often before, but Dawkins' primary arguments against both creationists and the religious tend to rely strongly on straw man arguments. The creationists believe that the world was created in 7 days 7000 years ago and the religious believe in a man with a beard sitting in the clouds directing human affairs.

It was nevertheless a great privilege to hear Mr Dawkins express his opinion and the enthusiasm of his skeptical scientifically minded followers is certainly a sight to behold.


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