Tuesday, August 05, 2008

Darwin vs God?

Last night I watched a little of Richard Dawkin's latest documentary, three hours of praise to Darwin over three weeks. All in celebration of the 150th anniversary of the publication of Origin of Species. I don't know why I turned it on. Richard Dawkins is a jerk. He winds me up.

I should state right now that I couldn't be more solidly in the evolutionary camp. I have a degree in Geology. Even before the smoking gun evidence of genome mapping, I was convinced by the overwhelming (though admittedly gappy) evidence of the fossil and geological record.

But Dawkins's diatribe is almost exclusively devoted to debunking religion with biology. He goozes enthusiasm about the wonder of the natural world - all without God. OK Richard, we get it - you don't believe in God, but I'm just wondering - if God isn't worth consideration why do you talk about Him so much?

Dawkins fails to recognize that maybe religion has some value - some evolutionary value - to human existence. We are not like the lions or the ant or the snails. We humans are more complicated critters than that, we build complex social organisations. We build civilizations. We construct cities and tribes and groups and clubs and - yes, religious hierarchies - all in a bid to hold off the savagery of nature and our own characters in order to help us survive and allow our genes to carry on. We have not evolved beyond this.

He tries to take on religious belief head on. In last night's program, he harangues a group of teenagers - some clearly from a variety of religious traditions. He takes them on a fossil hunt at the beach and shoves the DNA evidence down their throats in a quick few hours of (what seems to be) him lecturing about the silliness of relying on religious texts and their parents' teachings and them staring gormlessly back. Dude, that's not the way to support critical thinking.

He skirts around the dangerous trend of subverting proof and rationality to avoid causing anyone religious offense. Some Brits mock the credulity of the American public and the open battle between Science and Creationism. But in this country, Science and free speech are being gnawed away quietly by the trump card of not wanting to offend anyone's spiritual sensibilities. It appears that in many UK schools Creationism is taught alongside science.

And while Protestantism and Enlightenment have rubbed along fine for much of the time particularly when they keep to their own spheres, there's a new threat to scientific discourse. Islam. I don't know if Dawkins will discuss that in the remaining two hours of his programme on Darwin (and frankly, I don't know if it's relevant), but I'll give him some credit for at least raising the issue elsewhere. In a recent Daily Mail article:

Most devout Muslims are creationists - so when you go to schools, there are a large number of children of Islamic parents who trot out what they have been taught. Teachers are bending over backwards to respect home prejudices that children have been brought up with. The Government could do more but it doesn't want to because it is fanatical about multiculturalism and the need to respect the different traditions from which these children come.

He added: 'It seems as though teachers are terribly frightened of being thought racist. It's almost impossible to say anything against Islam in this country because if you do you are accused of being racist or Islamophobic.'

I don't "blame Islam" for this, but I think Islamic religious sensibilities are reinforcing the trend to abandon science and pursue a "cuddly world" where belief is never challenged. I don't think religious belief should be subjected to same kind of rigour that scientific theories must face - as that is the model for how science thrives and progresses. But at the same time, we need a framework for nuanced discussion about religion and the ability to challenge pernicious beliefs, for example the status of women or indeed the perceived fallacy of scientific truths - like evolution. Richard Dawkins doesn't have a clue how to do this.


Sam said...

Dawkins is a jerk indeed, but his jerkiness is in the service of a generally admirable aim. I happen to believe as an article of faith that religious belief satisfies some evolutionary survival instinct. Obviously, it's impossible to divine exactly what advantage it may have served back in the day, but I think it has little value today.

The one thing that Radical Islam over there and mainstream Christianity over here have in common is a contempt for any science that challenges the more tooth-fairyish aspects of their dogma. Here in Texas it is a matter of great concern that evolution might be taught exclusively as a model for how life changes over time. While folks like Dawkins and PZ Myers and the other bomb throwers are annoying, I'm not sure that a "nuanced discussion", as admirable a goal as that may be, is even possible. Like deeply held political beliefs, I don't think core principles of religious faith are subject to dialectical debate. Sometimes all we can do is throw the occasional rhetorical bomb.

Vol-in-Law said...

"I think it has little value today"

Religious people seem to have a lot more children on average than the non-religious. Since reproduction is all our genes care about, there's your value right there.

A meme like belief in evolution through natural selection can be objectively true, but not beneficial for reproduction.

Sam said...

"Since reproduction is all our genes care about, there's your value right there."


A Free Man said...

I, like you, am firmly in the evolution camp. In fact, realistically there isn't another viable camp. But Dawkins is a jerk and his approach - derision and pedantry - is completely ineffective. He annoys people more than convinces, irritates more than educates. He's pompous, blustery and fails to see the irony that the belief he condemns in others is pretty damn similar to his own blind belief in the religion of science.

As a scientist, and recently an evolutionary biologist, we are sometimes guilty of blind faith in the church of science. Sometimes this prevents us from seeing mistakes that we're making. Much of the time this prevents us from communicating effectively with lay people - beautifully illustrated by Dawkins.

I'm hesitant to say that Islam is any worse than any other religion in terms of ignoring scientific facts in favor of a religious belief. It's fundamental sects of any religion that are the problem.

Finally, humans are no longer really subject to natural selection for a number of reasons that I would be delighted to talk about at length, because I am both a pedant and an evolution geek.

Stepping off my soapbox, thanks for the thought provoking post.

Vol Abroad said...

I don't think Islam is any worse with respect to evolution than is fundamentalist Christianity. The problem is that while as a society we're comfortable enough saying "Look, keep your churchy stuff over there," we're not as comfortable saying "Could you please leave those medieval views at the mosque door, thank you very much."

As Dawkins says, it gets too much mixed up with matters of race and people get afeared they'll be labeled racist. So in essence, that gives creationists of all stripes a free pass.

Vol-in-law said...

"Finally, humans are no longer really subject to natural selection for a number of reasons that I would be delighted to talk about at length..."

Try me. :) As far as I can see, it's impossible for humans not to be subject to selective pressures. Most of those pressures come from the environment humans themselves have created, but in principle that's no different from other species where the major selector is intra-species competition.

I was reading recently something about genetic analysis indicating that human evolution (genetic change) has speeded up greatly in the past few thousand years, parralleling the increase in the human population. The bigger the population, the more likely it is that useful variants will arise and spread through the population.