I am a big Richard Dawkins fan. A BIG fan. Like Douglas Adams, it was Dawkins that first converted me to atheism - and I have never looked back. I remember the first time I read The God Delusion when I was about 12 and the sudden revelation of realising just how much sense this man was making, and that I could no longer justify my half-hearted romantic belief in a higher power. Most people I know at Oxford consider Dawkins a bit of a sell-out, but I guess that’s what you get for being outspoken on religion in such a conservative academic community. I love his scientific writing as much as his militant atheism, and I would count The Selfish Gene as among my favourite books ever - which is pretty crazy for someone as scientifically illiterate as me. But that’s just why Dawkins is so great; he takes extremely complicated ideas and makes them totally accessible to a wider audience, be it the complexities of genetics or the philosophy of his own anti-theism.
Last week Dawkins debated with Rowan Williams, Archbishop of Canterbury, in a very high profile affair at the Sheldonian Theatre in Oxford. Although the event was sold out months in advance I was certainly not going to miss out on this one, so me and a couple of friends went along to one of the lecture halls where the live-stream was being screened. The debate lasted an hour and a half and Dawkins was excellent. Although the consensus in the press seemed to be that Williams more or less won on the point-scoring front I could not disagree more - the main “victory” according to the papers seems to have been to get Dawkins to admit he is an agnostic. Not only is this ridiculous but it’s based on nothing that Dawkins hasn’t said before; the very fact that he is “6.9/7” on the certainty scale of whether a higher power exists or not is what separates him from the religious. What defines his beliefs is that they rest on evidence and since at the moment it cannot be conclusively proven that there is no God, he refuses to pretend to be certain.
On top of this, I have always been very underwhelmed by Williams. Although his writing is exceptionally persuasive, I have seen him speak in public twice before and have never been particularly impressed. Perhaps I am totally incapable of appreciating his opinions as I have absolutely zero respect for them - to me his beliefs are so absurd that no matter how well he phrases himself or how eloquently he argues I just cannot take him seriously. Worrying stuff.
Dawkins is an Emiritus fellow of my college at Oxford, and I bumped into him wheeling his bike into the main quad the other day. Luckily it took me a few seconds to realise who that helmeted man all in beige was, or he would probably have had a fainting fan girl on his hands.
In a hundred years time, with the God Delusion long forgotten, a fifteen-year old wannabe biologist will pick up his Kindle and download for free the now out of copyright Selfish Gene, and his eyes will be opened to evolution and his mind will begin to think in Darwinian terms. He will imagine a lone replicator climbing down the generations, proliferating for a time before nearly dying out, as the environment of selection changes. He will marvel at the logic of it - how complexity emerged from simplicity via this evolutionary calculus. As he logs onto tumblr, his head will reel with the differential survival of self-replicating pieces of information, and he will watch as his Dawkins quotes go viral, reblog after reblog, surviving, thriving in the memepool.
And then he’ll go to university, and he’ll learn how Dawkins’ student Alan Grafen formalized Dawkins, and Darwin’s, and Hamilton’s, and Smith’s work into a set of mathematical rules. The laws of universal Darwinism.* And he’ll learn how these left biology and wandered into the realms of finance, and viruses, and social networking, and economics, and language. And he’ll be amazed because the huge increases in computer power will give these scientists the ability to engage in predictive evolution…
And then, back down to earth, but blasting into space, he’ll go to another planet, and study the silicon based life forms there. And he’ll analyze how they develop, and compete, and reproduce. And he’ll write a seminal paper which proves Dawkins’ conjecture that all complex life anywhere can only have evolved by the differential survival of self-replicating entities.
So the world will dig out their dusty copes of the Selfish Gene, and they’l smile reading about stotting gazelles, but when they come to the lines on memes, and universal Darwinism, they’ll sit back and wonder: why on earth did this man, who changed the way we see evolution forever, waste his time arguing with those backward Bronze-age bible-bashers?
Evolutionary Psychology. Evolutionary Economics. Modern ethology. Behavioural genetics. Memetics. Network systems analysis. Evolutionary finance. And so on…
They all owe their existence to a popular science book written by an obscure Oxford ethologist in 1976.
On the other hand, Denis Noble (another Oxford prof) has written a convincing critique of gene-centred evolution. Much of Dawkins’ arguments rest on Weismannism (that all characteristics are inherited in the germ-line - by immortal genes) and Noble has shown that all the lipids and fats in our body ‘descend’ from those in our mother’s egg cell, as does the cell superstructure. Its all in a book called The Music of Life, which I might post about one day…
Here is Noble’s original paper on the matter for anyone interested:
Otherwise, I’m a great fan of Dawkins as shown by my first few paragraphs. I wish I was going to New College now…
Seriously, that’s like the dumbest shit ever. It’s like not believing in oxygen.
How can you ‘believe’ in evolution? You don’t ‘believe’ in the sun, or ‘believe’ in gravity? They are observable facts.
The fact of evolution is quite simply the fact that all living species on earth share a common ancestor from whom they have diverged over time. It’s not a matter of belief, it’s a matter of fact!
The theory of evolution by natural selection (or by sexual selection, or genetic drift, or endosymbiosis) is a scientific explanation backed up evidence which you ‘believe’ because of that evidence.
The idea that God created all life, however, is an idea that you believe in because, well, you believe it. It’s not a matter of fact, it’s a matter of faith!