Thursday, August 21, 2008

The Genius of Charles Darwin Part 2

Now this was much better. Part two of the Genius of Charles Darwin didn’t have much to do with Darwin, but it did try to tackle some interesting issues. Dawkins looked as uncomfortable as ever, but some of the experts he interviewed made for good TV. I especially I enjoyed seeing his Pinkerness himself who prefaced his remarks on the evolution of the brain by saying “I happen to have one right here,” before picking up an authentic brain-in-a-vat.

The show tackled two questions. The first was the evolution of mankind. This was handled well and I shared Dawkins’ thrill at seeing some of the most precious and important fossils of early hominids. There were a couple of finely judged moments of political incorrectness such as Richard Leakey hinting that chimps and humans might be able to interbreed (they can’t) and Dawkins’s priceless question to a Kenyan bishop “I’m an ape. Are you an ape?”

I don’t think that it is controversial that man is descended from an extinct prehistoric creature from which chimpanzees are also descended. When the Bible refers to man being created in God’s image, it means as a rational, free and moral being. Since God has no body, it is trivially obvious that He doesn’t look like us (unless He wants to). The Kenyan bishop disagreed with Dawkins, not because he thinks we are created in God’s physical image but because he does not think we have evolved. He’s wrong on that and I was with Dawkins in the first half of the show.

The second half was even more interesting than the first because it dealt with the biggest moral problem for atheists. If our minds are simply the product of a struggle for survival, how can we say why we should be good? Surely, evolution only allows us to say that certain behaviour is more successful. Dawkins claimed he has wrestled with this problem throughout his life and it sounds like he still is. He explained that evolution can explain sacrifices for our own families and also reciprocal altruism where we return favours. But he admits that this doesn’t go far enough. He thinks we might have evolved simply to be nice to everyone we meet in the first instance because in the African savannah everyone we met was part of the same tribe.

I doubt this is right, but let’s suppose for a moment that it is. In that case, we can explain why we behave as we do. But it does not explain why we should be good. If niceness is just a useful trait that evolution has selected, like sharp teeth or a prehensile tail, it cannot be ‘right’ or ‘wrong’. Dawkins has no argument to use against evil. He abhors eugenics, like many of us, but can’t say why it is wrong, especially if it were (unfortunately) to be effective. If rape is an efficient reproductive strategy, as some controversial work as shown it might be, why should Dawkins have a problem with it? So he doesn’t solve the problem that he has wrestled with. In the end he admits, as he has previously in writing, that our goodness may be our selfish genes misfiring. Goodness is a mistake. Perhaps, Dawkins might even be tempted to call it a delusion.

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