Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Once upon a time...

I was excited to hear in the weekend’s telegraph that Richard Dawkins will be retiring from his post at Oxford to write a book aimed at youngsters, in which he will warn them against believing in "anti-scientific" fairytales. He was quoted as saying "The book I write next year will be a children's book on how to think about the world, science thinking contrasted with mythical thinking. As anyone who has tried to read the manuscript of Francis Galton’s ‘Kantsaywhere’ will know; the foray of scientists into fiction writing can often be disastrous. What would a children’s book by Dawkins look like?. Here is how I think he would tackle a rationalist version of Snow White and the 7 dwarfs.

Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs

Once upon a time, as a queen sat sewing at her window, she pricked her finger on her needle and a drop of blood fell on the snow that had fallen on her ebony window frame. As she looked at the blood on the snow, she said to herself, "Oh, how I wish that I had a daughter that had skin white as snow, lips red as blood, and hair black as ebony". Soon after that, the queen gave birth to a baby girl who had skin white as snow, lips red as blood, and hair black as ebony. They named her Princess Snow White.

As all the courtiers at the Queen’s palace knew from reading ‘Ye Olde Scientist’, although Virgin birth has been proven in some bony fish, amphibians, reptiles and birds, and has been suspected among sharks in the wild, it is impossible in human beings - and presumably fairy tale queens - without the sex cells of both the male and the female. Both a sperm and an egg are required to create a zygote and the most rational explanation is that the queen entered into sexual intercourse with a man with the genetic features she desired in her wish. This is therefore an intriguing example of sex selection in human beings, the theory proposed by Charles Darwin that states that certain evolutionary traits can be explained by intraspecific competition.

Soon after, the king took a new wife, who was beautiful but very vain. She possessed a magical mirror that answered any question, to whom she often asked: "Mirror, mirror on the wall, who in the land is fairest of all?" to which the mirror always replied "You, my queen, are fairest of all." But when Snow White reached the age of seven, she became as beautiful as the day, and when the queen asked her mirror, it responded: "Queen, you are full fair, 'tis true, but Snow White is fairer than you.

Of course the mirror did not actually reply to the Queen, since a mirror does not possess consciousness, not does it have the descended larynx needed to produce sound, and manipulate its pitch and volume to create language. The most rational interpretation of the facts was that the queen had been infected by a memetic mind virus, which convinced her that the mirror was her imaginary friend. Children often develop this tendency and this psychological paedomorphosis may have continued into the Queen’s adulthood. Of course there is no law in nature against there being a mirror that might communicate through non verbal means. Perhaps all the atoms of the mirror just happened to move to spell out the message - a low-probability event to be sure, but possible, and a far simpler explanation than magic (As I explained in 'The Blind Watchmaker', the same also applies for waving statues of the Virgin Mary).

The queen became jealous, and Snow White was forced to run away to the forest. In the forest, Snow White discovered a tiny cottage belonging to seven dwarfs, where she rested. There, the dwarfs took pity on her, saying "If you will keep house for us, and cook, make beds, wash, sew, and knit, and keep everything clean and orderly, then you can stay with us, and you shall have everything that you want."

Snow White was not convinced by the specious argument which circulated amongst some of the forest's more deluded inhabitants that the dwarfs had appeared by magic. From reading the manuscripts of Daniel C Dennett she knew this was a ‘skyhook’. Instead she knew that the dwarfs had evolved through a process of natural selection acting on heritable genetic variation. Either the men in the cottage were suffering from the condition Dwarfism, which can be caused by more than 200 different medical conditions, the most common of which is achondroplasia ; or intriguingly, they could have been a microcephalic modern human or a subspecies of hominid similar to the recently discovered Homo floresiensis in the Indonesian Archipelago. What they most certainly were not, was the products of ‘intelligent design, which Snow White knew was….. Kids?, are you still listening?, Kids?!?

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