Thursday, 4 February 2010

Is Richard Dawkins really rational?

In the following blog post I am attempting something quite difficult for me, namely to critique a position with which I disagree from a viewpoint I do not accept. I remember CS Lewis saying how hard it was in this respect writing The Screwtape Letters. Nevertheless, I believe the attempt is worth the effort. Indeed, I am to some extent using the approach adopted by a key proponent of that position, namely to seek to probe the weaknesses of the opposition’s case rather than to advocate positively the strengths of my own.
I was started on this line of thought (via the Cranmer blog) by an article in The Times by Professor Richard Dawkins, commenting on Christian responses to the Haitian earthquake. However, for the purposes of this exercise I intend to accept Professor Dawkins’ position. I will assume therefore that he is right in three essential respects: first, that there are no ‘gods’, secondly, that the material realm is all that there is, and thirdly that the evolutionary perspective he advocates is correct.
I will therefore completely ignore Professor Dawkins’ religious arguments. In effect, I am saying, “You win. Let us henceforth be atheists and try to look at things entirely and only from that point of view.”
What I will seek to show, however, is that, far from being the ‘rationalist’ he claims, Professor Dawkins is nowhere near rational enough. But I am not going to use religion as a counter-argument. Thus, although I hope others will feel free to contribute their comments, I will be inclined to delete anything (even from the good Professor himself) which attempts to refute what I am saying by attacking religion. Let us try to clear our minds (difficult thought that is) and, in agreement with Professor Dawkins’ presuppositions, consider what he has actually said.
An anthropomorphic description
The first difficulty with the Professor’s original article is the anthropomorphic language in the opening paragraph:
We know what caused the catastrophe in Haiti. It was the bumping and grinding of the Caribbean Plate rubbing up against the North American Plate: a force of nature, sin-free and indifferent to sin, unpremeditated, unmotivated, supremely unconcerned with human affairs or human misery. (Emphasis added)
What, we might ask, is the meaning or purpose of the words I have highlighted in italics? It is absolutely true to say that the Haitian earthquake was caused by the movement of tectonic plates. It is, thus, ‘a force of nature’. But forces of nature are not ‘indifferent’, or ‘unconcerned’. They are forces —nothing less and nothing more.
Professor Dawkins doubtless uses the language of morals and intentions here because he is about to attack the views of those who (mistakenly) do indeed see a ‘moral’ element behind natural forces. However, we must not allow the error of seeing moral significance where there is none to create an equally false antithesis between the lack of moral significance and the presence of moral indifference.
For example, I may say that a falling roof tile “mercifully missed my head”. My language might suggest there was a moral element to the outcome, but in fact as such there was no ‘mercy’ involved at all. What I am referring to as ‘merciful’ is simply a particular configuration of natural forces and objects. Neither the tile, nor anything else, ‘had mercy’ on me. 
Had the tile hit me, however, it would have been equally misleading to say that it was ‘merciless’. Unfortunately, Professor Dawkins’ use of  just such language suggests to our (highly suggestible) minds something about nature which is actually untrue. Similarly, writing on evolution he describes the Universe as having “no design, no purpose, no evil and no good, nothing but blind pitiless indifference” (quoted from River Out of Eden: A Darwinian View of Life, emphasis added). But the fact that a thing cannot ‘see’ does not make it blind. Nor is a thing incapable of pity thereby ‘pitiless’. I might just as well describe my car as ‘blind and pitiless’. Of course, I may feel that about my car if it rolls over my foot, but the car neither possesses (nor can it be dispossessed of) such qualities. I am speaking anthropomorphically, but I am also in danger of speaking carelessly, or even misleadingly.
An anthropocentric perspective
We may wonder whether Professor Dawkins uses (unwarranted) emotionally-loaded language because he wants to make an (equally unwarranted) emotionally-loaded point: the Universe is ‘pitiless’, an earthquake is ‘unconcerned’, and that is ‘reality’. But actually it is not. Reality is far more prosaic than that.
Let us reconsider the Haitian earthquake itself. Professor Dawkins is quite right when he says it was caused by “the bumping and grinding of the Caribbean Plate rubbing up against the North American Plate: a force of nature”. But almost everything he says subsequently in his article is an expression of emotionalism, not reason.
To begin with, what is the real result of that ‘bumping and grinding’? Professor Dawkins refers to it as “Haiti’s tragedy”. But that is an emotional assessment based on an anthropocentric perspective. From a physical point of view, what Professor Dawkins describes as beginning with ‘a force of nature’ simply leads on to the deployment of other ‘natural forces’ —specifically the transference of energy. When that energy met with weakened trees, it doubtless caused them to topple, releasing more energy, when it was transferred to unstable boulders it may have caused them to roll, again releasing their energy, and when it impacted on poorly-constructed buildings it caused them to collapse and to transfer some of their energy to their human occupants.
Though it is admittedly limited, as a description of the physical events of the Haiti earthquake, the above is certainly accurate. We may wish, instinctively, to apply the word ‘tragedy’ to the human outcomes, but there is absolutely no difference regarding the physics between the toppling (and subsequent death) of a tree and the crushing (and subsequent death) of a human being. Indeed, there is ultimately no physical difference between these events and the collapse of building — they are all disruptions which result from the same forces and which are equally expressions of changes in energy states.
What we may need to remind ourselves is that, from Professor Dawkins’ perspective, this is the fundamental reality. We may question his use of anthropomorphic language concerning the earthquake, but he is quite right to deny that the initiating events involved anything other than physical forces. What we are pointing out here is that we do not move to a different ‘plane’ of events when a collapse resulting from the earthquake involves a human body rather than a house or a hill. Whatever we may feel about it, as a physical event it is just physics.
Privileging the personal
And here we encounter further problems with what Professor Dawkins has written, which is his tendency to ‘privilege the personal’. By this, we mean both that he gives priority to the impact of events on human beings above all else, and that he measures the appropriateness of our response to those events by the personal feelings they and we may have about them. Yet neither of these attitudes is warranted on the basis of our reasoning about reality.
To appreciate this, however, we have to remind ourselves of the radical challenge posed by the discoveries of the last hundred and fifty years to what had previously been assumed. In particular, we need to remember that ‘common sense’ has sometimes turned out to be an obstacle, rather than an aid, to understanding reality.
Common sense, for example, told our forebears that the sun and the planets moved around the earth. It was surely not religion that first led people to this conclusion but their own (apparently valid) experience — the heavenly bodies observably ‘move’, the earth feels to be fixed and immovable. And yet we now know that this experience was misleading.
The same, however, is now known to be true of our place in the world. ‘Common sense’ tells us that human beings are different from ‘animals’. But this also is false. On the contrary, we are animals, and the qualities that we regard as distinguishing ‘us’ from ‘them’ are differences of degree, not kind. We are drawn from exactly the same stock as the rest of the animal kingdom, and our ‘special place’ is only really special in terms of the impact we have increasingly been able to have on the environment.
One outcome of this realization is a changing attitude to those other animals that we have hitherto seen as being somehow at our disposal. At the very least, we no longer assume an automatic right to treat them carelessly or to kill or eat them. Indeed, some of us appreciate that we can no longer justify privileging human beings as somehow ‘above’ the other animals. One of the philosophers to see this most clearly is the Australian Peter Singer, who observes that our objection to sexual acts between humans and other animals is basically an irrational reaction, sustained largely by the Judaeo-Christian heritage.
This being the case, however, we surely ought to assess the Haitian earthquake, and indeed other ‘natural disasters’, in terms of their overall impact on all life, not just, or even primarily, in terms of their consequences for humans. To view the earthquake as simply a ‘human tragedy’ is to persist in a view of human beings which we now know to be unjustified.
Yet, despite the fact that we know human beings are just a part of the animal population of the planet, there will be those who will say we ought to have a special regard for them, especially when their lives are threatened. Professor Dawkins certainly seems to be one such. Thus, at the end of his article in The Times is a link to a website he has set up for ‘Non-Believers Giving Aid’, where Professor Dawkins speaks of the urgent” need to alleviate the suffering of the Haitian human population.
But why should we have any regard for this? An earlier, pre-Darwinian, generation would have spoken of moral imperatives, based on a high regard for human life and, furthermore, on a view that sympathy for others was itself an expression of ‘higher values’ — the very things which set us apart from animals.
As we have observed, however, we now know there is no difference in kind between us and the other animals impacted by the earthquake. More than that, though, we know that our instinctive feelings of sympathy for the sufferings of others are just that: instincts.
A misplaced response
Professor Dawkins has himself argued, as do many others, that what we have traditionally regarded as ‘higher values’ actually find their origin in evolutionary forces which have selected the genes which lead to the instincts which drive the behaviour which we hitherto called ‘virtues’.
The fundamental source of this is evolutionary altruism —behaviour which superficially appears to run counter to the survival of the gene-bearing individual by giving preference to others, but which actually ensures the survival of the gene-bearing pool and hence is preserved by natural selection and is passed on to the next generation. In this sense, it is just as ‘selfish’ (though of course in a non-personal sense) as all other elements which preserve the ‘selfish gene’. Strictly speaking, the appearance of ‘selflessness’ is just that.
When, therefore, we see someone suffering, we will tend to want to help them —that is good for the survival of the group. But our instinct to help is proportional to our proximity, both genetically and physically, to the person concerned. Thus we will feel a stronger affinity to family than to a stranger, or to a fellow citizen than to a foreigner. When we read ‘Dozens die in air crash’, we are shocked. When we read ‘Britons die in air crash’ we are involved.
The problem is, the advent of modern media presents the distant disaster as though it were a present danger. None of us in England actually felt the Haitian earthquake. Had it happened in 1810, virtually no one in this country would ever have known it had taken place. As it is, it is of almost no direct relevance to any of us. Why, then, do we feel inclined to donate to aid-giving charities? The answer (as we now know) is an instinctive response, actually brought about by factors favouring the survival of our group, but which can be evoked by presenting us with the necessary stimulus —in this case, news about and images of injured and suffering people.
As we have seen, our instinct is to offer help —and indeed to urge others to help. But is that actually rational? The truth is, there are undoubtedly dozens, if not hundreds, of people, every single day, who are injured or killed by the forces of nature. We care nothing about them because we hear nothing about them. We do not offer them help, nor do we seek them out. Yet we do not feel guilty about this, nor (for the most part) do we feel inspired to act any differently —and why should we? Their non-survival is no threat to us, and their survival is of no benefit. Our feelings may tell us otherwise, should this happen to get on the news, but the realities of genetics will eventually tell against them.
The inadequacy of ‘aid’
Moreover, even if we do succumb to our feelings and proffer ‘help’, what help should we give and what should be its aim? Professor Dawkins presumes it should be in the form of a financial donation, but how much is reasonable, how much is effective? Ten pounds may seem generous, but it is hardly a drop in the ocean of Haiti’s human need. A hundred pounds might make a measurable difference, but for how long? And if a hundred pounds really helps, why not give a thousand, or ten thousand?
Yet the fact is that most of the people who were going to die as a direct result of the earthquake are dead, and the injured have mostly been treated. What, then, are those who make donations trying to do with their aid and why?
Actually, if you read Professor Dawkins’ website, at least half the motivation would appear to be to make themselves feel morally superior to the religious:
Non-believers ... have no church through which to give collectively, no church to rack up statistics of competitive generosity. Non-Believers Giving Aid ... [provides] an easy conduit for the non-religious to help those in desperate need, whilst simultaneously giving the lie to the canard that you need God to be good.
Well, of course you don’t. But there surely needs to be a better reason to part with our cash than making ourselves look good compared with others.
So what will be the impact of this aid in Haiti? The superficially obvious answer is that it will improve the lives of the recipients. As Professor Dawkins’ website puts it, “the understanding that this is the only life any of us have makes the need to alleviate suffering even more urgent”. But if improving the quality of life is the motivation for parting with this money, why not spend it on oneself, or one’s family, and improve the quality of those lives?
Of course, Professor Dawkins is not just talking about improving life, he says he is also seeking to ‘relieve suffering’. But as Terry Pratchett has cogently argued, there is another, and far surer, way to relieve suffering, and that is sitting on the lawn, brandy in hand and Thomas Tallis on the iPod, ready to “shake hands with Death.”
Indeed, for an atheist, this is the supremely ‘rational’ solution. As Sir Terry is quoted as saying, “the problem with the God argument [against euthanasia] is that it works only if you believe in God”. For those who do not believe in God, death is the ultimate salvation from suffering. We would thus be entirely justified in saying that the truly lucky people in Haiti were those who died instantly and were therefore spared more suffering. For many of those who survived, life is going to be a miserable business, however much longer or shorter it may be —and they are going to die anyway.
Why should we seek to relieve suffering by prolonging life —especially the lives of people with whom we have no connection? Our instincts may urge us to this, but as we have seen, our instincts are, in this case, largely misplaced. What about ‘higher values’? Again, as we have seen, this is also a misjudgement. There are no ‘higher values’ because there is nothing higher than this, material, physical, world. There is no ‘god’, and ‘good’ behaviour finds it origin in elementary evolutionary pressures.
Some will, undoubtedly, still want to say that we can ‘rise above’ instinct and even ‘evolution’ —that by choosing to help the Haitians we are creating a value system which has its own worth. But this is itself questionable. For one thing, how do we know that we are actually operating in a way detached from instinct? Earlier generations thought that the virtues reflected just such an independent system of value. We now know they derive from forces which are entirely based in the physical and material realm —that realm which Professor Dawkins describes as ‘blind and pitiless’.
If we choose to ignore our instincts by showing no pity ourselves, we are thus arguably operating in a way which corresponds more to reality than do those who, knowing that ‘pity’ is entirely a human construct, nevertheless act as if it could make demands on their choices.
The imperative of survival
And what about the final appeal, to evolutionary survival itself? Is not aiding the Haitians to live a way of contributing to the overall human gene-pool and therefore to our perpetuation as a species?
Perhaps, but we must first remember that this survival mechanism applies to other animals, not just to us. The fact that we behave altruistically does not in any way imply that we ‘ought’ to survive, any more than it implies that whales or elephants (which are also altruistic) ought to survive.
Indeed, when we look at the development of the human race, it can be argued that, rather like a parasite that kills its host and therefore brings about its own death, there is something about our mode of existence which could, without too much imagination, conceivably be improved.
For the problem is that we simply place too many demands on our ecosystem for it to sustain us. And one of the reasons for this is that we are too ‘successful’ at reproducing. We are like a population of predators that outstrips the supply of food. Inevitably, there must come a point at which we must die back to a level of sustainability. Otherwise, there is a serious danger of creating such pressure on the environment that we tip over into catastrophic collapse or even extinction.
In short, our survival would arguably be aided by there being rather fewer of us. And therefore just as our instinct to reproduce could usefully be restricted so as to reduce the population, so too our instinct to ‘help’ could be re-examined so that we are less prone always to seek to maximise the human lifespan. Far from aiding the Haitians, therefore, we might actually be thankful for the earthquake and the fact that it has not only reduced the number of humans on the planet, but has also, in all likelihood, reduced somewhat our future reproductive over-capacity. (Of course, we may equally be thankful it was them, and not us, but please let us not make the mistake of thanking God for this!)
The fact is, however, we still live with the legacy of our ‘common sense’ perspective on life. Despite what we know, we still feel as if human beings are ‘special’. We still feel we must ‘help’, even though we are generally not helping very much at all, and are certainly making no ultimate difference by prolonging a life in the face of one instance of suffering, only for it to meet another, and ultimately fatal, instance further down the track.
We know that morality is a human construct, having no basis in the physical nature of the universe, but we still moralize. We know that sympathy arises out of the natural and automatic selection of those genes which favour the survival of our immediate group, but we still sympathize with the plight of distant strangers when the artifices of technology display them before our eyes. We may, of course, choose to go along with this and, for better or for worse, ‘enjoy the ride’. But we may just as reasonably choose not to.
John Richardson
4 February 2010
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  1. Now now, Vicar,

    Are you trying to attract Cranmer's blog traffic after his post about Dawkins?

    Even so, your post was very thoughtfully written and offers some substantial food-for-thought.

    Derek Smith

  2. Hi Derek, actually I was hoping it might be the other way round, and that people would seek out Cranmer!

  3. Magisterial.

    However, all it is likely to elicit is ad hominem vitriol. The Professor's only response to His Grace's response was to call His Grace 'nasty'.

    One wonders how that quality may be scientifically quantified.

  4. >The superficially obvious answer is that it will improve the lives of the recipients. <

    No you also missed the fact its actually mutually beneficial and improves human survival overall in general.

    This act of charity works just the same when another disaster strikes,and a previous giver in turn becomes the receiver.

    And its attacking a strawman to suggest overpopulation would see need of thinking this earthquake is a good thing.We know there is other ways to choose to regulate population such as contraception.

  5. Anonymous, you wrote, "you also missed the fact its actually mutually beneficial and improves human survival overall in general."

    May I refer to my last section which begins, "And what about the final appeal, to evolutionary survival itself?"

    I feel this is hardly, as you claim, missing the point! On the contrary, I have addressed it, but I conclude that the prolonged survival of a few hundred thousand people in Haiti is of no real relevance to the issue.

    Your dismissal of overpopulation as a "straw man" is, moreover, too glib. Now, or some time in the future, we are going to have to face the fact that we do not need simply more people to ensure the survival of our species - and certainly not necessarily these people.

    Any gut objection we may feel to this is simply, I would suggest, a gut feeling, not an argument, though you are, of course, right about the usefulness of contraception.

    There is, however, another argument possible, which is that we must keep the 'helping' reflex alive - specifically we must resist any attempts to diminish it - so that the gene is not eliminated from the overall gene pool and we become a species that will not respond appropriately when its survival really is threatened. In that case, the particular object of our help matters less than that we resist any tendency not to help them.

    Thus I also question whether in this case the help is "mutually beneficial". I cannot conceive of a situation in which the current population of Haiti will effectively come to our aid in the event of an event of similar proportions.

  6. Richard Dawkins quite often says things that are not particularly rational. His common conceit that atheists are more intelligent than what he calls "faith-heads" is but one example. Personally I find Richard Dawkins to be the very model of an Atheist Supremacist. ;-)

  7. A great post, along with Cranmer's response a few days ago, but, now, perhaps we should stop giving Dawkins 'the oxygen of publicity'.

    Just a thought.

    Churchmouse Campanologist

  8. Richard Dawkins already has plenty of publicity, and will continue to seek more. Far better to firmly and forthrightly counter his arguments than ignore him.

  9. Robin -- Perhaps, but it seems to me that our responses feed Dawkins's mill and he enjoys that.

  10. Revd John P Richardson i saw that you touched on evolutionary survival.But im pointing out its more than being about survival because its about it being mutually beneficial as well.Cooperation is not, governed by any need of equal participation, besides you might be very surprised how giving Haiti might actually be should in future the need arise where they cooperate in giving towards a relief fund for somebody.Do unto others as you would have them do unto you has been thought of for a very good reason by humans,simply it often works.And after experiencing it working humans are inclined to remember how useful it is and are inclined in turn to get involved .Its that simple.There is mutual benefit involved in our social humanity,faithful tend to gloss over this aspect as they try to portray non believers ideas as can only be cut throat survival of the fittest.

    No i do not think i dismissed the matter of overpopulation at all.Instead what i suggested we maybe need to dismiss is your strawman idea, that under non believer rules, that we would then be led to need to considder just forgetting Haiti to use it as a way to lower population.

    I suggest i dismiss your strawman by pointing out non believers still retain brains,and have other ways such as education and contraception etc which can be used to combat overpopulation.This is all much more than just any gut feeling too,i make a point of reminding you this is also all about us using a brain.Having no supernatural influence in our lives,does not equal any need of humans to stop all use of our brain.Without gods we are not demoted to use of only gut feelings at all.That thought would be false.

    I realize through faithness the sometimes faithful often feel a reason for some need to maybe try to simply paint non belief as being mean thoughtless and cut throat etc,to lower non belief and so make their faith come out looking like top dog.But if faith is about any honesty i feel this should not be done at the expence of glossing over and leaving out any important factors that rightfully deserve to be considdered and included.Hatered of Dawkins and his downfalls might be quite ok and even deserved,but still surely should not be at the expence of unfair tactics by those claiming the existence of higher morals and gods.

  11. Anonymous, I was confused because you wrote initially that what Richard Dawkins proposes "improves human survival overall in general." However, you are actually majoring on the other point, that helping others is "mutually beneficial".

    What this suggestion comes down to is Peter Singer's "Tit for Tat" argument which he puts forward in How are we to live?. He bases this on the Prisoner's Dilemma, pointing out that the 'win-win' solution depends on the assumption that the other person won't talk. Once we realize this 'works', he argues, we will see that mutual cooperation is always best because 'everyone benefits'.

    The important point is that this is what our 'morality' becomes, following his argument - essentially 'justice', as he puts it, is about creating that framework within which 'Tit for Tat' works. I think I would be right in saying that would be entirely rational, but it is not how people (who generally have an unexamined notion of 'right and wrong') usually think about it.

    As you have framed it, then, "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you" becomes precisely a 'Tit for Tat' argument - I do what I do in the hope that it will create a 'win-win' response from other people.

    I do not wish to dispute here that this is, in its own terms, a valid and effective argument.

    I would suggest, however, that as it stands it is only valid and effective for me for the time that "I" am here to be "done unto". We must remember that the proverb itself goes back to a time when there was a general expectation of future judgement, and its force depended not on "me getting payback from others now" but on "me facing divine judgement in the future for what I have done unto others in the present, irregardless of what they did to me".

    'Atheistically', we cannot use the argument the same way. Furthermore, "Do unto others so that they do unto you" doesn't work it there is no real possibility of payback (e.g. once you are dead). The 'Tit for Tat' payback, therefore, has to be conceivably in view for the argument to have force. Since I cannot conceive the Haitians helping me (not "us", at some future point, but me here and now), the argument is weakened for me.

    However, we also have to think through, as I suggested, what personal commitment to give to this. If we approach this from a 'Tit for Tat' viewpoint, I must give to the Haitians sufficient for that to work. From me personally, is this £10, £100, £1,000? Any giving scheme ought to take this into account, and establish some sort of 'target figure'. Certainly it is no good giving a sum which is simply ineffective.

    At least we are now clear, however, that the purpose of this giving is not simply (or even primarily) 'to relieve suffering', but 'to maintain the principle of mutual benefit'. That is fine, so long as we spell it out.

  12. PS to Anonymous. Don't get me wrong. I'm not saying there is never a reason to help anyone. I can see why I should help my next-door neighbour, or my family or friends. I am questioning the basis on which we should offer this help (specifically 'charitable donations'), here (to these people).

  13. But, John, an atheist could invoke the golden rule at a species or genetic subgroup level. That is, he could say that the British people should help the people of Haiti in the way that they would expect the Haitians to help them. That works if we have the expectation of survival of the subgroup for much longer than the individual.

    Of course for my individual giving that depends on me considering the survival of my subgroup, not just of myself as an individual, as an ultimate good. But surely evolution would strongly favour this.

  14. One core problem with people like Dawkins is that they make this great "leap of unbelief" and then refuse to see the logical conclusions to their idea. Excellent post.

  15. Peter, I think it partly depends on the version of the "Golden Rule" to which we're referring.

    As far as I can see there are two versions available. One says "Do as you would be done by because that is right, irregardless of the benefit (or perhaps the loss) to you."

    The other says "Do as you would be done by so that you will receive in return because that is rationally effective for you and likely to promote species survival."

    Though similar, they are not identical. It seems to me that the latter is the more 'rational atheist' version and Peter Singer, I think, makes a case for it.

    As you say, this then comes down to the question of my individual giving, where it would seem to me that the system of individual donations to disparate charities is perhaps not the most effective in maintaining reciprocity.

    To put it bluntly, if people don't know where the help is coming from, how will they be able to reciprocate? It is vital, therefore, that aid be clearly 'labelled'. Thus it would be much better to 'send in the marines' as the Americans have done, and in our case give aid in packages labelled "Given by the People of the United Kingdom" - or some such. The best way to support such a scheme would probably be through taxes, not through spontaneous individual donations, though in terms of public policy one would also have to take into account people's dislike of being taxed.

    The key thing is, the reciprocal element must be made clear, though ostentation is to be avoided as it may also be off-putting.

    However, if there is no god, there is obviously no point in 'giving in secret so that god who sees what is done in secret may reward you.'

  16. PS to all, a recent speech from President Obama encapsulates just the principle I have outlined above, of 'labelling' aid so that it will be reciprocally effective. I quote from the whole speech reproduced on the Cranmer blog:

    "Last month, God's grace, God's mercy, seemed far away from our neighbors in Haiti. And yet I believe that grace was not absent in the midst of tragedy. ... It was felt in the presence of relief workers and medics; translators; servicemen and women, bringing water and food and aid to the injured.

    One such translator was an American of Haitian descent, representative of the extraordinary work that our men and women in uniform do all around the world -- Navy Corpsman Christian Brossard. And lying on a gurney [stretcher] aboard the USNS Comfort, a woman asked Christopher: "Where do you come from? What country? After my operation," she said, "I will pray for that country." And in Creole, Corpsman Brossard responded, "Etazini." The United States of America.

    God's grace, and the compassion and decency of the American people is expressed through the men and women like Corpsman Brossard. It's expressed through the efforts of our Armed Forces, through the efforts of our entire government, through similar efforts from Spain and other countries around the world."

    There's more, and the principle is not clearly enunciated, but it is there.

  17. Revd Richardson, I have to say I found this blog post masterful in its following of Dawkins-style reductionist evolutionary arguments to their logical conclusion. One point on which you have already responded to "Anonymous" and Peter Kirk above perhaps deserves some more attention. The concept of "group survival" is one that has very much fallen out of favour in evolutionary science. Ironically, Dawkins himself was a significant figure in its refutation. The problem with group survival is that the major shaping force of evolution -- natural selection -- operates on individual organisms, not species or any sub-groupings within them. Kinship selection is an alternative theory in which apparent altruism can be explained on a firm mathematical basis as the giving of resources to members of one's own species with which one is likely to share a significant number of genes, so an "altruism gene" thereby favours its own reproductive success and continued survival.

    But the group selection theory refuses to go away, and it has been revived in various forms. Furthermore, there seems to be a disparity between evolutionary altruism as described by kinship selection and the "real" or "vernacular" altruism of everyday experience. For a summary round-up of the issues see here. Elliott Sober has described a mathematical basis on which group selection could work, but argues in any case that vernacular altruism may have little to do with any reductionist form of evolutionary altruism because of the clear role of intentionality in the former (although he acknowledges this is not the few of most biologists). Another argument against kinship selection is that organisms (especially those of limited cognitive ability) are unlikely to make the sort of detailed rationalisations under which they will benefit their siblings one quarter as often as they will their first cousins (and so on) based on the degree to which genes are shared. An explanation which attempts to integrate the evolutionary/kinship selection origins of altruism with the intentionality of "real" altruism is de Waal's empathy-based explanation.

    All of this causes some problems for Dawkins, as you have noted. First is the likelihood that his reductionist Selfish Gene theory is flawed. Second is that even is his theory is true, or if Sober's mathematical group selection hypothesis is true, there is no such thing as "real" altruism, so Dawkins concern for Haiti victims is misplaced, or at least a mystery that he has not attempted to explain to us. And if Sober's "vernacular altruism" or de Walls empathy model are true, they still have nothing to say about the "goodness" of altruism. Dawkins would need to provide a definition of "goodness" before he complains about religious believers claiming a monopoly on it. If his idea of "goodness" is based on empathy (as his charity web site perhaps implies although it's not clear), he might want to consider that he may be simply experiencing an instinctive empathy which was "designed" by nature to help him identify his kin. The triggering of this instinctive feeling by pictures from Haiti is an accidental spin-off, not envisaged by nature, anymore than are the empathetic reactions of apes who are shown pictures of distressed members of their own species.

    One wonders why Dawkins, far from appealing for charitable donations from non-believers, is not raging against "The Empathy Delusion" which is surely a "mere" instinct that has outlived its usefulness.

  18. Peter S, I never did get around to thanking you for this thoughtful contribution. I was aware of some of the mathematical modelling work, but you're far better up on this than I am.

    On Dawkins' view of "goodness", in the God Delusion he regularly describes the kind of reactions we have to the pictures of the Haitian earthquake as "misfirings" of evolutionary mechanisms.

    Thus, on page 253 he lumps together such misplaced sympathy and misplaced lust, writing, "Both are misfirings, Darwinian mistakes", but then he adds that they are, "blessed, precious mistakes."

    Now at this point, it seems to me he has made a jump into the metaphysical. What does he actually mean by saying they are "blessed" - a word with distinctly religious overtones (especially as it would seem to require the pronunciation "bless-Ed", as in "Blessed assurance, Jesus is mine", rather "blessed", as in "We've been blessed with good weather."

    Over the page, he writes that these "rule of thumb" evolutionary mechanism (now affecting us by their "misfiring"), are "filtered through the civilizing influences of literature and custom, law and tradition - and, of course, religion."

    Well, we know what he thinks about religion! So that leaves the other "civilizing influences". But then, what do you mean by "civilizing" - and from whence do these influences themselves arise? The questions pile up!

  19. Another one and not completely on topic...but can anyone offer an explanation of why we value beauty or how we judge things asthetically using the confines of Darwinism? If literature (and presumably the other arts) are Dawkins' idea of 'civilizing influences',does he offer a theory of how these things evolved? Do they have any value in the continuation of the species?