Wednesday, August 13, 2008

The Genius of Charles Darwin

Sunday Times columnist A. A. Gill wrote a dismissive piece on Richard Dawkins, the presenter of "The Genius of Charles Darwin", here.

Entertaining as Mr Gill always is, he was wide of the mark in this case. Replacing Dawkins with Attenborough would never work: Attenborough is a presenter of facts and is no stranger to cuddly-bunny anthropomorphising. He's not someone you would trust with conveying profound concepts.

Dawkins's problem is that he shares a fundamental conceptual flaw with his chosen antagonists, the religious. He backs off from the science when the going gets tough. His second episode (of three) was about the evolution of altruism, or how can we be 'nice' in a selfish-gene world. It's kin-selection, reciprocal altruism and tit-for-tat territory. So far, so good science.

Then, amazingly, we get Dawkins asserting that his liberal views (English liberal: fairness, compassion, tolerance, even to strangers) somehow represent a triumph of our intelligence over our genetic imperatives. Somehow, being human has liberated us from the tyranny of our genes.

Gulp! Do I hear that 'liberal values', some absolute good in the universe, have somehow lightly dusted intelligent-us, in a post-evolution kind of way?

Please, Professor Dawkins. It would have been ever so much more honest to point to the evolutionary positive effects of general niceness (creates scalable societies which increase the number of offspring for their members). And then not to forget the equally prevalent tendencies to generalised nastiness, preserving those same societies from others who want to destroy them - the winners write the history books and hang around to have offspring, while the losers tend to vanish from the gene pool. Evolution in action, as Jerry Pournelle once said. *

Yes, nice and nasty are themselves value-loaded words which are not scientifically useful. And by elevating them to a central part of his message, Dawkins could easily share a platform with any pastor.

Where values are asserted as primary, science stops.

*This is probably the 'heresy' of group selection ...