When Kathleen met Richard #2
Second in a series responding to Kathleen Jones’s Challenging Richard Dawkins: Why Richard Dawkins is wrong about God1
See also When Kathleen met Richard #1
How does [Dawkins] see the world? In Unweaving the Rainbow (1998), he recommends an exercise to illustrate his view of the evolutionary process…
The exercise is to stretch your arms out as wide as they will go. He then maps evolutionary time from its origin at your left fingertip to the present day at your right fingertip. Most of the distance, to past your right shoulder, is made up of bacteria, and
Dawkins’ intention behind this ‘analogy, one that has been used before’3 is to help the reader come to grips with evolutionary time, because
we fail to comprehend such an age, and there is a yearning pleasure in the attempt. Our brains have evolved to grasp the time-scales of our own lifetimes. Seconds, minutes, hours, days and years are easy for us. We can cope with centuries. When we come to millennia – thousands of years – our spines begin to tingle…4
But Jones smells a rat:
In this illustration, Richard Dawkins has very astutely chosen his own grounds for debate. He starts on our own small planet, with the emergence of the earliest life forms – but that is surely too late.
Let me understand this. He is calibrating a physicalised representation of evolutionary time from the origin of life to the present day, but he should have started before the origin of life?
If we are to consider whether we have a Creator, we have to go back to the creation of the universe, not to start on earth with the bacteria.
But in this context, Unweaving the Rainbow, he was not considering whether we have a Creator, he was trying to portray evolutionary time, which by definition started when life began?
He tells us that human history is brief and meaningless in his perspective; but he has very neatly managed to ignore the rest of the cosmos by concentrating on our own planet.
Sorry, I should have been more specific. He was trying to portray evolutionary time from the origin of life on earth to the present day. Why on earth? Because we don’t know anything about life on any other planet. We don’t know if there is or was life on any other planet, and if there was, when it began.
He has said nothing about the solar system, the galaxy and the many galaxies beyond it. In fact, he has not even covered the whole history of the world: only its history since life began…
OK – take a meter rule. Break it in half. Hold one half in one hand and the other half in the other. Now stretch your arms out wide again. The far end of the half in your left hand represents roughly when the earth was formed. The far end of the half in your right hand would represent, according to some estimates 5, the end of the earth as we know it, with a point somewhere on that right hand half representing the last gasp of life on earth.
That makes a different point, not the one he was trying to make about the enormity of evolutionary time. But Jones sees his careful matching of image to subject matter as rather suspect:
He has chosen his own grounds for debate. Then he has measured living creatures only in terms of time, and not of quality. One stroke of the nail file, and we all disappear.
This is a biologist’s professional frame of reference, and it is a very limited one.
She then jumps to another quote, from a different book and a different context:
Richard Dawkins maintains that we need ‘a good dose of science, the honest and systematic endeavour to find out the truth about the real world’, but the science behind his illustration takes no account of knowledge in any scientific field except his own.
The reason for the stretch was to illustrate evolutionary time. So far from being a careful match the illustration must be somehow false or incomplete if it takes no account of any other scientific field? But in what way does it falsely represent the span of evolutionary time by taking no account of chemistry, physics or clinical psychology? If it doesn’t falsely represent the span of evolutionary time, then so what?
We should also fill in a bit of context for that ‘dose of science’ quote. It comes towards the end of The God Delusion. Dawkins has been discussing what he calls the ‘Argument from Consolation’, ie:
There must be a God… because, if there were not, life would be empty, pointless, futile, a desert of meaninglessness and insignificance.6
Not surprisingly, Dawkins rejects this argument:
Maybe life is empty… The alleged syllogism is transparently circular. Life without your wife may very well be intolerable, barren and empty, but this unfortunately doesn’t stop her being dead. There is something infantile in the presumption that somebody else (parents in the case of children, God in the case of adults) has a responsibility to give your life meaning and point.7
Perhaps this needs to be spelt out. Dawkins is not saying life is empty or meaningless. He is not saying he wants life to be empty and meaningless. What he is saying is that a person who – for whatever reason – thinks that if there is no God then life is empty and meaningless, cannot jump from there to the ‘proof’ that there must be a God because otherwise life would be empty and meaningless. (Remember this God is very specifically the supernatural God of the ‘God Hypothesis’.)
Dawkins then says:
The truly adult view, by contrast, is that our life is as meaningful, as full and as wonderful as we choose to make it.8
This leads him to his ‘final topic, inspiration’, in the context of which:
If the demise of God will leave a gap, different people will fill it in different ways. My way includes a good dose of science, the honest and systematic endeavour to find out the truth about the real world. I see the human effort to understand the universe as a model-building enterprise. Each of us builds, inside our head, a model of the world in which we find ourselves. The minimal model of the world is the model our ancestors needed in order to survive in it. The simulation software was constructed and debugged by natural selection, and it is most adept in the world familiar to our ancestors on the African savannah: a three-dimensional world of medium-sized material objects, moving at medium speeds relative to one another. [Emphases added.]9
So he quite explicitly does not say ‘we need a good dose of science…’. He says that is his way.
Jones also lifts out the second emphasised passage, but for some reason changes it slightly to:
‘The simulation software was constructed and designed by natural selection, and it is most adept in the world of our ancestors on the African savannah.’ [Changes emphasised.]
She then describes this extract as
a very compressed and somewhat obscure statement. The reference to ‘simulation software’ seems to mean that he regards human beings as inefficient computers. In Who’s Who, he gives his only hobby as ‘the Apple Mac’. The African savannah is brought into the argument because he returns repeatedly to the idea that we are not very far down the evolutionary line from the chimpanzee.
Well, it might have seemed clearer if it had been left in context. The reference to ‘software’ as a way of describing brain function is hardly unique to Dawkins. I wouldn’t like to put words into his mouth, but he may well see parallels between what happens inside a computer and what happens inside the human central nervous system, specifically including parallels between simulation software and the construction of synthesised ‘models’ from information received through the senses. If so, he is not alone. I would hazard a guess though that if he did compare human brain function to that of a computer it would be an extremely powerful computer, not an ‘inefficient’ one.
So now the last sentence. What point is it trying to make? She talks later about his early childhood in East Africa and his schooldays at Oundle, an English public school. At school
[h]e learned that human beings were descended from chimpanzees, and that the whole human race originated from his beloved East Africa.
Just before this she warns us that
[h]e is only interested in the mythical Africa of the first hominids: a biologist’s alternative to the Garden of Eden. [Emphasis added.]
We need to get the chimpanzee business out of the way first. Chimpanzees are our nearest living evolutionary relatives, with the human and chimpanzee lines splitting about 6 million years ago. The two surviving chimpanzee species last shared a common ancestor about 1 million years ago. Humans were not descended from the chimpanzees we know now. (Apart from my son, my closest living relatives are my brother and my sister, but I am not descended from either of them.)
Please excuse the pedantry but it is not clear to what extent Kathleen Jones actually understands the subject she is discussing, or even wants to understand it. The reason Dawkins brings in the African savannah has little to do with chimpanzees (who prefer forests). The African savannah is relevant because, according to the dominant scientific view, a significant stretch of human evolution took place there. So, assuming the basic principles of natural selection are sound, human development – including, importantly, the development of human brain function and behaviour – would be optimised for survival in… the African savannah.
So is Jones saying or implying that she disagrees with this picture? She has every right to. But she offers no counter-evidence or alternative explanation. Does she just not understand it? And why ‘mythical’? It almost suggests she believes Dawkins is somehow deluded into thinking what he thinks. Not that she thinks the Recent African Origin hypothesis is false – and she knows of a better one – but that the whole anthropological exercise is foolish or capricious, just making up a story? Is that what she thinks?
Next time a bit of politics…
1 Kathleen Jones, Challenging Richard Dawkins: Why Richard Dawkins is wrong about God, Canterbury Press Norwich, London, 2007.
5 ‘Date set for desert Earth’, BBC News: Science/Nature, 21 February 2000: http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/sci/tech/specials/washington_2000/649913.stm
© Chris Lawrence 2009.