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When Kathleen met Richard #4

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Kathleen Jones

Kathleen Jones

The problem with misrepresentation is you can’t just tell it, you have to show it.

Fourth 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; #2; & #3

‘Coming out’ as an atheist

We are still in Chapter 1 of Challenging Richard Dawkins, but now in a section called ‘Coming out’ as an atheist:

[Dawkins] maintains that he is ‘a deeply religious non-believer’. By this he apparently means that he thinks deeply about religious issues, and has considered his position carefully.

Well possibly, except I don’t think he does describe himself as ‘a deeply religious non-believer’. Yes Chapter 1 of The God Delusion is called ‘A deeply religious non-believer’, but Dawkins is quoting Albert Einstein:

I am a deeply religious non-believer. This is a somewhat new kind of religion.2

Richard Dawkins: The God Delusion

Richard Dawkins: The God Delusion

This is because the first half of the chapter is largely about Einstein’s approach to religion. I cannot see any sign that Dawkins is applying the description to himself.

Jones then summarises how Dawkins categorises himself:

He spends some pages… explaining that he is not a theist (someone who believes in God, as members of the major world religions do), not a deist (someone who believes in some sort of God, not very clearly defined)… [Emphasis added]

Time to turn to the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary:

deist

Orig., a person who believes in God or gods (opp. atheist). Now, a person who believes in one God who created but does not intervene in the universe.3

So what does Dawkins say?

A theist believes in a supernatural intelligence who, in addition to his main work of creating the universe in the first place, is still around to oversee and influence the subsequent fate of his initial creation. In many theistic belief systems, the deity is intimately involved in human affairs… A deist, too, believes in a supernatural intelligence, but one whose activities were confined to setting up the laws that govern the universe in the first place. The deist God never intervenes thereafter, and certainly has no specific interest in human affairs.4

The crucial difference between theism and deism is the issue of intervention in the world post-Creation. Dawkins states that distinction explicitly. Jones says nothing about it.

Jones also describes Dawkins as ‘a 100 per cent campaigning atheist’. This is fine as long as we don’t make unwarranted assumptions about what ‘atheist’ means here. Once again we need to go back to what Dawkins actually says. He presents a spectrum of probabilities as to the existence of God with seven ‘milestones’. For present purposes we only need to replicate milestones 1, 6 and 7:

1 Strong theist. 100 percent probability of God. In the words of C. G. Jung, ‘I do not believe, I know.’

6 Very low probability, but short of zero. De facto atheist. ‘I cannot know for certain but I think God is very improbable, and I live my life on the assumption that he is not there.’

7 Strong atheist. ‘I know there is no God, with the same conviction as Jung “knows” there is one.’5

There is just a risk that Jones’s unqualified attribution (complete with percentage) might have misled her readers into thinking Dawkins would describe himself as 7. But he says:

I count myself in category 6, but leaning towards 7 – I am agnostic only to the extent that I am agnostic about fairies at the bottom of the garden.6

Darwin and natural selection

This next section is where Jones really seems to lose the plot:

The link between human beings and apes has never been scientifically demonstrated.

Silverback gorilla

Silverback gorilla

What can she mean by this? She gives no explanation. Hardly anything in science is conclusively proven in the sense that it would be unthinkable for it to be falsified. No one has seen a non-human ape evolve into a human – but again the animals we know now as apes did not evolve into the animals we know now as humans. The evolutionary claim is that other primates like gibbons, gorillas and chimpanzees shared relatively recent ancestors with humans. In the case of humans and chimpanzees the most recent ancestor is believed to have lived only six million years ago: see When Kathleen met Richard #2. Why do we believe this? Because of the accumulation of different categories of evidence which all support the same hypothesis: fossils, comparative morphology, DNA comparison and so on. Most importantly, there is no conflicting evidence. It is not that Jones’s statement is crazy, but it is either trivially true – true only in the most purist sense that the relatively recent common descent of (say) chimpanzees and humans is theoretically falsifiable – or it is the opening statement of some alternative hypothesis, which she does not offer.

The next statement of hers I would like to analyse seems to show an incomplete understanding of the central thesis of natural selection. She has just referred to Dawkins’ use of the ‘sieve’ image in The Blind Watchmaker7 to explain the fundamentally non-random nature of cumulative selection. She concludes as follows:

In Darwinian terms, if we ask what sort of human beings are ‘the fittest’ who survive and do not fall through the holes in the sieve, the answer is clear: not those with the highest moral standards. Not the most useful members of society. Not the most intelligent. The survivors will be the toughest, the most ruthless, the most determined to survive.

Richard Dawkins: The Blind Watchmaker

Richard Dawkins: The Blind Watchmaker

Well possibly, but possibly not. In evolutionary terms ‘fittest’ just means ‘most likely to generate surviving and successfully reproducing progeny’. Survivors do not survive because they are fit. Fitness just is the measure of survival capacity. Survival depends on the environment, among other factors. Some environments will be such as to favour the toughest and most ruthless individuals. But other environments could favour other features. This is one of the reasons species become extinct, because an environmental change has occurred to turn evolved adaptations which previously conferred genetic fitness into liabilities. In human evolution the social context has been a significant component of the environment. It would be quite possible for social development to take place to make, for example, intelligence more critical to genetic fitness than ruthlessness or aggression. And the theory behind the evolution of reciprocal altruism, in humans and other animal species, provides an explanation as to why, in certain circumstances, more ‘moral’ (as in more socially cooperative) behaviour might also confer reproductive advantage.

Jones’s grasp of Dawkins’ previous works seems about as pick’n’mix as her understanding of evolutionary theory:

Anthropologists and archaeologists have long sought for the ‘missing link’ between the apes (chimpanzees are the closest to human beings in biological terms) and human beings. Richard Dawkins is convinced that the link exists, but is apparently resigned to the fact that the skeletons of the ape-people will probably never be discovered.

At this point she refers to two sections of Dawkins’ A Devil’s Chaplain. Although the pagination of the edition listed in her bibliography8 is not the same as in the copy I have9, I have managed to identify them via a couple of her other end notes. The two sections in A Devil’s Chaplain are the essays ‘Gaps in the Mind’ and ‘Darwin Triumphant’.

Richard Dawkins: A Devils Chaplain

Richard Dawkins: A Devil's Chaplain

But locating these was a whole lot easier than trying to fathom what the two sentences quoted above are referring to. ‘Missing link’ is a misleading term, largely based on a misunderstanding of how evolution operates. As mentioned above, the most recent ancestor of both modern humans and modern chimpanzees is believed to have lived about six million years ago. Note the singular. It is not really that the most recent ancestors of both modern humans and modern chimpanzees are currently believed to have lived about six million years ago. There was not an entire population of ‘humanzees’ half of whom gave rise to humans and half of whom gave rise to chimps. There was – by definition – only one most recent ancestor. OK – there were two: a male and a female. Those two individuals admittedly belonged to a population, members of whom could have died in circumstances favourable to the preservation of fossilised remains. But not necessarily. And also that population may have been small, which would have also decreased the chances of finding transitional fossils.

(With some lineages we are lucky. For example we have an almost complete picture of the evolution of the horse, largely because of the nature of North American sedimentary deposits from the Eocene onwards.)

So yes in theory we could be lucky and find a fossilised specimen from the population from which those two most recent ancestors belonged. But at most this could be described as a (previously) ‘missing link’ between chimpanzees and humans. There is no ‘missing link’ between ‘apes’ and humans, because ‘ape’ refers to a group of primates to which humans already belong. In fact, as shown by the diagram below (derived from a similar diagram in ‘Gaps in the Mind’10), humans, gorillas and chimpanzees all belong to a smaller subgroup of African apes.

Ape evolution

Ape evolution

But I struggle to find any reference to Dawkins’ resignation to the ‘fact that the skeletons of the ape-people will probably never be discovered.’

Herring Gull (L) and Lesser Black-backed Gull (R)

Herring Gull (L) and Lesser Black-backed Gull (R)

In ‘Gaps in the Mind’ he talks about what he calls the ‘discontinuous mind’ which insists on classifying organisms as either ‘same species’ (who breed with each other) or ‘different species’ (who do not breed with each other). The snag with this ‘discontinuous’ picture is that it cannot accommodate so-called ‘ring species’ like the Herring Gull and the Lesser Black-backed Gull:

In Britain these are clearly distinct species, quite different in colour… But if you follow the population of Herring Gulls westward round the North Pole to North America, then via Alaska across Siberia and back to Europe again… [t]he ‘Herring Gulls’ gradually become less like Herring Gulls and more and more like Lesser Black-backed Gulls until it turns out that our European Lesser Black-backed Gulls actually are the other end of a ring that started out as Herring Gulls. At every stage around the ring, the birds are sufficiently similar to their neighbours to interbreed with them. Until, that is, the ends of the continuum are reached, in Europe. At this point the Herring Gull and the Lesser Black-backed Gull never interbreed, although they are linked by a continuous series of interbreeding colleagues all the way round the world. The only thing that is special about ring species like these gulls is that the intermediates are still alive. All pairs of related species are potentially ring species. The intermediates must have lived once. It is just that in most cases they are now dead.11

He then relates this to the case of humans and chimpanzees:

What if a clutch of intermediate types had survived, enough to link us to modern chimpanzees by a chain… of interbreeders?…

…It is sheer luck that this handful of intermediates no longer exists…12

Is this what Jones is referring to by ‘resigned to the fact that the skeletons of the ape-people will probably never be discovered?’

Or perhaps it is from something he says in his other essay, ‘Darwin Triumphant’? Here Dawkins is conducting a thought experiment about

a gigantic mathematical space of all possible organisms… [which includes a] tiny minority of organisms that is adapted to survive and reproduce in available environments…

…It is convenient to imagine the set of all possible [organisms] as arrayed in a multidimensional genetic landscape. Distance in this landscape means genetic distance, the number of genetic changes that would have to be made in order to transform one [organism] into another…

[T]o find viable life forms in the space of all possible forms is like searching for a modest number of needles in an extremely large haystack. The chance of happening to land on one of the needles if we take a large random mutational leap to another place in our multidimensional haystack is very small indeed…13

Is this what Jones is referring to by ‘resigned to the fact that the skeletons of the ape-people will probably never be discovered?’

She continues:

In most of his writing, he assumes that genetic mutation occurs very slowly over long periods of time, and if this were the case, we might expect that the bones of the ‘missing link’ would have been unearthed in many places by now;…

As explained above, ‘missing link’ in this context can only really refer to the most recent common ancestor of humans and chimpanzees. ‘Many places’ can only mean ‘many places in Africa’. And the probability of discovering appropriate specimens would depend on factors like the size of the population to which that most recent common ancestor belonged and, crucially, whether significant numbers died in conditions where their remains would have been preserved. (Remember the fossil evidence is only one strand. There is also evidence from comparative morphology, DNA etc.)

…but he contradicts his own argument about gradualism by proposing ‘a leap in genetic space’. That suggests that human beings and apes are not that close at all.

The misreading is now getting quite bizarre. Yes Dawkins argues (rather than assumes) that

evolution is guided in adaptively nonrandom directions by the nonrandom survival of small random hereditary changes… Small implies that adaptive evolution is gradualistic…

…Evolution consists of step-by-step trajectories through the genetic space, not large leaps. Evolution, in other words, is gradualistic…14

The argument is this:

[T]o find viable life forms in the space of all possible forms is like searching for a modest number of needles in an extremely large haystack. The chance of happening to land on one of the needles if we take a large random mutational leap to another place in our multidimensional haystack is very small indeed. But one thing we can say is that the starting point of any mutational leap has to be a viable organism… Finding a viable body-form by random mutation may be like finding a needle in a haystack, but given that you have already found one viable body-form, …you can hugely increase your chances of finding another viable one if you search in the immediate neighbourhood…

…[Conversely, t]he larger the leap through genetic space, the lower is the probability that the resulting change will be viable, let alone an improvement.15

But he then asks:

[A]re there any special occasions when macromutations [ie large leaps through genetic space] are incorporated into evolution? …I find it plausible, for instance that the invention of segmentation occurred in a single macromutational leap… [Emphasis added] 16

A change of such magnitude would normally be a catastrophe, a ‘freak’, a ‘monster’, destined to perish. But it could have happened that

the leap in genetic space… coincided with a leap in geographical space. The segmented monster finds itself in a virgin part of the world where the living is easy and competition is light… [and] it survives by the skin of its teeth.17

Gradualism and big leaps are not mutually exclusive. There is no contradiction. However, in this speculation about segmentation, the mutated form would have

survived not because natural selection favoured it but because natural selection found compensatory ways of survival in spite of it. The fact that advantages in the segmented body plan emerged is an irrelevant bonus. The segmented body plan was incorporated into evolution, but it may never have been favoured by natural selection.18

So to get back finally to Jones’s misreading, Dawkins has said nothing about any speculative ‘leap in genetic space’ in the context of the genetic distance between ‘human beings and apes’. Yes, all vertebrates, and therefore all apes – including humans – have inherited an essentially segmented body plan, which may have originated by a non-gradualist leap, but this was long before the most recent common ancestors of any two ape species, including humans.

To close off this section Jones quotes Dawkins’ ‘gleeful speculation’ as to what would happen if humans and chimpanzees could mate:

[T]he news would be earth-shattering. Bishops would bleat, lawyers would gloat in anticipation, conservative politicians would thunder, socialists wouldn’t know where to put their barricades. The scientist that achieved the feat would be drummed out of common rooms; denounced in pulpit and gutter press; condemned, perhaps, by an Ayatollah’s fatwah…19

Once again balance is restored by restoring context. Jones may not agree with either Dawkins’ arguments or his sentiments, but the subject of ‘Gaps in the Mind’ is actually ethics. The quoted passage of ‘gleeful speculation’ is preceded by:

…[T]he melancholy fact is that, at present, society’s moral attitudes rest almost entirely on the discontinuous, speciesist imperative.20

The essay concludes:

I have argued that the discontinuous gap between humans and ‘apes’ that we erect in our minds is regrettable. I have also argued that, in any case, the present position of the hallowed gap is arbitrary, the result of evolutionary accident. If the contingencies of survival and extinction had been different, the gap would be in a different place. Ethical principles that are based upon accidental caprice should not be respected as if cast in stone.21

Kathleen Jones is under no obligation to understand evolutionary theory. If she finds fault with Dawkins’ position on religion or anything else she is completely free to fight her corner. But whether it results from ignorance or design, the cumulative misrepresentation in her book so far – and we are still at Chapter 1 – is remarkable even compared against other books of this genre.

Next time we’ll see what she has to say about the African Eve.

References

1 Kathleen Jones, Challenging Richard Dawkins: Why Richard Dawkins is wrong about God, Canterbury Press Norwich, London, 2007.

2 Albert Einstein, quoted in: Richard DawkinsThe God delusion, Bantam Press, 2006, p 15.

3 Shorter Oxford English Dictionary, Fifth edition, OUP, 2002.

4 Richard DawkinsThe God delusion, Bantam Press, 2006, p 18.

5 Richard Dawkins, 2006 (see 4 above), p 50-51.

6 Richard Dawkins, 2006 (see 4 above), p 51.

7 Richard Dawkins, The blind watchmaker, Penguin, 1986.

8 Richard Dawkins, A devil’s chaplain, Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 2003.

9 Richard Dawkins, A devil’s chaplain, Phoenix, 2004.

10 Richard Dawkins, ‘Gaps in the Mind’, in: A devil’s chaplain, Phoenix, 2004.

11 Richard Dawkins, 2004a: 10 above.

12 Richard Dawkins, 2004a: 10 above.

13 Richard Dawkins, ‘Darwin Triumphant’, in: A devil’s chaplain, Phoenix, 2004.

14 Richard Dawkins, 2004b: 13 above.

15 Richard Dawkins, 2004b: 13 above.

16 Richard Dawkins, 2004b: 13 above.

17 Richard Dawkins, 2004b: 13 above.

18 Richard Dawkins, 2004b: 13 above.

19 Richard Dawkins, 2004a: 10 above.

20 Richard Dawkins, 2004a: 10 above.

21 Richard Dawkins, 2004a: 10 above.

© Chris Lawrence 2009.

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