Evolution: the dissent of Darwin – debate between zoologist Richard Dawkins and computer scientist Jaron Lanier
Even the pope now seems to be open to the idea of evolution. But can Darwin’s theory of natural selection explain morality, love, evil, life on Mars, and why testicles hang outside the body? Two gifted scientists debate these mysteries.
When zoologist Richard Dawkins’s The Selfish Gene was published 20 years ago, it practically snuffed out many readers’ belief in God and in their own importance, for it described in stunning and terrifying detail a world where all life was merely the conveyor belt for the gene. Its mission: to replicate itself. DNA was the fundamental and irreducible unit of life that spun itself endlessly into the incredible diversity of flora and fauna. Everything we hold most dear–acts of love, altruism, the painterly beauty of the peacock’s tail, the birth of a newborn–could, according to Dawkins, be explained by the gene’s attempt to survive, and to hitch a ride on the fittest organism possible, the one most likely to mate and reproduce. Darwinian natural selection was Dawkins’s ruling theme. The gene looked like the most purely selfish entity one could imagine, but it was more like the Terminator–just programmed to survive.
Since that time, Dawkins, who was recently appointed the first Charles Simonyi Professor of the Public Understanding of Science at Oxford University, has elaborated on his elegant if chilling theory in the books The Blind Watchmaker, River Out of Eden, and most recently, Climbing Mount Improbable. As Dawkins once stated, “Darwin made it possible to be an intellectually fulfilled atheist.” Like Carl Sagan and Stephen Hawking, Dawkins is one of those rare scientists who have captured the popular imagination. And his particular world view has profoundly influenced our interpretation of nature, business, love, medicine, and life itself. Even ideas, says Dawkins, are like genes. The fundamental unit of meaning, which he calls the “meme,” may be able to infect us like the renegade DNA of v fuses. Does this mean that Nazism was just a powerful meme, an epidemic of one nasty, highly infectious idea?
Of late there has been an outcry against Darwin and Dawkins. Last summer, when Commentary magazine published an essay, “The Deniable Darwin,” by David Berlinski, it elicited a flurry of letters–from scientists, businessmen, lawyers, chemists, biologists–so thick that the published ones alone ran 37 pages. As one reader wrote, “You have fired a shot in what is becoming a great moral revolution, and it will be heard around the world.”
To get to the heart of that revolution, we decided to host a debate between Dawkins and the man who coined the term “virtual reality,” Jaron Lanier. Lanier is a computer scientist and musician, a visiting scholar at the Columbia University department of computer science, a v siting artist at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts, and a provocative thinker on evolution, morality, and ideas. Lanier and Dawkins met last year at the New York City home of John Brockman, a writer who holds salons on science and culture.
Lanier sees himself as a Darwinist who has no basic quarrel with evolutionary theory, but who doesn’t believe it’s the only or most apt metaphor for our lives. According to Lanier, natural selection is only part of the human story, and we are more than just the accidental result of a stream of digital information encoded in our genes. In fact, what’s best about us and civilization may be our ability to thwart evolution.
JARON LANIER: I’m worried that evolution is being used in the wrong way by all sorts of people who otherwise have almost nothing in common. It’s become a banner for New Agers, and for many in the hard sciences. This annoys me no end, because evolution is the only natural force that should be understood to be evil. The evolutionary process that created us was cruel.
RICHARD DAWKINS: Treating evolution as though it were a good thing is a point of view advanced by English biologist Julian Huxley in the 1920s and 1930s. Huxley tried to make evolution into a kind of religion. In contrast, his grandfather, Thomas Henry Huxley, thought that evolution was a thoroughly bad thing, and I agree with him. I would hold it up as an awful warning.
JL: Here s the dilemma simply put: Most of us subscribe to the belief that its not possible to draw a clean line between people and the rest of nature. Then on the other hand, we also believe that nature is amoral, that it doesn’t revolve around human ethical systems.
JL: So its hard to figure out the basis of our morality. Either we find ways in which we’re different from nature, or we have to be willing to judge part of nature as evil. I believe that as a civilization we’ve helped thwart evolution, and that’s good. Every time we help the needy, or make it possible for a handicapped person to live and pass on their genes, we’ve succeeded in defying the process that created us.
RD: I believe natural selection represents a truly hideous sum total of misery. When you look at something like a bounding lion, a sprinting cheetah, and the antelopes they are bounding and sprinting after, you’re seeing the end product of a long, vicious arms race. All along the route of that arms race lie the corpses of the antelopes that didn’t make it, and the lions and cheetahs that starved to death. So it is a process of vicious misery that has given rise to the immense beauty, elegance, and diversity that we see in the world today. Nature is beautiful Even a cheetah as a killing machine is beautiful. But the process that gave rise to it is, indeed, nature red in tooth and claw.
However, you go further when you call evolution evil. I would simply say nature is pitilessly indifferent to human concerns and should be ignored when we try to work out our moral and ethical systems. We should instead say, We’re on our own. We are unique in the animal kingdom in having brains big enough not to follow the dictates of the selfish genes. And we are in the unique position of being able to use our brains to work out together the kind of society in which we want to live. But the one thing we must definitely not do is what Julian Huxley did, which is try to see evolution as some kind of an object lesson.
JL: But if we hope to separate ourselves from the awful history of evolution that created us, we have a very difficult time defining exactly how we’re different.
RD: You can simply say that in humans there was a gradual emergence of certain qualities that no other species has.
JL: Can you name those qualities?
RD: One of them is language. Another is the ability to plan ahead using conscious, imagined foresight. Short-term benefit has always been the only thing that counts in evolution; long-term benefit has never counted It has never been possible for something to evolve in spite of being bad for the immediate short-term good of the individual. For the first time ever, it’s possible for at least some people to say, “Forget about the fact that you can make a short-term profit by chopping down this forest; what about the long-term benefit?” Now I think that’s genuinely new and unique.
JL: Is survivability the only principle that generated our attributes? What about the benefit for a phenomenon as odd as testicles? Its as if a heavily armored tank were being ridden by a driver in a balloon on the roof.
RD: Why do we have them dangling outside ourselves, rather than safely cushioned inside?
JL: I’m familiar with the conventional explanation, which is that it has to do with the management of heat. [Sperm cannot survive long at body temperature.]
RD: And you understand the implausibility of that explanation?
JL: The evolutionary process has produced such spectacular mechanisms for managing problems that would seem to be much more difficult than coping with heat. And we have astonishing regulatory mechanisms for heat in our body already I mean, we protect ourselves from invading microorganisms and from extremes of heat and cold.
If it just turned out that it was impossible to pass along genes at a particular body temperature, we could have evolved a different body temperature that was appropriate to that process. So overall, testicles do seem very strange to me.
RD: That’s what I would have said. But are you familiar with Zahavis handicap principle? It sounds really way out, but I think the problem of the “vulnerable balls” is well suited to this particular explanation.
Zahavi is an Israeli biologist whose idea was ridiculed when he first put it forward in 1975, but he has recently been vindicated by some clever mathematical modeling by Alan Grafen at Oxford University. Zahavi and Grafen state that in any encounter in animals where advertisement is important–and that’s very, very often–an advertisement is only believed if it’s validated by being costly.
Translated into English, what the male is saying is, “Look how powerful a male I am, because I can afford to wear my balls outside my body, in the most vulnerable position. You’d better not mess with me because I am proving my strength and my ability as a fighter.”
JL: That’s a sad thought, that advertising might overpower common sense, because of a universal mathematical principle.
RD: The reason it works is that all males, even the ones who are not strong, are forced to wear the badge of being strong, and the badge of being strong is only believed if it is genuinely costly
JL: But, Richard, if this explanation is correct, why didn’t we come up with camouflaged testicles or perhaps four testicles with a couple of backups inside? And why aren’t our hearts or lungs dangling in bags without any armor around them? Why wouldn’t evolution occasionally choose to advertise some other body part?
RD: Why is the bone of the skull so thick? Obviously to protect the brain. The weakness of the Zahavi explanation is that you wheel it out when you need to. When I’m asked questions like yours about testicles, the best strategy may be to refuse to answer. Because if you allow yourself to exercise your ingenuity in solving a particular question, then people come up with another one that you just can’t think of an answer to. We’re not testing the ingenuity of the human mind here.
JL: Agreed. But a lot of people feel that if evolution can’t explain something why should they accept it at all? Yet the whole theory doesn’t have to be cast into doubt if it can’t explain every particular–such as the origin of our dreaded dangling. Scientists don’t know everything. They work with utmost patience to test one idea at a time.
PT: Can we go back to foresight for a minute? If natural selection didn’t select for foresight but allows us to escape its dictates, how does it survive?
JL: My answer would be that our excess of foresight is like testicles. There are traits we can’t fully explain. It might be luck.
RD: I prefer to think of foresight as something which natural selection gave us because it was once useful for hunting buffaloes. We’ve been given big brains. which were once useful for a vet-satire way of life in the plains of Africa. But now, having moved out of the plains of Africa, those same brains have taken off in directions which could never possibly have been visualized.
JL: By your own logic, foresight has to initially have been a happy by-product of something that resulted in immediate survivsbility.
RD: You can use foresight in order to help yourself and your children to survive. You can say, “If I drink all the water in the well now because I’m thirsty. then my children will die of starvation So I can prepare for the future and ration the water.” That’s ordinary Darwinian survival, but it does involve foresight.
JL: But humans seem to have a capacity for foresight that is far beyond what could have been useful with buffaloes.
PT: In the last five years, you, Richard Dawkins, have become the face, as much as there is a face, of Darwinian theory Is this something you’re comfortable with?
RD: I am aware that something like that may have happened in Britain, but I’m quite surprised to hear you say that of the United States. If it were true, I don’t think I’d mind. I write books in order to educate people about how we came to exist. As writer Hilaire Belloc said, “When I am gone, I hope it may be said his sins were scarlet, but his books were read.”
PT: Do you think the battle over Darwinism has become much more heated lately?
RD: I suppose that creationists are becoming more vocal in America. I feel a need to do something about that, and I don’t mince my words, so I may be contributing to the heat.
JL: Its not just a conflict between creationists and Darwinists. There’s a large group of people who simply are uncomfortable with accepting evolution because it leads to what they perceive as a moral vacuum, in which their best impulses have no basis in nature.
RD: All I can say is, That’s just tough. We have to face up to the truth.
JL: That answer is not good enough anymore. People are reacting against science. People feel science is telling them they’re less special, less responsible than they once believed.
The problem with a lot of evolutionary thought is that it goes beyond history to make claims about who we are now, and why we do what we do. Calling people hulking robots that deliver genes is no more informative or true than saying people are mobile heat fins in the service of entropy Human beings can be understood in many ways. The genetic perspective alone can leave you feeling empty and arbitrary Maybe if science were presented in a more compassionate and humble way, it could help fill the void many of us feel inside.
PT: What are other perspectives science can offer?
JL: Well, I think that competition for survival is just one of many self perpetuating processes. Look at music. Its everywhere, in all human societies. and its obviously not essential for survival. It might have begun as part of a survival mechanism–in the animal kingdom, song attracts a mate–but it has long since spun off on its own momentum. The same is true of love. Love is a trust that breeds more trust. It perpetuates itself. Survivability is not necessarily the sole determinant of genes.
PT: What’s your reaction to the recent book Darwin’s Black Box, by Michael Behe? The author, a molecular biologist argues that Darwinian selection cannot explain the incredible complexity that occurs on a molecular level. He offers an explanation he calls “intelligent design,” which seems like a scientist’s name for God.
RD: The argument of irreducible complexity is a very old one, and it’s one that Darwin himself faced when talking about things like the eye. Without any backup, this argument states that something, some X, is irreducibly complicated, and therefore it can’t have evolved gradually and God must have made it. Behe applies the identical argument at the molecular level.
I’m not a molecular biologist. Behe is Why doesn’t he stop being so lazy? Instead of saying, “I can’t think of an explanation; therefore, God must have done it,” which is the ultimate cop-out, why doesn’t he actually go to the library and work out the intermediate stages. By the way, he claims not to be a creationist, which is ludicrous, of course. He is.
PT: What do you make of the existence of a book like this right now?
RD: Nothing very profound. What I make of it is that Michael Behe decided to write it.
JL: I disagree. As I said before, I think we’re experiencing a moral crisis. A great many people feel a threat to their most fundamental moral, ethical, and spiritual sensibilities because they feel they are part of nature; but if nature is amoral, how are they able to be moral?
RD: But you can feel nothing but contempt for somebody who, because of their anxiety, actually distorts scientific facts.
JL: Sometimes metaphors are presented as scientific facts, when they’re not. For instance, I’d like to discuss your concept of “memes” [units of meaning, or ideas] as being similar to genes. Ideas do everything that genes can’t. We have an ability to hold ideas on the basis of their long-term value, and not their immediate survivability. Ideas can also influence each other without being extinguished.
RD: I agree with most of what you say. But if you look at my original suggestion of memes, they were really almost a rhetorical device for telling people that in spite of what they’d just read about the selfish gene, DNA was not everything. Memes provided a way of saying, Look, genes aren’t the only self-replicating entities. Maybe ideas play that role. I’m not committed to memes as the explanation for human culture.
JL: One thing that just thrilled me recently, and gave me such a sense of awe that I was just elevated for days, was the evidence of life on Mars. I was shocked by how similar the chemistry of this apparent life was to our own. And I was shocked by the blase attitude in a lot of the scientific community. It seems to me that this is an enormously big deal.
RD: It’s a tremendously big deal, if it’s true. It completely revolutionizes our estimate of the probability of life arising on a planet. We’ve assumed that the origin of life was an improbable event, the kind of thing that may have only happened once in the galaxy. If you suddenly find two separate evolutions of life in one solar system, then immediately you know that life is simply teeming throughout the universe. That’s one reason it’s a big deal.
The other reason is that so far, when we think about the general phenomenon of evolution, we have only a sample of one. We’re resting a whole theory of life and evolution on one sample. If that sample could be increased to two, even if the second one was a few micro-fossils, then immediately you would have a huge infusion of new information and ideas about life as a general phenomenon, not just a parochial, terrestrial phenomenon.
JL: It means that it’s not unreasonable to think about contacting other life that would be comprehensible to us.
RD: But the trouble is that you are becoming too excited by the evidence, which a lot of people are pretty skeptical about. I wish it could be true, but I must say I’m not convinced.
JL: Neither am I, but I’m still entranced by it. I think the sense of awe and wonder is important to nurture as well.
RD: I absolutely agree.
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