Review of Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion

 

By Jeffrey Stueber, copyright 2007, all rights reserved

My essay seeks reviewers, see how

Review other pillars of unbelief if you like - Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins, Chester Dolan, S. T. Joshi, B.C. Johnson, Ruth Hurmence Green, and Steve Allen

 

  One thing that has become abundantly clear in this book is that Dawkins has progressed from science advocate to biased anti-creationist propagandist and this is displayed in his frequent allusions to evolution and Darwinism as "consciousness raising." If I suggested that the theory - extraterrestrials helped Egyptians build the pyramids - raised our consciousness, you might suspect I was biased toward it.  So should be our opinion toward Dawkins and his devotion toward evolution.

 Dawkins attributes the idea of consciousness raising to feminism and this power is so overwhelming that it led author Douglas Adams to “radical” atheism. (The term “radical” is how Adams describes his beliefs.)  It’s no surprise that Dawkins mentions Adams because Adams, in a paragraph Dawkins quotes, attributes his conversion to atheism to Dawkins!  “I was extremely doubtful about the idea of god,” Adams says, and he kept reading until he stumbled upon Dawkins’ works.  Then it all fell into place for him and this evolutionism was, as he says, “a concept of such stunning simplicity.”  The awe it inspired in him “made the awe that people talk about in respect of religious experience seem . . . silly beside it.”  The evidence favors the conclusion Dawkins thinks the same about religion as Adams.

   Dawkins is so upset with religious belief and explanations that he will accept no compromise with them.  The now deceased Stephen Gould has originated an idea called NOMA (short for non-overlapping magisterium) - an idea whereby science can retain the domain of empirical science while religion can have dominion over questions of meaning and moral value - a way to, as Gould puts it, have religion retain the rock of ages while science retains the age of the rocks.[1]  Gould doesn’t succeed when, for example, calling the idea of a soul “a sop for our fears,” but we can at least credit Gould with an attempt at compromise.  Dawkins will have none of this, saying Gould has “carried the art of bending over backwards to positively supine lengths.”  If there are issues that science cannot address, you can bet that religion is unable to address them as well, he says.  Dawkins recounts the words of a warden of his Oxford college when a young theologian applied for a junior research fellowship, his doctoral thesis being Christian theology. “I have grave doubts as to whether it’s a subject at all,” the warden said.

   That’s certainly an extreme view.  Certainly Christians have provided a framework within which to view first century Jewish events by supposing the resurrection of Jesus was a historical event and their arguments suggest this is the best way to make sense of what happened back then.  Outside of Christianity, New Agers suggest a framework in which to view evidence for past life recall which suggests reincarnation is true and that belief best fits the evidence available.  (I disagree reincarnation is true, but need not discuss that here.)   The point is that there is a host of areas in which the religious suppose what they believe is true and this is where scientific explanations must yield to religious ones to provide coherence.

   Dawkins deals with the argument to design by first mentioning Fred Hoyle’s musing that the odds of life originating on earth are no greater than the odds a hurricane sweeping through a junkyard would assemble a Boeing 747 jet.  Repeating an idea he has articulated elsewhere, Dawkins says that if life is very improbable, the originator (God) would be even more improbable and hence God is the ultimate Boeing 747.  The chief assumption here seems to be that if one cannot believe in item a which is improbable one cannot believe in item b which is more improbable. One cannot postulate things that are more improbable than item a until one believes item a can originate by chance.

   I’m not sure I can succumb to Dawkins logic.  Is it really true that there is a top-down (or perhaps bottom-up) line of probability drawn here?  One of the chief problems plaguing this argument is the measuring of different items to assess the probability of each.  An arrangement of coins spelling the words “Darwin was great” is certainly improbable, but is it more or less improbable than my existence which, per Dawkins, I must assume is more improbable than that of the coins?  How would I measure the odds against my existence against the existence of the arrangement of coins?   Of course probability arguments only extend to things that are capable of originating by chance and since God is not such an item, the comparison is invalid.

   Neither can I submit to Dawkins’ suggestion that we must be able to explain the existence of a designer before we can believe that something is designed over and above what natural causes can create.  Is it really true that we must be able to explain who built the pyramids and how they did it before we attribute them to design?  If we cannot, do we then insist the pyramids had natural causes?  How about any number of other items such as a stack of playing cards set on their ends so they sit upright vertically instead of laying on top of a table?  I could come up with any number of items, but the point should be clear that if science is to be the search for the most plausible explanation and not the best naturalistic explanation, we can’t approach scientific inquiries like this.

   Continuing in that same vein of thought, we find Dawkins ruminating on origin-of-life experiments.

 

The origin of life is a flourishing, if speculative, subject for research.  The expertise required for it is chemistry and it is not mine.  I watch from the sidelines with engaged curiosity, and I shall not be surprised if, within the next few years, chemists report that they have successfully midwifed a new origin of life in the laboratory.  Nevertheless it hasn’t happened yet, and it is still possible to maintain that the probability of its happening is, and always was, exceedingly low – although it did happen once.

 

   What merits Dawkins’ confident assessment that life originated at least once given the odds against even the origin of a bacterium?  Obviously science hasn’t demonstrated this is true and so Dawkins’ confidence can only be attributed to faith.  Robert Shapiro writes that a reasonable estimate for the formation of a bacterium with the proper order of amino acids as 1 in 10100,000,000,000.  and “given such odds, the time until the black holes evaporate and the space to the ends of the universe would make no difference at all.  If we were to wait, we would truly be waiting for a miracle.”  [2] Even efforts at humans creating polypeptides fail. Alex Williams and John Hartnett cite an experiment using mineral surfaces as enzyme substitutes.  Enzymes, polypeptides which speed up chemical reactions and overcome hydrolysis, are difficult to produce during via random processes.  An experiment using pyrite as an enzyme substitute got a small proportion of amino acids to join up, but all were rapidly hydrolyzed.   Ferris and his colleagues did better and produced chains of 55 amino acids by adhering them to clay mineral surfaces, but this required 50 operator interventions to make this work.  [3]  John Horgan, in his book The End of Science, even includes a description of the poor efforts at discovering how life originated when noting in almost 40 years (which would be 50 years now) after Stanley Miller’s experiments producing a mixture of amino acids, solving the riddle of the origin of life has become more difficult than anyone imagined.  The situation has become so desperate that Miller’s  area of expertise has gathered a reputation of being a fringe discipline.  Lynn Margulis, more a Gaia advocate than creationist, has noted that a bacterium is more like people than Stanley Miller’s mixtures of chemicals.  To go from a bacterium to man is less of a step than to go from a mixture of chemicals to a bacterium. [4] Given the scientific research alone, it would seem we shouldn’t assume life can originate by chance ever without intelligent intervention. 

   Dawkins repeats his earlier confidence in cumulative selection, but here the difficulties arise from the fact life has sprung quickly without any hint of gradual accumulation of minor changes.  Take, for instance, the origin of trilobites which led Richard Forty to muse

 

Fossils of trilobites appeared suddenly in the geological record during the early part, but not quite at the base of the Cambrian period, perhaps 540 million years ago.  If you are tempted by the word “dramatic” then this is one occasion where you could be forgiven for weakening.  These are trilobites with lots of segments and big eyes: striking things, not little squitty objects.  It is an appearance as drastic as that of the sorcerer in Swan Lake, who accompanied the first theatrical explosion I ever experienced.  You are tempted to cry out: “bang!”  And as you continue to collect a foot or so higher into younger strata, the first trilobite will be joined by others, maybe half a dozen or so different species, and all individually distinctive ones at that. [5]

 

   What one sees viewing the chapters that deal with scientific arguments against improbabilities and the argument-to-design is the over-confident attempt to defend evolution by dismissing any hegemony creationists might grab even at the expense of damage to evolution as a theory.  Dawkins quotes a blogger on an article he and Jerry Coyne contributed to the Guardian as asking why God should be considered an explanation for anything.  “It’s not – it’s a failure to explain, a shrug of the shoulders . . . dressed up in spirituality and ritual,” this person says.  Dawkins would agree, but then falls into attributing human ailments like a bad back to mistakes drawn from an evolution from walking on all fours to two-legged mobility.  Natural selection is also cruel and wasteful given the relationship between predators and prey.  How then might we attribute the clever “design” in DNA to a wasteful process not to mention the beauty in a peacock’s feathers, the complicated wing motions necessary to keep a hummingbird afloat, or the complicated process involved in blood clotting?  Are all these, and many more, the creations of a cruel and wasteful process?  I actually wish here that evolutionists like Dawkins would be more empiricist rather than papering over all life with their materialistic theories because they don’t particularly like God intruding on their domain. 

   Dawkins attempts to explain the origin of religion by offering numerous theories, shuffling between them as if pulling them each successively out of a hat and tossing them aside in search of another, and each one can be discarded by us as well.  Perhaps, he thinks, religion originates as a by-product of a misfiring in the brain of a useful impulse to believe without question what one is told to do much as children obey their parents unquestioningly.  How then does this explain the fact the majority of people (much to the disappointment of Dawkins) have this impulse – unbelievers also?  Are we really to believe the majority has a misfiring in the brain?  Also, why would we attribute the origin to a misfiring when people generally consider religious belief consoling?  Finally, how could we attribute converts to religious belief to misfirings in the brain, converts like

 

Josh Mcdowell (author of the Evidence that Demands a Verdict series, a convert from at least, bare minimum, agnosticism)

Ignace Lepp (convert from Communism)

Alister McGrath (convert from atheism)

Patrick Glynn (convert from atheism and whose book, God: The Evidence, details the findings that led to his conversion)

Antony Flew (convert from atheism whose book There is a God details his reasons for this)

 

    Dawkins later suggests belief in religion is a by-product of romantic love.  Certainly love for a god compares somewhat with love for a wife or child, but just because two things share common facets does not mean one is a by-product of the need for the other.  (The love for a friend is close to the love of a spouse, but nobody would thus imagine love for a friend was an unfortunate misfiring brain by-product of spousal love.)  Taken too far we could attribute the love of anything (much less any emotion) to this “by-product” theory. Is the affection toward a pet a by-product of romantic love?  How about the desire for a computer?  Is the desire for a car a by-product of the desire for a home?  The lengths to which this logic can go stretches the possibility of a meaningful theory to the limits where the falsifiability of science is breached and blind religion begins.

   Perhaps religious ideas are nothing but memes (ideas in the brain) that have survived.  However, as I have noted in my book Refuting Atheism, religious ideas like heaven would not survive given their lack of referents.  Why, for instance, would a desire for survival after death survive when one knows it wouldn’t happen and this knowledge would produce stress even in the presence of what he calls a “memeplex”?  How about other ideas such as a virgin birth, triune god, angelic figures, and hell (an idea that is sure to be undesirable and hence eliminated by any mematic natural selection)? 

   Taken too far, and perhaps logically enough, Dawkins’ theories could undermine the justification for atheism.  Imagine if I tried this type of Dawkins’esque mematic analysis of atheism:   Does atheism have any survival value?  Apparently it doesn’t because the religious are actually happier and healthier being religious.  Does it benefit the spread of genetic material to offspring?  Obviously it does not since few people are atheists and the human race has reproduced fine without it.  Perhaps the only use of atheism is atheism itself, a meme that has seemed to be able to copy itself among a select group of the population. [6]

   What one notices while reading this chapter is the musings of a man who is vividly upset at the fact the data does not fit the theory of which he is so impressed.  It’s almost like a man, who claims men salespeople sell the most cars and then finds women are outselling them at every turn, grovels about looking for an explanation for this and cannot tolerate his inability to find one. It simply doesn’t, and can’t, occur to Dawkins that evolutionist theory cannot explain the origin of the religious impulse and desire much less religious tenets. 

  Dawkins takes us through an explanation for our moral instinct also and at one juncture talks as if he were offering an explanation for it that jives with creationist theory.  He is speaking of Harvard biologist Marc Hauser’s book Moral Minds detailing studies done about how people respond to moral dilemmas using questionnaires on the internet when we join Dawkins’ thoughts in progress.

 

From the present point of view, the interesting thing is that most people come to the same decisions when faced with these dilemmas, and their agreement over the decisions themselves is stronger than their ability to articulate their reasons.  This is what we would expect if we have a moral sense which is built into our brains, like our sexual instinct or our fear of heights or . . . our capacity for language . . . As we shall see, the way people respond to these moral tests, and their inability to articulate their reasons, seems largely independent of their religious beliefs or lack of them.   The message of Hauser’s book . . . is this: ‘Driving our moral judgments is a universal moral grammar, a faculty of the mind that evolved over million of years to include a set of principles for building a range of possible moral systems.  As with language, the principles that make up our moral grammar fly beneath the radar of our awareness.’

 

   What better description of a moral awareness that is “written in the heart” (to use a Biblical phrase) can we get? 

  Dawkins does find a Darwinian explanation for the moral impulse when noting that genes are selfish and therefore would work to enhance the survivability of the individual, not the group.  But our human moral intuition has us working toward the good of the group, not necessarily the individual. This is where the group selection and reciprocal altruism he speaks of come into play.  While natural selection and selfish genes favor the individual, evolution has fostered cooperation that favors the group.

  I guess the first question is this:  where along the evolutionary line of descent did we suddenly switch from a selfish nature to a cooperative one and why would we if selfish behavior favored the individual?  Altruism would be filtered out of the Darwinian process because only the fittest survive and it is those that do not practice altruism that can do this.

   I rather like the commentary on this by critic of Darwinism, but not creationist, David Stove who says, quite succinctly, “If Darwin’s theory of evolution were true, there would be in every species a constant and ruthless competition to survive: a competition in which only a few in any generation can be winners.”  The human, race, however, is not like that and this fact he dubs “Darwin’s dilemma.” In fact, altruism has always been a problem for Darwinism, he says.   Until the mid-1960s Darwinism continued to say organisms behave in a way that maximizes individual fitness after which evolutionists added the idea of group selection and inclusive fitness where an organism tends to maximize the fitness of the group to which it belongs.  Kin altruism is strong, of course, but altruism shows itself the strongest among people who have no genetic ties:  Mother Teresa, for instance.  If Darwinian sociobiology makes it out to be that people like this are a “problem” for Darwinian theory, then the problem, Stove says, is not the people but the theory.  Perhaps we should consider the human race has never evolved out of competition into a cooperative race and has always been cooperative with a moral code that reinforces that cooperation.   [7]

  That’s Dawkins’ book.  Is it critical of religion? Hell yeah it is.  Is it unbiased. No.  Is it full of baloney?  You bet. Is it Dawkins’ intellectual attempt to get religion out of our lives so he can worship at Darwin’s feet?  Without a doubt. 

 

jstueber@charter.net

 



[1] Gould’s essay is reproduced in Robert Pennock ed., Intelligent Design Creationism and Its Critics, (London, MIT Press, 2001)

[2] Robert Shapiro, Origins:  A Skeptic’s Guide to the Creation of Life on Earth, (New York, Bantam, 1986,) p. 116-129

[3] Alex Williams and John Hartnett, Dismantling the Big Bang, (Green Forest, Master Books, 2005), p. 160

[4] John Horgan, The End of Science:  Facing the Limits of Knowledge in the Twilight of the Scientific Age, (New York, Addison-Wesley, 1996), p. 138-141

[5] Richard Forty, Trilobite!  Eyewitness to Evolution, (New York, Alfred Knopf, 2000), p. 121

[6] I took the ideas for this paragraph from Dawkins’ critique of religion in the essay “What Use is Religion,” reproduced from Free Enquiry, vol 24 numb. 5.  I simply applied the same ideas he uses for religion to atheism. The salient paragraph is as follows

 

Darwinian selection sets up childhood brains with a tendency to believe their elders. It sets up brains with a tendency to imitate, hence indirectly to spread rumors, spread urban legends, and believe religions. But given that genetic selection has set up brains of this kind, they then provide the equivalent of a new kind of nongenetic heredity, which might form the basis for a new kind of epidemiology, and perhaps even a new kind of nongenetic Darwinian selection. I believe that religion is one of a group of phenomena explained by this kind of nongenetic epidemiology, with the possible admixture of nongenetic Darwinian selection. If I am right, religion has no survival value for individual human beings, nor for the benefit of their genes. The benefit, if there is any, is to religion itself. 

 

[7] David Stove, Darwinian Fairytales:  Selfish Genes, Errors of Heredity, and Other Fables of Evolution, ((New York, Encounter, 1995), p. 3 and Essay #8