Nevermind the Watches

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Book Reviews / Reflections / Science

This holiday season I received a gift subscription to Audible, and because I spend most of my reading time with works of fiction, I thought I’d use the daily commute for non-fiction. The first book I chose was Richard Dawkins’ The Blind Watchmaker. For reasons I cannot explain, I found myself curious recently about the theory of evolution, how it has evolved with the emergence of genetics, and what some of the open questions and modern findings are.

I should note that as I sit to write this post I’m about half way through the book, and very much enjoying it—the science in particular. Dawkins has a great knack for using readily accessible analogs of complex technical issues to introduce them, and then anticipating all the reasons why his readers might find those examples to be limited, and addressing those concerns as he moves deeper into a given subject. I marveled alongside of Dawkins at the prowess of bat echolocation, at the myriad creative possibilities a simple computer program with just nine “genes” could “discover”, and at the molecular micro-machines within our cells that spin and whirl and copy and catalyze in every instant of our existence. I’ve also enjoyed his reference to seminal experiments in modern biology that demonstrate the veracity of various points that he makes.

Dawkins’ proselytizing, however, is far less intriguing.

In periodic asides, Dawkins feels obliged to note that everything he’s just explained demolishes theism in general, and intelligent design arguments in particular. I understand the importance he places on this topic, given his personal position on the subject, but I find his need to interject on such matters a distraction from the very enjoyable and well-written insights into the science of evolution. One reason for this reaction is that his approach to the subject is quite shallow as compared to his thinking on the subject of evolution.

He writes as if the question of what the universe is, and how it came to be, may be reduced to a single multiple-choice question with but two answers. One must be right. The other wrong. And because of the black and white nature of the subject, it’s perfectly okay if he speaks pejoratively about and/or trivializes those he disagrees with. Readers like myself, who don’t have any issue with evolutionary theory, but still don’t think the case is closed with regards to what the universe actually is, how it came into being, or how it functions at the deepest level, find ourselves annoyed by Dawkins treatment of this subject. I did, at any rate. The only option offered aside from the position for which he advocates is to be a simpleton, and I think it’s unfortunate that Dawkins chose to adopt this artificial taxonomy of human thought.

I want to reply to this a bit, and begin by noting that the danger in doing so is the same danger Dawkins faces by electing to engage with the subject as he has. It’s the same danger we face in any argument on a complex subject that we reduce to a stark polarity. We’re obligated by the very context of the discussion to deploy facts as foot soldiers in an argument, and we’ve lost the opportunity to simply appreciate them with the gentle touch of an open mind. We find ourselves quickly choosing sides, and this has consequences to the conversation. Ultimately, it prevents creative dialogue from occurring, and all that can be sustained are bilateral rhetorical skirmishes. These are pointless. The marketplace of ideas where I prefer to do my shopping is not a bilateral monopoly, but something closer to perfect competition. Perhaps this is the market in which Dawkins actually operates—I hope so—and he simply aims to shrink it as much as possible to suit his literary purposes.

I very much enjoy the way Richard’s mind works when he sticks to the asking and answering of interesting scientific questions, so I’m going to give him the benefit of the doubt and suggest that his past experiences have made it important for him to address a particular subset of the overall marketplace of ideas. In other words, people like me probably don’t trouble him all that much, while people of a much more fundamental Biblical bent (as one example) probably do. I can understand that, and appreciate his passion, even if I don’t agree from my vantage with his seemingly perpetual need to challenge this particular subset of society to a duel.

One reason I disagree with his need to do this is that it marginalizes anyone who doesn’t align strongly with one of the two positions he sustains in his commentary. It shrinks the conversation, and to borrow from ideas I think he would potentially endorse, a society faced with an evolutionary crisis as we are today that only explores two possible memetic solutions to its difficulty would be departing from the strategies that served biological evolution so well in the past. My understanding is that evolution casts a wide net in the possible space of solutions so as to explore as many alternatives as possible.

The retort might be that because a person like me is in the minority, and not winning the memetic competition for air waves, pages printed per year, clicks on the internet, or some other such datum that corresponds to reproductive fitness, that evolution is working perfectly fine. The ideas that people like me carry are simply “losing” in the processes of cumulative selection at work in our world. So all is well.

This just shows how complicated these issues are. We can deploy them on any side of the argument we wish, in logically consistent ways. Yet neither of the two sides currently contesting this issue may be “ultimately” right. Because our planet is in the midst of an evolutionary crisis—a point in which collective transformation is urgently required—winning the battle of ideas, but losing the war of planetary stability for all species would be fruitless. To be “ultimately” right in this case is to land upon solutions to the challenges we face that are best for the planetary environment as a whole, and which allow for prosperous and peaceful human cohabitation with one another and all of life. It’s not clear to me that either of the bilateral positions to which Dawkins elects to give credence are going to be ultimately right.

Dawkins obviously feels strongly that regardless of what people with quieter voices and lesser public influence such as myself may think, those who believe in an intelligently-designed universe are “ultimately” wrong—meaning, he must believe in his heart of hearts there is no way for us to navigate the present planetary crisis while certain ideas remain viable. This is not something I’m prepared to agree with, because I think the very challenge we face is that of transcending the idea which says “my” survival, at the expense of “yours”, is acceptable. In other words, it is polarity itself that we must find our way beyond. The problem is not necessarily the other side of the coin, but the coin itself as we have minted it.

If evolution has taught us anything, I think it is that life solves problems by transforming and expanding on what came before it. Likewise, I believe transformation is required, but not transformation of one particular element of the meme pool at the expense of another. I believe we must evolve together, somehow, and what we must evolve beyond is the inherently destructive perception of polarity. In this sense, Dawkins’ work underscores the true challenge before us, though it does precious little to resolve it.

13 Comments

  1. …”life solves problems by transforming and expanding on what came before it”…these words are touching me in this moment Michael…and new book for me to check out…along with the pile beside my bed ☺️🤓💫 sending joy Hedy

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thanks, Hedy. I think those words are important–a way of acknowledging what is in a sense. We each have a lineage, a heritage, an original blessing. We have a specificity to our past, a given uniqueness that manifests as who we are in the present, even as it provides a basis for the New… So many interesting thoughts when we follow the threads… 🙂

      Happy photographing, Hedy!
      Stay warm!
      Peace
      Michael

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  2. I’m with you on your perception of Dawkins and other scientists who have the need to denigrate people who think differently or have faith. I find judgemental atheists just as offensive as judgemental fundamentalists. And I recognized the irony of my judgment of their judgment. At least I’m not bashing them. 🙂

    Liked by 3 people

    • Thanks, Brad.

      Yeah, it’s not like Dawkins was bashing people particularly in this text. I’ve seen him go to town on a few people on-line, and this wasn’t like that. It’s just that need to make an interesting book about biology into a treatise, and the sense that he feels an impunity to lampooning a few folks along the way, even if in a subtle manner at times. I love his scientific explanations, and grimace when he can’t help himself with the rest. Judgmental anyone can be hard to take… Whether theists or atheists. Those who are unable to perceive the full spectrum of what is out there, and reduce the conversation to a binary discussion–and then insist they’re on the only side of that argument that matters–can be challenging for me to interact with.

      I hope I can show a way of disagreeing without bashing, but it’s a fine line, isn’t it?

      Peace
      Michael

      Liked by 1 person

  3. First of all, Happy New Year, dear Michael! You have started the year off with yet another intricate, thought-provoking essay. I seem to recall you writing about Dawkins in the past. He seriously rubs me the wrong way to the point that I don’t read him anymore. Is there anyone more obnoxious than a sanctimonious atheist? I know I’m being judgmental, but whatever. It is indeed this compulsion to label things as right/wrong that has got us into this planetary predicament. On another note: What a great gift the Audible is for you! Enjoy. Wishing you a 2020 filled with wonderful discoveries.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Happy New Year, Julie!

      I did write about him in the past. I was actually much more annoyed in that previous piece. He was comparing Oliver Cromwell pissing in the ocean to homeopathy, which is actually pretty freaking hilarious to me in this moment, but at the time I’d just gotten off a discussion about some of water’s interesting properties, and… yeah.

      You’re right. I think, BTW, we can express our dissatisfaction about a particular way of communicating without being judgmental about it. Truth is: I was hoping to suggest that regardless of the fact I may be annoyed, there’s a level at which it’s just not effective or constructive to be sanctimonious about things. It doesn’t work. Depends on what you’re after I guess, but in terms of fostering constructive and creative exchanges, I think it short-circuits the process…

      Overcoming this polarity thing seems really important. I hope we can do it! Wishing you an equally lovely 2020, with all that you desire, and fulfillment of all you’ve been working towards.

      Michael

      Liked by 1 person

  4. I admire your desire to listen to someone you don’t whole-heartedly agree with, as well as reflect on those areas where your love and passion for science overlap. It’s a beautiful thing to be able to do what Dawkins is likely never to be able to do, but I really don’t know what he does in his time in terms of listening or reflecting on spaces non-dualistic, not so starkly polar in thinking. Is it possible he could be but still chooses this role? This public position? Do you think he has a responsibility to show a greater range of thought for reasons of his popularity? His Datum?

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hello Ka,

      Great questions! I do try to listen to those I don’t agree with, and try to make sure I don’t just listen to the same spectrum of reality all the time. I think Dawkins should be the person he wishes to be, of course. The fact of the matter is that being divisive garners clicks, in a sense. It’s not just Dawkins, but the fact that his approach galvanizes a wider public response–at least with regards to hist stance on atheism and intelligent design, etc.

      Do I think he has a responsibility to show a greater range of thought?

      Responsibility is a strong word. I wish he would, but it’s his decision. I think it would be very difficult given what he’s said publicly in the past, but I would never personally ask him to endorse the type of simplified positions he elects to argue against. Part of my point here is that by focusing on particular counter-parties as he does, to the exclusion of others, he elevates those voices in the conversation at the expense of the actual diversity in viewpoints that exists. A two-sided conversation is not nearly as fruitful as a many-sided one.

      Thanks for the note, Ka! Great to hear from you!
      Peace
      Michael

      Liked by 1 person

      • Hello Michael!
        Loved your reply. There’s so much I could say in reply, further. I wish I could… Maybe I don’t have the same facility of language at the present to make that reply as I would hope. Here is a link that I do hope works: https://youtu.be/-_2xGIwQfik I stumbled upon it today. It’s what Neil deGrasse Tyson says to Dawkins that I think really says something, says what you are saying, maybe what I would be saying if I had any audience or was more invested. Have a look, and please tell me what you think! The only other comment I want to make is that there is unfortunately ‘a thing’ with people who are attracted to divisiveness –as though being divisive itself is their claim to fame; and sadly, they influence… or reflect? a large enough population to matter. I’m not sure. But to me, it matters not. What matters is inclusiveness – as you write. Also, we should consider what we elevate. All of us, even people with few clicks or who garner tiny attentions.
        Best of the day, week, and year to you, Michael!

        Liked by 1 person

        • Hello Ka,

          Yes, I agree with Tyson in that video. I liked the video a lot actually, even Dawkins’ reply, which sort of cracked me up. There was a twinge of self-awareness to it. A humorous moment. But then there’s the reality that he truly means it at some level. He really does feel I think, that if you disagree, well, f#*% off. And that’s where we lose something, I think. These issues are far from easy: Dawkins represents a self-righteous or sanctimonious something that many people embody, not just him, right? He is reflecting a particular view.

          Also, I can only imagine the snide communications he receives from those who disagree with him more fervently than myself. It’s unfortunate, and I wish that he didn’t have to deal with that sort of thing either. So both camps just sort of feed on one another. It’s a vicious cycle in a sense.

          I’m for inclusiveness as well. Inclusiveness of the heart, which can embrace people regardless of what they believe or how they act, and which understands, as Tyson said so well, that real communication and relationship begin with a sensitivity to the conditions of mind that obtain in one another. This type of acceptance doesn’t mean we must agree. Or that we must go along with actions or ideals that lead to harming one another. Not at all. But it does contemplate that we can’t cleave a slice of society off from the rest, and still be whole ourselves.

          Michael

          Liked by 1 person

          • I thought you might enjoy the video for the precise reasons I enjoyed it: Tyson’s words on the barbing energy of Dawkin’s words (and how he articulated that), and the idea that he should consider the state of the person he is speaking, consideration. He also brought up the piece about being an educator and what that means. That said, I wouldn’t be surprised if Dawkins gets hate mail. As another thought altogether, I find popular or people in perfectly unoffensive positions, with even non-triggering messages can still get attacked for their personal effects, delivery, or their looks, let alone their message. There may be no immunity from fame nor popularity. Still it is a wonder to me why so many garner that fame through making barbed arguments. I wonder how much influence these people really do have? Is their influence quantifiable? The datum we see is attention but it’s not qualified. Sorry I brought it away from your subject here, briefly. I’m not sure if I’m trying to be more inclusive in thinking about any of it. Your last line, “…we can’t cleave a slice of society off from the rest, and still be whole ourselves,” is the heart of what you are saying, overall, I think. Thank you for this correspondence. Wishing you a happy week ahead and a wonderful observance of MLK day – especially in light of this conversation!

            Ka

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            • Thank you, Ka. The question of why a particular type of person receives widespread acclaim is an interesting topic to be sure. Part of me thinks that until we “evolve” out of this game, most of us are playing the game of developing individuality, and distinctness, through contrast. The barbed tongue makes a great fulcrum for contrast, by giving those who disagree something to push against. As I’ve done here, to a certain extent, to be frank. It’s not good or bad to define ourselves through a process of differentiation–I think it’s necessary at some level. But of course we can differentiate ourselves from one another in ways that lead to wonder and joy just as well as we can in ways that lead to shouting matches. I certainly hope to do more of the former.

              The other thing is that people like Richard, and the vast majority of those who are invested in the discussion of ideas, all agree that ideas matter. We get passionate about this, because we agree it affects people’s lives, and it affects our shared reality. I watched another video on Dawkins that came up after your link, and there he was telling a young Catholic woman that the way we’d sort all this out is to sit down together and bring our evidence. And then we’ll see what the evidence tells us. The problem, of course, as Dawkins says in the video, is that she hasn’t the merest scrap of evidence by which to justify her beliefs. The real problem, in my mind, is that this type of foolishness obscures the fact that different thought systems have very different ways of drawing conclusions. Most of what the young woman might actually submit as evidence is not admitted in Dawkins’ court. So the rules of that game are somewhat rigged.

              The rigging certainly is justifiable, but only to a certain extent in my opinion. It makes reasonable sense to avoid placing our hands in a kettle of boiling water, because the evidence tells us what will happen. It’s a bad example, but I think it makes the point. In my mind, there is no reason to just outright ignore basic scientific findings. But there’s an overreaching when those findings are used in a form of circular logic to justify the assumptions that lie a the core. Viewing the world a certain way yields useful evidence, and that evidence reinforces the worldview. But there are certainly cases of shamans who have reached with their bare arms into kettles of boiling water, under the appropriate ceremonial conditions, and been unharmed. They have a different worldview, and it admits of different evidence.

              The two worlds are not mutually exclusive in my mind, although in any conversation that insists on polarity, the example I just gave would be met with scorn and ridicule. So it goes, but the world does lose something when a particular orientation of thought makes an effort to shrink its content for everyone, whether they like it or not.

              Michael

              Liked by 1 person

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