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.