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Health, psychology & science stories


Richard Dawkins

22 May 2002

Published in The Age

This year is the twentieth anniversary of Richard Dawkins’s book The Extended Phenotype, which one reviewer said “may be the most important book on evolutionary biology in the last decade or two".

The book left no doubt that a powerful new voice had arrived on the evolutionary scene. If Thomas Huxley had been “Darwin’s bulldog”, Dawkins (opined one admirer) was his Rottweiler. In the book, the 41-year-old Oxford zoology lecturer outlined his visionary idea that organisms, including humans, are only one step in the gene’s game - their larger expression being our family, community, tools and made environment.

In The Selfish Gene - the seminal work he’d written seven years earlier - Dawkins enshrined the gene as the driver of evolution, casting humans and other species as its mere propagation vehicles. Instead of looking at how chickens or humans communicate, co-operate, compete and change, Dawkins looked at how genes do these things. He became the first ethologist (animal behaviour specialist) of the gene.

The Selfish Gene also included Dawkins’s theory of memes. These are ideas - often illogical and useless ones, he says, such as schoolyard fads and religions - which evolve according to the laws of natural selection, and which spread as viruses do, through self-replication and the infection of new hosts. (In this case human minds.)

Since the two books were published, “neo-Darwinism” has gone on to become the topic in the life sciences - and beyond.

“The philosophy of biology is a boom subject in philosophy now,” says Monash University’s Professor of Philosophy, John Bigelow. “Biology has moved into the centre of attention, and Dawkins is part of that. His concept of the meme is having an impact. I’ve had a student do an MA on memes here.”

In The Blind Watchmaker in 1986, Dawkins wrote: “I want to persuade the reader not just that the Darwinian world-view happens to be true, but that it is the only known theory that could, in principle, solve the mystery of our existence.”

His “blind watchmaker” is “natural selection, the blind, unconscious, automatic process which Darwin discovered, and which we now know is the explanation for the existence and apparently purposeful form of all life, has no purpose in mind... It has no vision, no foresight, no sight at all.”

The Blind Watchmaker is full of fascinating facts, such as that the eye has evolved 40 times independently in different species. And that echolocation has been independently developed by dolphins, whales, shrews, rats and seals, two different bat groups, two bird groups - and finally human technicians.

Dawkins’s fourth book was River Out of Eden in 1995.

"The river of my title is a river of DNA,” he writes, “and it flows through time, not space. It is a river of information, not a river of bones and tissues; a river of abstract instructions for building bodies."

An overarching theme in this book is the difficult task scientists often face in puncturing our biases, cultural beliefs and intellectual fashions, to offer us something approaching truth.

In 1996 came Climbing Mt Improbable. Dawkins’s metaphorical mountain has two sides. One is a sheer unclimbable cliff, representing the belief that today’s biological world is far too complex to have come from evolution alone.

But Mt Improbable’s other side has “gently inclined grassy meadows, graded steadily and easily towards the distant uplands... The sheer height of the peak doesn't matter, so long as you don't try to scale it in a single bound.” His point being that evolution has been working on creating the natural world for longer than human imagination can grasp, which is often why its critics fail to give it its due.

1998’s Unweaving The Rainbow takes John Keats to task for saying that when Newton reduced the rainbow to prismatic colours, he robbed it of its magic. “Science is, or ought to be, the inspiration for great poetry," Dawkins counters.

Having served as its Professor of Zoology, Dawkins is now  Charles Simonyi Professor for the Public Understanding of Science at Oxford University. (Charles Simonyi is the head of Microsoft’s Intentional Programming Team. He made a lot of money from the company’s stock options, and decided to endow the chair for the man he admired so much.)

Between books, and marriages - his third is to Lalla Ward, an actress who once played Dr Who’s winsome assistant - Dawkins has championed smaller causes.

In a 1998 essay, Postmodernism Disrobed in the journal Nature, he wrote that the revered theorist Jacques Lacan “simulates a profound knowledge of mathematics” and is “ridiculous” and “a fake” for, among other things, attempting to equate the erect male member with (believe it or not) the square root of minus one. Much of postmodernism is, he wrote, “metatwaddle”.

Accordingly Dawkins is a big fan of the “Postmodernism Generator” at our own Monash University, which uses software “simulating postmodernism and mental debility” to churn out impressive-sounding but meaningless essays.

In the evolution field, Dawkins’s great rival has been US palaeoentologist Stephen Jay Gould, who died of cancer this week. Gould disputed Dawkins’s gene-driven world. He also championed the idea of “punctuated equilibrium” (fits and starts) in evolution as opposed to Darwin’s and Dawkins’s “gradualism”.

Monash University’s Professor John Bigelow says: “Darwin observed that the fossil record seemed to be saying that evolution took rather quick leaps forward. But his theory says that it doesn’t. Now, the problem that was there for Darwin is the debate between Dawkins and Stephen Jay Gould. It was an acrimonious dispute too - they got quite abusive with one another.”

But Dawkins always reserved his sharpest barbs for religion - his arch-meme:

“Like computer viruses, successful mind viruses will tend to be hard for their victims to detect. If you are the victim of one, the chances are that you won't know it, and may even vigorously deny it.

“The patient typically finds himself impelled by some deep, inner conviction that something is true, or right, or virtuous: a conviction that doesn't seem to owe anything to evidence or reason.”

Dr Tom Rich, Curator of Vertebrate Palaeolontology at Museum Victoria, met Dawkins on a Melbourne visit in the early 1990s.

When he entered Rich’s office, “immediately, Dawkins’s attention was focused on a picture I have hanging on my wall. He was instantly struck by anomaly about it, that none of the hundreds of people who have walked into my office over the years had ever noticed.” It was of a (non-existent) sabre-toothed cat with six legs. “It is so well-executed a picture that it looks perfectly plausible with six legs. To me, his instant comprehension that there was an anomaly before him, that none of my other visitors had ever seen, spoke reams to me about how acute an observer he is.”

Richard Dawkins is presently finishing his seventh book, and is avoiding most public engagements. But in recent days he has done a public reading from his books with his wife, and a public reading from A Quark for Mr Mark, a poetry anthology focussing on science.

He aims to convince his public that life can be glorious, meaningful and poetic without either God or spirit. Better to face facts, he believes, than live in a dream: “There is no spirit-driven life force. Life is just bytes and bytes and bytes or digital information.“

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