Some Richard Dawkins Articles
- "Snake Oil and Holy Water" by Richard Dawkins, Forbes ASAP, 10.04.99
- "The Improbability of God" by Richard Dawkins, Free Inquiry magazine, Volume 18, Number 3
- "By definition, explanations that build on simple premises are more plausible and more satisfying than explanations that have to postulate complex and
statistically improbable beginnings. And you can't get much more complex than an Almighty God!"
- "There is a temptation to argue that, although God may not be needed to explain the evolution of complex order once the universe, with its
fundamental laws of physics, had begun, we do need a God to explain the origin of all things. This idea doesn't leave God with very much to
do: just set off the big bang, then sit back and wait for everything to happen. The physical chemist Peter Atkins, in his beautifully written
book The Creation, postulates a lazy God who strove to do as little as possible in order to initiate everything. Atkins explains how each
step in the history of the universe followed, by simple physical law, from its predecessor. He thus pares down the amount of work that the
lazy creator would need to do and eventually concludes that he would in fact have needed to do nothing at all! "
- Chemistry and Industry comment: "Religion - the antithesis to science" by Peter Atkins
- "My conclusion is stark and uncompromising. Religion is the antithesis of science; science is competent to illuminate all the deep questions of
existence, and does so in a manner that makes full use of, and respects the human intellect. I see neither need nor sign of any future
- Religion's misguided missiles - Richard Dawkins
- "It's a tall story, but worth a try. You'd have to get them young, though. Feed
them a complete and self-consistent background mythology to make the big lie sound
plausible when it comes. Give them a holy book and make them learn it by heart.
Do you know, I really think it might work. As luck would have it, we have just
the thing to hand: a ready-made system of mind-control, which has been honed over
centuries, handed down through generations. Millions of people have been brought
up in it. It is called religion and, for reasons which one day we may understand,
most people fall for it (nowhere more so than America itself, though the irony passes unnoticed)."
- "Our leaders have described the recent atrocity with the customary cliche:
mindless cowardice. "Mindless" may be a suitable word for the vandalizing of a
telephone box. It is not helpful for understanding what hit New York on
September 11. Those people were not mindless and they were certainly not cowards.
On the contrary, they had sufficiently effective minds braced with an insane
courage, and it would pay us mightily to understand where that courage came from.
It came from religion. Religion is also, of course, the underlying source of
the divisiveness in the Middle East, which motivated the use of this deadly
weapon in the first place. But that is another story and not my concern here.
My concern here is with the weapon itself. To fill a world with religion, or
religions of the Abrahamic kind, is like littering the streets with loaded
guns. Do not be surprised if they are used. "
- "The "know-nothings", the "know-alls", and the "no-contests"" by Richard Dawkins
- "Richard Dawkins, well-known for his books on evolution, took part in a
debate with the Archbishop of York, Dr John Habgood,
on the existence of God at the Edinburgh science festival last Easter.
[Easter '92 ed.] The science correspondent of The
Observer reported that the "withering" Richard Dawkins clearly
believed the "God should be spoken of in the same way as
Father Christmas or the Tooth Fairy". He [the correspondent] overheard
a gloomy cleric comment on the debate: "That was easy
to sum up. Lions 10, Christians nil". "
- "Talking about Evolution with Richard Dawkins" with Richard Dawkins
- "MR. DAWKINS: That's right. Now, in the modern world, which is now so different
from the world in which our ancestors lived, what we actually strive for, the goals
we set up, are very different. The goal-seeking mechanisms in our brains were
originally put there totry to achieve goals such as finding a herd of bison to hunt.
And wewould have set out to find a herd of bison, and we'd have used all sorts of
flexible goal-seeking mechanisms and we'd have persisted and we'd have gone on
and on and on for days and days and days trying toachieve that goal.
Natural selection favored persistence in seeking goals. Nowadays we no longer
hunt bisons. Nowadays we hunt money or a nice new house or we try to finish a
novel or whatever it is that we do."
- "MR. DAWKINS: Darwin, if I may say so, had better things to dothan talk about
why we are here in that sense. It's not a sensible sense in which to ask the
question. There is no reason why, just because it's possible to ask the question,
it's necessarily a sensible question to ask."
- MR. DAWKINS: Yes, it's not a very satisfying explanation. It's a very
unparsimonious, very uneconomical explanation. Thebeauty of the Darwinian
explanation itself is that it's exceedinglypowerful. It's a very simple principle, and
using this one simpleprinciple, you can bootstrap your way up from essentially
nothing tothe world of complexity and diversity we have today. Now, that's
MR. WATTENBERG: It's not any simpler. In fact, it's morecomplex than the --
than Genesis. I mean, 'And God created theheavens and the earth.' That --
MR. DAWKINS: You have to be joking.
MR. WATTENBERG: Well, I mean, 'God created the heavens and theearth' -- I
can say that pretty quickly. I mean --
MR. DAWKINS: You can say it, but think what lies behind it. What lies behind it is
a complicated, intelligent being -- God, whomust have come from somewhere.
You have simply smuggled in at thebeginning of your book the very thing that
we're trying to explain. What we're trying to explain is where organized
complexity andintelligence came from. We have now got an explanation. You
startfrom nothing and you work up gradually in easily explainable steps.
- "MR. DAWKINS: Yeah, okay. I mean, these are fascinating hypothetical questions
and I suppose there would come a trade-offpoint. I mean, there'd probably come
a point when -- but I do think it's important, since this is a very academic
discussion we're having, I think it would be positively irresponsible to let
listeners to this program go away with the idea that this is a major effect. If it's
an effect at all, it's an elusive statistical effect."
- "IS SCIENCE KILLING THE SOUL?" with Richard Dawkins
- "While The Guardian-Dillons series is characterized as a "debate", Dawkins and Pinker, who are in general agreement across broad
areas, presented what I would characterize as a "a high level seminar." As Dawkins pointed out: "The adversarial approach to truth isn't
necessarily always the best one. On the contrary, when two people disagree strongly, a great deal of time may be wasted. It's been well
said that when two opposite points of view are advocated with equal vigor, the truth does not necessarily lie mid-way between them. And
in the same way, when two people agree about something, it's just possible that the reason they agree is that they're both right. There's
also I suppose the hope that in a dialogue of this sort each speaker may manage to achieve a joint understanding with the other one, better
than he would have done on his own.""
- "So Soul One refers to a particular theory of life. It's the theory that there is something non-material about life, some non-physical vital
principle. It's the theory according to which a body has to be animated by some anima. Vitalized by a vital force. Energized by some
mysterious energy. Spiritualized by some mysterious spirit. Made conscious by some mysterious thing or substance called consciousness.
You'll notice that all those definitions of Soul One are circular and non-productive. It's no accident. Julian Huxley once satirically likened
vitalism to the theory that a railway engine works by "force-locomotif." I don't always agree with Julian Huxley, but here he hit the nail
beautifully. In the sense of Soul One, science has either killed the soul or is in the process of doing so.
But there is a second sense of soul, Soul Two, which takes off from another one of the Oxford dictionary's definitions:
Intellectual or spiritual power. High development of the mental faculties. Also, in somewhat weakened sense, deep feeling, sensitivity."
- Turning back to Soul One -- in the first chapter of Steve Pinker's book How the Mind Works he says, "I want to convince you that our
minds are not animated by some godly vapor or single wonder-principle. The mind, like the Apollo spacecraft, is designed to solve many
engineering problems, and thus is packed with high-tech systems, each contrived to overcome its own obstacles." In the same paragraph,
he moves on to Soul Two when he says, " . . . I believe that the discovery by cognitive science and artificial intelligence of the technical
challenges overcome by our mundane mental activity is one of the great revelations of science, an awakening of the imagination
comparable to learning that the universe is made up of billions of galaxies or that a drop of pond water teems with microscopic life." Well,
awakening of the imagination is a pretty good definition of Soul Two. And in that sense, far from killing the soul, science may prove to be
its greatest awakener.
Carl Sagan wrote, shortly before he died,
"How is it that hardly any major religion has looked at science and concluded, 'This is better than we thought! The Universe is much bigger
than our prophets said, grander, more subtle, more elegant'? Instead they say, 'No, no, no! My god is a little god, and I want him to stay
that way.' A religion, old or new, that stressed the magnificence of the Universe as revealed by modern science might be able to draw
forth reserves of reverence and awe hardly tapped by the conventional faiths.
Well it's common enough for people to agree that religions have got the facts all wrong, but "Nevertheless," they go on to say, "you have
to admit that religions do provide something that people need. We crave a deeper meaning to life, a deeper, more imaginative
understanding of the mystery of existence." Well, in the passage I've just quoted, Sagan seems to be criticizing religions not just for getting
it wrong, which many people would accept, but for their deficiencies precisely in the sphere in which they are supposed to retain some
residual virtue. Religions are not imaginative, not poetic, not soulful. On the contrary, they are parochial, small-minded, niggardly with the
human imagination, precisely where science is generous."
- STEVEN PINKER: I'm going to discuss an idea that elicits wildly opposite reactions. Some people find it a shocking claim with radical
implications for morals and every value that we hold dear. Other people think that it's a claim that was established a hundred years ago,
that the excitement is only in how we work out the details, and that it has few if any implications for our values and ethics. That is the idea
that the mind is the physiological activity of the brain, in particular the information processing activity of the brain; that the brain, like other
organs, is shaped by the genes; and that in turn, the genome was shaped by natural selection and other evolutionary processes. I am
among those who think that this should no longer be a shocking claim, and that the excitement is in fleshing out the details, and showing
exactly how our perception, decision-making, and emotions can be tied to the activity of the brain.
Three new sciences are now vividly rooting our mental processes in our biology. Cognitive neuroscience, the attempt to relate thought,
perception and emotion to the functioning of the brain, has pretty much killed Soul One, in Richard's sense. It should now be clear to any
scientifically literate person that we don't have any need for a ghost in the machine, as Gilbert Ryle memorably put it. Many kinds of
evidence show that the mind is an entity in the physical world, part of a causal chain of physical events. If you send an electric current
through the brain, you cause the person to have a vivid experience. If a part of the brain dies because of a blood clot or a burst artery or a
bullet wound, a part of the person is gone -- the person may lose an ability to see, think, or feel in a certain way, and the entire personality
may change. The same thing happens gradually when the brain accumulates a protein called beta-amyloid in the tragic disease known as
Alzheimer's. The person -- the soul, if you want -- gradually disappears as the brain decays from this physical process.
We know that every form of mental activity -- every emotion, every thought, every percept -- gives off electrical, magnetic, or metabolic
signals that can be recorded with increasing precision by Positron Emission Tomography, functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging,
Magnetoencephalography, and other techniques. We know that if you take a knife and section the corpus callosum (which joins the two
cerebral hemispheres) you have the equivalent of two minds -- perhaps even two souls -- in the same skull. We know that if you look at
the brain under a microscope it has a breathtaking degree of complexity -- on the order of a trillion synapses -- that's fully commensurate
with the breathtaking complexity of human thought and experience. We know that when the brain dies, the person goes out of existence. I
consider it to be a significant empirical discovery that one cannot communicate with the dead, and excellent evidence that Soul One, in
Richard's sense, does not exist."
- "STEVEN PINKER: The third science that's connecting mind to biology is evolutionary psychology, which takes an approach to understanding the mind that
has long been fruitful in understanding the organs of the body. We can't make sense of an organ like the eye without considering it to have
a function, or a purpose - not in a mystical, teleological sense, but in the sense of an illusion of engineering. That illusion, we now know, is
a consequence of Darwin's process of natural selection. Everyone agrees that the eye is a remarkable bit of natural "engineering," and that
may now be explained as a product of natural selection rather than as the handiwork of a cosmic eye-designer or as a massive
coincidence in tissue formation. But the eye by itself is useless -- unless it's connected to a brain. The eye does not carry out its function by
dumping optical information into a yawning chasm. Rather, the eye is hooked up to parts of the brain -- anatomically speaking, the eye is
an extension of the brain -- and those parts contain circuits for analyzing the incoming visual material, for recovering the shapes and colors
and motions in the world that gave rise to the stimulation of the eye. The perception of a world of colored 3-D objects, in turn, feeds into
a system of categorization, allowing us to make sense of our experience, to impute causes to events, and to remember things in terms of
their significant categories. And in turn, those categories themselves would be useless unless they were organized in service of certain
goals, goals set by our emotions. Beginning with the eye, we have a chain of causation that leads to the study of faculties of mind, or
modules, or subsystems, each of which can be seen as an adaptation akin to the adaptations in the organs of the body. Recent research
has shown that aspects of the psyche that were previously considered mysterious, quirky, and idiosyncratic -- such as phobias, an eye for
beauty, the tendency to fall in love, a passionate desire for revenge in defense of honor -- turn out to have a subtle evolutionary logic when
they are analyzed in the way in which we have always analyzed the organs of the body.
I find these developments to be exhilarating; they are a fulfillment of the ancient imperative to know thyself. They also have important
practical implications. Alzheimer's Disease, to cite just one example, will be one of the leading causes of human misery in the industrial
world over the next several decades, as we live longer and stop dying of other things. Successful treatment of Alzheimer's will not come
from prayer or wishful thinking or reasoning about soul one; it will come from treating memory and personality as biochemical phenomena."
- "STEVEN PINKER: One reason I find the reaction strange is that I can't imagine how anything coming out of the laboratory, computer, or theoretician's
notebook could possibly subtract from what is the meaning of life, or Richard's sense of Soul two. Why keep on living if our minds are the
physiological activity of the brain? Well, for starters there's natural beauty, and works of great art, and ethical ideals, and love, and
bringing up children, and enjoying friends, and discovering how the world works -- I could go on. Why should the worth of any of those
activities depend on the existence of a ghost in the machine?"
- "STEVEN PINKER: The other part of the explanation comes from a conclusion that
anthropologists have drawn about what you find in common in all the
world's religions -- not just the major proselytizing religions, but
the animistic beliefs of hunter-gatherer tribes. Ruth Benedict put it
succinctly: the common denominator of religions is that a
religion is a recipe for success. She didn't necessarily mean this to apply to the
most sophisticated theologies, but in general, what people
do in common when they think of deities is to pray to them for recovery from
illness, for recovery from an illness of a child, for success
in love, for success on the battlefield, for good weather, for the crops coming up,
and so on. I don't want to say that sophisticated theology
can be reduced to praying for good weather, but if you look at what's common
across cultures that's what you find."
- "DAWKINS: Yes. G. K. Chesterton said when people stop believing, they don't believe in nothing, they believe in anything. I presume
that's what the questioner has in mind. I am interested in cults. The so-called organized religions are of course just old cults. They started
off as cults and they've acquired a respectability that's simply due to the long time that they've been with us. I'm interested in them. I don't
know why the questioner thinks it's not an ESS. It's not to me obvious that a world in which nobody believed in Soul One is necessarily
ripe for invasion by cults, except insofar as I think one of the main reasons why people do believe the things that they believe is somewhat
analogous to viral infection. And the reason for this has a good Darwinian basis. When we are children it is very important that we should
learn as quickly as possible certain extremely important things. The language of our society, the social rules of our society, various rules for
how to stay alive in a hostile world. So it's very easy for a Darwinian to believe that children will be preprogrammed with a rule that says,
Believe what your parents tell you, or believe what your society's elders tell you. And of course a rule like that is not going to be
discriminating. It's going to work both for the sensible things -- rules for how not to die of snake bite or falling off of cliffs or how to learn
the language of the society. But the self-same rule is also going to be a natural sponge, or a natural soaker-up of New Age nonsense, and
nonsense of any other kind. So, a biologically sensible rule -- Believe what you're told when you're young, and when you grow up pass on
the same stuff to your own children -- that is a recipe for the long-term survival for the beliefs themselves. Or the rule might be, Believe
so-and-so, and spend as much time as possible persuading other people to believe it as well; that's a recipe for epidemics of infectious
beliefs. So I think that in that sense I agree with the questioner."
- "PINKER: I think that evolution and genetics and neuroscience are essential parts of an explanation of human behavior, but that doesn't
mean that people are sealed in a barrel, oblivious to the standards of behavior set by other people, and unable to make decisions based
on them. Quite the contrary -- one of the things our brains are designed to do is learn the contingencies of the social world we find
ourselves in. Obviously there is variation among cultures, which is made possible by the fact that people innovate and people learn other
people's innovations. Also, the optimal way to behave in a given situation depends on how other people behave and react to one's own
behavior, and those contingencies vary from place to place and have to be learned. There are large differences, orders of magnitude, in
rates of violent encounters across different countries, although the psychology of the violent encounters is strikingly similar. The rates differ
because of differences in the cultures and social values, those values aren't like a gas that seeps out of the earth and that people merely
breathe in. They emerge from a bunch of minds interacting in a group, exchanging ideas, assessing one another, making decisions. So
culture itself, even though it's part of any explanation of behavior, itself has to be tied to the psychological and ultimately neurological
mechanisms that allow cultures to arise to begin with."
- "The Dissent of Darwin" - Jaron Lanier and Richard Dawkins
- 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? It's
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 Zahavi's 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: It's 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.