Genesis of Eden

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This leopard is portrayed by Richard Dawkins as representing pitiless nature, but the leopard has just suffocated the gazelle, displaying anything but pitiless nature, rather a mitigation of potential suffering which is also a more straightforward deal for the predator. The development of emotions among mammals mediates our interaction in a virtuous way which precisely spells out the very emotion of pity. Elephants carefully examine the corpse of a dead comrade and hippos have been known to rescue and care for antelopes attacked and savaged by alligators. Dawkins whole picture is pitiless and inaccurate.

  1. Dawkins, Richard 1976 The Selfish Gene, Oxford Univ. Pr., Oxford.
  2. Dawkins, Richard 1986 The Blind Watchmaker, Harlow:Longman Science.
  3. Dawkins, Richard 1995 A River ran out of Eden, Weidenfield & Nicholson, London.
  4. Dawkins, Richard 1996 Climbing Mount Improbable, Viking, London.

I both love and hate the writing of Richard Dawkins. When he's good he's very very good. His representations ofthe evolution of the eye are brilliant. His description of the egg and sperm a feminist manifesto. But when he's bad he's horrid. He mechanizes nature far beyond the requirements of his Darwinian case. He sells short nature by portraying it as blind and pitiless DNA. This is a nighmare mechanistic vision. It is fallacious. Humanity did not pull itslef from the tooth and claw of the jungle by blind indifference. Our love of nature is not romantic fantasy either. His chic harsh perspective is inaccurate. We have long had a biological lifetime of the order of 30-40 years. Throughout the millions of years from proconsul to modern man we have followed a gathering and scavenging lifestyle that has left copious time for recreation. Life, while subject to disease and risk of injury has been by and large not dissimilar to our lives today. A blend of joy and anxiety, comfort and stress.

Dawkins is often condescending not only to creationists as we see here but to artists, indeed to anyone who thinks there is more to life than the paradigm of the selfish gene. Richard you are exposing your male-competitive 'emotional' nature.

Extracts from two chapters of A River Ran out of Eden


Creationism has enduring appeal, and the reason is not far to seek. It is not, at least for most of the people I encounter, because of a commitment to the literal truth of Genesis or some other tribal origin story. Rather it is that people discover for themselves the beauty and complexity of the living world and conclude that it "obviously" must have been designed. Those creationists who recognize that Darwinian evolution provides at least some sort of alternative to their scriptural theory often resort to a slightly more sophisticated objection. They deny the possibility of evolutionary intermediates. "X must have been designed by a Creator," people say, "because half an X would not work at all. All the parts of X must have been put together simultaneously; they could not have gradually evolved." For instance, on the day I began writing this chapter I happened to receive a letter. It was from an American minister who had been an atheist but was converted by reading an article in National Geographic. Here is an extract from the letter:

The article was about the amazing adaptations that orchids have made to their environments in order to propagate successfully. As I read I was particularly intrigued by the reproductive strat egy of one species, which involved the cooperation of a male wasp. Apparently the flower resembled very closely the female of this species of wasp, including having an opening in the proper place, so that the male wasp might just reach, by copulating with the flower, the pollen produced by the blos som. Flying on to the next flower the process would be repeated, and thus cross-pollination take place. And what made the flower attractive to the wasp in the first place was that it emitted pheromones [specific chemical attractants much used by insects to bring the sexes together] identical to the female of that species of wasp. With some interest I stud ied the accompanying picture for a minute or so. Then, with a terrific sense of shock, I realized that in order for that repro ductive strategy to have worked at all, it had to be perfect the first time. No incremental steps could account for it, for if the orchid did not look like and smell like the female wasp, and have an opening suitable for copulation with the pollen within perfect reach of the male wasp's reproductive organ, the strategy would have been a complete failure.

I will never forget the sinking feeling that overwhelmed me, because it became clear to me in that minute that some kind of God in some kind of fashion must exist, and have an ongoing relationship with the processes by which things come into being. That in short, the creator God was not some antedilu vian myth, but something real. And, most reluctantly, I also saw at once that I must search to find out more about that God.

Others, no doubt, come to religion by different routes, but certainly many people have had an experience similar to the one that changed the life of this minister (whose identity I shall withhold out of good manners). They have seen, or read about, some marvel of nature. This has, in a general way, filled them with awe and wonderment, spilling over into reverence. More specifically, like my correspondent, they have decided that this particular natural phenomenon-a spider's web, or an eagle's eye or wing, or whatever it is-cannot have evolved by gradual stages, because the intermediate, half-formed stages could not have been good for anything. The purpose of this chapter is to destroy the argument that complicated contrivances have to be perfect if they are to work at all. Incidentally, orchids were among Charles Darwin's favorite examples, and he devoted a whole book to showing how the principle of gradual evolution by natural selection triumphantly meets the ordeal of explaining "The Various Contrivances by which Orchids are Fertilised by Insects."

The key to the minister's argument lies in the assertion that "in order for that reproductive strategy to have worked at all, it had to be perfect the first time. No incremental steps could account for it." The same argument could be made-frequently has been made-for the evolution of the eye, and I'll return to this in the course of the chapter.

What always impresses me whenever I hear this kind of argument is the confidence with which it is asserted. How, I want to ask the minister, can you be so sure that the wasp-mimicking orchid (or the eye, or whatever) wouldn't work unless every part of it was perfect and in place? Have you, in fact, given the matter a split-second's thought? Do you actually know the first thing about orchids, or wasps, or the eyes with which wasps look at females and orchids? What emboldens you to assert that wasps are so hard to fool that the orchid's resemblance would have to be perfect in all dimensions in order to work?


My clerical correspondent of the previous chapter found faith through a wasp. Charles Darwin lost his with the help of another: "I cannot persuade myself," Darwin wrote, "that a beneficent and omnipotent God would have designedly created the Ichneumonidae with the express intention of their feeding within the living bodies of Caterpillars." Actually Darwin's gradual loss of faith, which he downplayed for fear of upsetting his devout wife Emma, had more complex causes. His reference to the Ichneumonidae was aphoristic. The macabre habits to which he referred are shared by their cousins the digger wasps, whom we met in the previous chapter. A female digger wasp not only lays her egg in a caterpillar (or grasshopper or bee) so that her larva can feed on it but, according to Fabre and others, she carefully guides her sting into each ganglion of the prey's central nervous system, so as to paralyze it but not kill it. This way, the meat keeps fresh. It is not known whether the paralysis acts as a general anesthetic, or if it is like curare in just freezing the victim's ability to move. If the latter, the prey might be aware of being eaten alive from inside but unable to move a muscle to do anything about it. This sounds savagely cruel but, as we shall see, nature is not cruel, only pitilessly indifferent. This is one of the hardest lessons for humans to learn. We cannot admit that things might be neither good nor evil, neither cruel nor kind, but simply callous-indifferent to all suffering, lacking all purpose.

We humans have purpose on the brain. We find it hard to look at anything without wondering what it is "for, what the motive for it is, or the purpose behind it. When the obsession with purpose becomes pathological it is called paranoiareading malevolent purpose into what is actually random bad luck. But this is just an exaggerated form of a nearly universal delusion. Show us almost any object or process, and it is hard for us to resist the "Why" question-the "What is it for?" question.

The desire to see purpose everywhere is a natural one in an animal that lives surrounded by machines, works of art, tools and other designed artifacts; an animal, moreover, whose waking thoughts are dominated by its own personal goals. A car, a tin opener, a screwdriver and a pitchfork all legitimately warrant the "What is it for?" question. Our pagan forebears would have asked the same question about thunder, eclipses, rocks and streams. Today we pride ourselves on having shaken off such primitive animism. If a rock in a stream happens to serve as a convenient steppingstone, we regard its usefulness as an accidental bonus, not a true purpose. But the old temptation comes back with a vengeance when tragedy strikes-indeed, the very word "strikes" is an animistic echo: "Why, oh why, did the cancer/earthquake/hurricane have to strike my child?" And the same temptation is often positively relished when the topic is the origin of all things or the fundamental laws of physics, culminating in the vaccuous existential question "Why is there something rather than nothing?".


Why are forest trees so tall? Simply to overtop rival trees. A "sensible" utility function would see to it that they were all short. They would get exactly the same amount of sunlight, with far less expenditure on thick trunks and massive supporting buttresses. But if they were all short, natural selection couldn't help favoring a variant individual that grew a little taller. The ante having been upped, others would have to follow suit. Nothing can stop the whole game escalating until all trees are ludicrously and wastefully tall. It is ludicrous and wasteful only from the point of view of a rational economic planner thinking in terms of maximizing efficiency. But it all makes sense once you understand the true utility functiongenes are maximizing their own survival. Homely analogies abound. At a cocktail party, you shout yourself hoarse. The reason is that everybody else is shouting at top volume. If only the guests could come to an agreement to whisper, they'd hear one another exactly as well with less voice strain and less expenditure of energy. But agreements like that don't work unless they are policed. Somebody always spoils it by selfishly talking a bit louder, and, one by one, everybody has to follow suit. A stable equilibrium is reached only when everybody is shouting as loudly as physically possible, and this is much louder than required from a "rational" point of view. Time and again, cooperative restraint is thwarted by its own internal instability. God's Utility Function seldom turns out to be the greatest good for the greatest number. God's Utility Function betrays its origins in an uncoordinated scramble for selfish gain.


To return to this chapter's pessimistic beginning, when the utility function-that which is being maximized-is DNA survival, this is not a recipe for happiness. So long as DNA is passed on, it does not matter who or what gets hurt in the process. It is better for the genes of Darwin's ichneumon wasp that the caterpillar should be alive, and therefore fresh, when it is eaten, no matter what the cost in suffering. Genes don't care about suffering, because they don't care about anything.

If Nature were kind, she would at least make the minor concession of anesthetizing caterpillars before they are eaten alive from within. But Nature is neither kind nor unkind. She is neither against suffering nor for it. Nature is not interested one way or the other in suffering, unless it affects the survival of DNA. It is easy to imagine a gene that, say, tranquilizes gazelles when they are about to suffer a killing bite. Would such a gene be favored by natural selection? Not unless the act of tranquilizing a gazelle improved that gene's chances of being propagated into future generations. It is hard to see why this should be so, and we may therefore guess that gazelles suffer horrible pain and fear when they are pursued to the death-as most of them eventually are. The total amount of suffering per year in the natural world is beyond all decent contemplation. During the minute it takes me to compose this sentence, thousands of animals are being eaten alive; others are running for their lives, whimpering with fear; oth ers are being slowly devoured from within by rasping para sites; thousands of all kinds are dying of starvation, thirst and disease. It must be so. If there is ever a time of plenty, this very fact will automatically lead to an increase in popu lation until the natural state of starvation and misery is restored.

Theologians worry away at the "problem of evil" and a related "problem of suffering." On the day I originally wrote this paragraph, the British newspapers all carried a terrible story about a bus full of children from a Roman Catholic school that crashed for no obvious reason, with wholesale loss of life. Not for the first time, clerics were in paroxysms over the theological question that a writer on a London newspaper (The Sunday Telegraph) framed this way: "How can you believe in a loving, all-powerful God who allows such a tragedy?" The article went on to quote one priest's reply: "The simple answer is that we do not know why there should be a God who lets these awful things happen. But the horror of the crash, to a Christian, confirms the fact that we live in a world of real values: positive and negative. If the universe was just electrons, there would be no problem of evil or suffering."

On the contrary, if the universe were just electrons and selfish genes, meaningless tragedies like the crashing of this bus are exactly what we should expect, along with equally meaningless good fortune. Such a universe would be neither evil nor good in intention. It would manifest no intentions of any kind. In a universe of blind physical forces and genetic replication, some people are going to get hurt, other people are going to get lucky, and you won't find any rhyme or reason in it, nor any justice. The universe we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil and no good, nothing but blind, pitiless indifference. As that unhappy poet A. E. Housman put it:

For Nature, heartless, witless Nature Will neither know nor care.
DNA neither knows nor cares. DNA just is. And we dance to its music.

Rubbish Richard. Even you have original genetic virtue!