Interrogating Richard Dawkins

Over at Spiegel, Markus Becker and Frank Patalong have posted an interview with Richard Dawkins, whose latest book — The Greatest Show on Earth: The Evidence for Evolution — has just been published in German and given an awful title: “The Creation Lie: Why Darwin is Right.” Two things come immediately to mind.

First, it is extremely discouraging that 150 years after Darwin there appears to be a need to continue publishing books explaining evolution and debunking creationism. As Ronald Numbers’ shows in his masterful history The Creationists, wishful thinking has incredible staying power. Second, did Dawkins really need to publish another book of this kind? It seems as if you have read any of Dawkins’ recent books (excepting his three best, The Selfish Gene, The Extended Phenotype, and The Ancestor’s Tale), you have read them all. Given Dawkins’ considerable scientific skills and abilities as a writer, I wish he would cover some different ground.

I am not sure what it is about Spiegel reporters, but they are some of the best in the business. They seem always to know much about their topic and ask great questions. The interview with Dawkins is no exception. It touches on some key issues that deserve further comment.

Spiegel: The American geneticist Dean Hamer postulated the God Gene hypothesis, proposing that humans are genetically hardwired for religious faith.

Dawkins: I’d prefer to say that we have a lot of genetic predispositions for a lot of psychological attributes, which can under the right circumstances add up to religion. But I’m also thinking of things like a predisposition to be obedient towards authority, which might even be useful under certain circumstances. Or a predisposition to be afraid of death or, when frightened, to run to a parental figure. These are all separate psychological predispositions which under the right cultural circumstances end up pushing one into a religion, whichever the religion of one’s cultural upbringing. I wouldn’t call it a God Gene.

Dawkins is spot on with this answer. There are numerous attributes of the human brain-mind that, when combined in consciousness, inevitably give rise to belief in the supernatural. These attributes include, but are not limited to: causal attribution, pattern imposition, agency detection, theory of mind, and commonsense dualism. We have evolved a brain-mind that naturally and spontaneously constructs experience using these attributes, with the result being belief in the supernatural. When you add emotions such as fear, attachment, attraction, and sorrow to the mix, you have an organism that is perfectly primed and highly receptive to certain kinds of cultural patterning or inputs. All religions are built on this biological-neurological substrate.

The next question and answer are less auspicious:

Spiegel: Has religion not been very successful in an evolutionary sense?

Dawkins: The thought that human societies gained strength from religious memes in their competition with others is true to a certain extent. But it is more like an ecological struggle: It reminds me of the replacement of the red by the gray squirrel in Britain. That is not a natural selection process at all, it is an ecological succession. So when a tribe has a war-like god, when the young men are brought up with the thought that their destiny is to go out and fight as warriors and that a martyr’s death brings you straight to heaven, you see a set of powerful, mutually reinforcing memes at work. If the rival tribe has a peaceful god who believes in turning the other cheek, that might not prevail.

Dawkins loses his bearings with this answer. Societies and cultures are not organisms; thus, biological evolutionary processes cannot be used to explain their origins and development or histories — fundamentally different processes are at work. The whole meme thing needs to be junked; it was a bad analogy to begin with and has not gotten any better over time. Ideas are not the same as genes. Dawkins is not getting any closer to the mark by arguing that cultural history is akin to ecological succession.

It is this category mistake — conflating biological evolution with cultural history — that afflicts the large and growing literature purporting to explain the “evolution of religion” by appealing to group level selection. Because societies are not organisms, the transitive property does not apply and we should stop talking about “cultural evolution.” There is no such thing.

Because Dawkins erroneously conflates biological evolution with cultural history, the interviewers are justifiably skeptical:

Spiegel: But following a religion that does not promote the chances for survival seems to contradict evolutionary logic.

Dawkins: Oh yes, clearly there is a conflict between meme and gene survival. We are familiar with such conflicts. They sometimes work out one way, sometimes the other.

Terrible. Humans follow what we today call “religions” for reasons having little or nothing to do with ongoing biological evolution. There are more powerful processes at work and much simpler explanations. These processes and explanations are grounded in economy and politics, not in biology. Modern “religions” — i.e., those which appeared in conjunction with the Neolithic Revolution — have a logic all their own and this logic is not evolutionary.

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2 thoughts on “Interrogating Richard Dawkins

  1. Tim Mason

    I’ve just found your site, and it seems to be very intersting. Your comments on Dawkins here are, I think, pertinent. Dawkins is way out of his depth when it comes to sociological or cultural questions.

    That said, I do wonder whether you yourself are not being drawn into something of an illusion. The term ‘religion’ is itself extremely problematic. Jonathan Z Smith, for example, sees it as nothing more than a construct elaborated by historians of religion, while Talal Asad seems to see it as a Christian framing of things such as beliefs, rituals, and so on, that other traditions might frame very differently.

    I’m sorry if you have dealt with this already, but I have myself felt sharply how the weight of Christian tradition on my own thinking about all this has prevented my seeing things that I should have seen.

  2. Cris Post author

    Hi Tim,

    I have dealt with this issue in several posts — if you go to the “Definition of Religion” category on the blog, you will find all the posts on this subject. I think the regular readers know my use of the word is highly provisional, and I use it only to describe post-Neolithic supernaturalism. “Religion” is in fact a problematic word, for the reasons you have noted and many others.

    Welcome to the blog!

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