The Dawkins Delusion
Salvo Magazine, Spring 2007
by Liam Scheff
Everybody’s favorite atheist has been on the road selling his new book, The God Delusion. I’m talking about sharp-witted author and Oxford scholar Richard Dawkins. This is his latest in a long series (starting with The Selfish Gene in 1976) sharing a common theme – to expound the truth about life, the universe and everything, according to Richard Dawkins.
Dawkins’ primary fascinations are evolution – the mechanisms by which life replicates and evolves, and atheism – his belief that life has come to exist in a universe with, “no design, no purpose, no evil and no good, nothing but blind pitiless indifference.” (from his 1995 book, River Out of Eden.)
According to Dawkins, life owes its existence solely to the winners of the brutal competition carried on by those bits of sugar and phosphate we call DNA.
These – our genes – Dawkins likens to ferocious, machinating “Chicago gangsters” running the show from deep in the bunker of our cells, pulling the “levers of power at their disposal”, “programming” us, their “robot vehicles”, their “survival machines” to do their bidding – namely to propagate their “digital database.”
It’s striking imagery, to be sure, with echoes of popular science fiction.
Dawkins’ world-view emerges as a late 20th century addition to the work of Charles Darwin, the naturalist who observed that all species compete with themselves and each other, and postulated that through this competition, varying forms of life emerge.
I think that “competition occurs” is a fair observation, for indeed it does – between and among individuals, tribes, cities, states, nations and empires. It’s an event so often reproduced that we can surely call it a principle; it is a primary force in our world. But does competition explain life on earth?
Some neo-Darwinists go so far as to apply this theory to all phenomena. Dawkins has referred to the universe as ‘evolving’ according to this same principle:
“The fact that life evolved out of nearly nothing, some 10 billion years after the universe evolved out of literally nothing, is a fact so staggering that I would be mad to attempt words to do it justice,” he writes in The Ancestor’s Tale (2004). Who knew that the Big Bang was a competition?
According to the Big Bang theory, we (and everything else) come from nothing – matter from non-matter, being from non-being. This statement begs the question: What kind of resources are required to create a universe?
Take it from the bottom up – What is required to organize waves (light and sound) into particles (atoms), to cause particles to variegate into distinct elements (carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, nitrogen, and on); then couple into molecules and compounds; solids, liquids and gases; stack into crystals, metals and minerals; and then to spin all of this in greater and lesser volumes into fibers and honeycombs and tendrils of protein and bone in the tissues of plants, bacteria, insects, fish, reptiles, birds and mammals?
What do we call someone who can synthesize a substance, organize it and make it useful – and beautiful – for all people to enjoy? Would we call them “competitive?”
What do we call the artists who produce from base substances (stone and clay) the great works of sculpture and painting from antiquity through modernity? “Robot vehicles?” “Survival machines?” No. We praise them for their genius and mastery, their sense of order and form, and of course, their inspired creativity.
And so what do we call that being that creates the universe from nothing?
“Designless, purposeless, and non-existent” says Dawkins. We wouldn’t be so unkind to a mother-in-law. And besides, it’s not an honest assessment.
Dawkins says life on earth is explicable by the principle of competition, of “survival of the fittest.” But what good is ‘competition’ without the ability to create a new behavior or form? How does one ‘survive’ without being able to order and structure life?
The process in question is two-fold:
First – the act of creating something, in fact everything, from nothing; of producing those thousand great works of art in every atom, in every molecule, in every space, in every moment.
And then, inextricably and simultaneously, the creation is masterfully organized, and used in a non-stop symphony of improvisation, so that wave becomes atom, becomes molecule, becomes mineral, becomes mountain and plain, tooth and bone, sea shell and spike, plant and animal. Form reiterates and recapitulates, improvising according to its environment; always seeking stability, always altering when alteration is desired.
At least, this is the way the world appears to us – filled with a living active force, permeating time and space, acting always and without fail, on every particle of matter, and in every organism.
But no, says Dawkins. It ain’t so, even if it appears to be, because, he tells us, “there is no spirit-driven life force, no throbbing, heaving, pullulating, protoplasmic, mystic jelly. Life is just bytes and bytes and bytes of digital information.”
And we are just “survival machines programmed to propagate the digital database that did the programming.”
It’s a remarkable statement – cool, dogmatic, inflexible, and final. It has its fans, but I can’t find it in my heart and mind – or my experience – to agree.
I believe that we, the educated, reductionist, agnostic and atheist, have turned our backs on even allowing ourselves to consider that the universe is, in fact, what it appears to be – supremely organized and creative – and that we’ve done it out of fear and penance for a Middle Ages too wrought by ecclesiastical dogma, so that for a short time in history, religion suppressed the good minds of the likes of Copernicus, Galileo and Bruno.
And from this reactive position we’ve invented a new religion, whose only tenet is, “All religion is wrong, and we must never agree with anything we find in it (even if we do).”
Now, I must say, for the record, that I am not an atheist, like Richard Dawkins; nor am I a Catholic, Christian, Muslim or Jew. I bow before no single alter, and in some ways, I bow before every one. I can’t help but to feel and see an energy coursing through the world – making and remaking it.
When I close my eyes to pray and meditate – to connect – I feel a great presence, a be-ing, a one-ness, far vaster and wiser than myself – than all the creations of culture, science and industry. In my world-view, these are but pale emulations of the infinite and unknowable; that energy that creates us, and that we return to. (Quantum physicists will tell you the same, but not molecular biologists, who are stuck under their microscopes).
To Dawkins, of course, this kind of thinking makes me a holy fool. “What is your evidence for this great transcendent being?” he’d scoff, with practiced incredulity.
Why, I would answer, it is Dawkins himself.
“No-spirit-driven life force, no purpose or design,” he says, and then, on every other page, and sometimes on every line, he defies his own dogma, and places purpose, design and creativity in every act he describes:
Cells are “programmed” with information that is “encoded, recoded and decoded, without any degradation or change of meaning.” Genes have “specialist purposes,” they “strive to assist” in reproduction. They build “well designed machine[s]”, “assembled under [their] deterministic influence.”
Developing embryos are pre-programmed (“bootstrapped”), like a computer “hardwired” to compute its “serious program.” Their development is a “virtuoso origami performance” of “dynamically orchestrated differentiated growth” and “elegant dynamic changes.” The organs of the body are “complex edifices”, “precisely shaped;” and life on this planet is, says Dawkins, a “baroque extravaganza.”
It’s the definition of irony, of course, and it makes me smile. You see, I know God has a great sense of humor, when I read Richard Dawkins.
(Quotes throughout are from Dawkins’ 1995 book River Out of Eden, unless otherwise noted).