Still chewing on live caterpillars

A Devil's Chaplain
November 28, 2003

Andrew Whiten considers whether evolution can be unselfish

In the eyes of some of those in the religious, mystical or postmodern camps who have previously been on the receiving end of Richard Dawkins' forthright denunciations, he comes close to being the devil incarnate. This collection of recent and new writings is unlikely to diminish his reputation in these quarters, but the inspiration for the title lies in the writings of one of the first people to grapple with the blatant contradictions between the implications of Darwinism and belief in a powerful yet loving God. "I cannot persuade myself 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," Darwin wrote in 1860. More pithily, in a different letter penned three years before the publication of On the Origin of Species , he exclaimed: "What a book a Devil's Chaplain might write on the clumsy, wasteful, blunderingly low and horridly cruel works of nature."

Yes, indeed. A century and a half's post-Darwinian research has gone to show only that the ghastly logic of the Ichneumon wasp's self-serving reproductive habits is replicated on a vast and cruel scale across the natural world. This could not logically be the work of any deity supposed to be both kind and effective in our world. By contrast, it is entirely consistent with a Darwinian process of evolution through natural selection.

Over the past quarter-century, Dawkins has probably done more than any other writer to communicate to students and to an educated lay audience the achievements of a generation of evolutionary biologists in understanding why such intricacies of the natural world exist in the forms they do. The wonders and beauties of life and our new understanding of them are celebrated alongside explanations for the horrors that have inevitably evolved. We can enjoy typical examples of Dawkins' clear and exuberant explications of evolutionary biology here, too, but this collection of 32 essays, short articles, reviews, tributes and letters is distinctive in that there is a direct effort to engage with the world beyond biology. In addition to the condemnation of religion and its terrible consequences, there is, for example, an invited memo to Tony Blair on science, genetics and ethics, an analysis of the jury system from a scientific perspective, and a critique of our current stultifying secondary-school examinations system. These diverse forays into "real life" are far from a random miscellany because they typically introduce an explicit evolutionary biological or scientific approach that repeatedly challenges the conventional wisdoms of society at large.

Several chapters set out to combat misunderstandings of, and antagonism to, evolutionary biology. Dawkins has a gift for inventing arresting analogies to help us appreciate the implications of discoveries that, in evolutionary timescales, go far beyond our everyday experience. In one of my favourite examples, he illustrates the continuity between species by asking us to imagine ourselves at the eastern edge of Africa, standing beside a chimpanzee but holding the hand of our mother, who in turn holds her mother's hand and so on in a chain of ancestral mother-daughter links stretching westwards into the continent. In less than 300 miles, the chain reaches our African ancestor common with chimpanzees. If this ancestor is imagined to be grasping a similar mother-daughter chain that connects up with our common ancestor, there is an unbroken chain to the ape standing by us. The image is a graphic one that Dawkins uses to unsettle the attitude that speciesism is inherently more defensible than racism because it is based on discontinuity.

This is but one of many points in the book where a deeper understanding of some biological principle or finding is shown to have crucial importance for human conduct, from ethics to technology to conservation. For Dawkins, perhaps the most significant of these interfaces lies in the tension between selfish genes and human politics, yet it is his take on the implications of this that I find the most problematic. Recall that Darwin's Chaplain's central message is that evolution through natural selection will create the nastiest of products - yet this was the very process that created humanity. Dawkins wants to counter the potential dismay implied by this conclusion by arguing that, as he put it in The Selfish Gene a quarter-century earlier: "We alone on earth can rebel against the tyranny of the selfish replicators." Of course, Dawkins is surely right that understanding can lead to rational counteracting of biology, as in contraception. But a problem remains: what explains why we might ever want to be nicer than evolution supposedly created us? Dawkins' answer reads as one that attributes to humanity some kind of original sin, which then has to be countermanded. But by what? By some kind of rational social contract that must go against the grain?

An alternative hypothesis is that certain forms of unselfish action, such as cooperation and egalitarianism, have been so fundamental to the success of individual humans for so long a period of evolution that they have left a legacy of good nature that is activated when the appropriate circumstances are encountered. The argument is not the naive one that human nature is inherently nice, but rather that our past bequeathed us a psychological toolbox of benevolent and selfish potentials of considerable complexity. This hypothesis contrasts with the more asymmetrical Dawkins picture. Christopher Boehm's Hierarchy in the Forest (1999) is perhaps the best single source of the relevant empirical material favouring the richer view. Whatever the truth, we are talking of alternative hypotheses, framed such that their correctness is to be decided not by preference but by empirical observation - in other words, by scientific methods.

Dawkins' extolling of the virtues of all scientifically grounded beliefs over those of other kinds is no less passionate and eloquent than when he is speaking of his Darwinian specialism. And, not for the first time, it is the vehemence of his contrasting condemnation of religious dogma that looks set to raise hackles. He notes that atheists typically display a polite tolerance of religious pronouncements and activities, but he laments that "religion is the most inflammatory enemy-labelling device in history".

Admitting that "my last vestige of 'hands-off religion' respect disappeared in the smoke and choking dust of September 11 2001", he pleads that "those of us who have for years politely concealed our contempt for the dangerous collective delusion of religion need to stand up and speak out". Strong stuff. How many will do so remains to be seen.

It seems only fair to note that although Dawkins is more outspoken on this issue than most, he is not unusual among biologists. A recent survey of biologist members of the elite National Academy of Sciences of that most religious of nations, the US, found that 95 per cent were non-believers.

Once you have grasped the contemporary understanding of evolutionary biology at its deepest, it seems religious belief is virtually impossible. And once that happens, the associated evils that Dawkins catalogues inevitably change focus.

Andrew Whiten is professor of evolutionary and developmental psychology, University of St Andrews.

A Devil's Chaplain: Selected Writings

Author - Richard Dawkins
Publisher - Weidenfeld and Nicolson
Pages - 264
Price - £16.99
ISBN - 0 297 82973 4

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