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Posts Tagged ‘Richard Dawkins’

05 NOVEMBER, 2014

Richard Dawkins on The Science of Why You Are Lucky to Be Alive

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What Yeats’s epitaph has to do with the infinitesimal odds of winning the DNA lottery.

“To lament that we shall not be alive a hundred years hence,” Montaigne wrote in his fantastic 16th-century meditation on death and the art of living, “is the same folly as to be sorry we were not alive a hundred years ago.” Half a millennium later, Richard Dawkins — who coined the term “meme” — enlists evolutionary biology in substantiating that strangely assuring philosophical idea. In the altogether fantastic Unweaving the Rainbow: Science, Delusion and the Appetite for Wonder (public library), Dawkins writes:

We are going to die, and that makes us the lucky ones. Most people are never going to die because they are never going to be born. The potential people who could have been here in my place but who will in fact never see the light of day outnumber the sand grains of Arabia. Certainly those unborn ghosts include greater poets than Keats, scientists greater than Newton. We know this because the set of possible people allowed by our DNA so massively exceeds the set of actual people. In the teeth of these stupefying odds it is you and I, in our ordinariness, that are here.

Right around the time that DNA was being discovered, the wise Alan Watts intuited the same idea in his spectacular meditation on the ego and the universe, where he wrote: “Without birth and death, and without the perpetual transmutation of all the forms of life, the world would be static, rhythm-less, undancing, mummified.” But, biologically speaking, the existential roulette that landed on you out of the infinite not-you alternatives is set into motion well before your actual birth. Dawkins writes:

The instant at which a particular spermatozoon penetrated a particular egg was, in your private hindsight, a moment of dizzying singularity. It was then that the odds against your becoming a person dropped from astronomical to single figures.

The lottery starts before we are conceived. Your parents had to meet, and the conception of each was as improbable as your own. And so on back, through your four grandparents and eight great grandparents, back to where it doesn’t bear thinking about.

Illustration from 'The Baby Tree' by Sophie Blackall. Click image for more.

In fact, that lottery extends beyond your lineage and stretches back in time into the origin of the universe itself:

This is another respect in which we are lucky. The universe is older than a hundred million centuries. Within a comparable time the sun will swell to a red giant and engulf the earth. Every century of hundreds of millions has been in its time, or will be when its time comes, ‘the present century’. Interestingly, some physicists don’t like the idea of a ‘moving present’, regarding it as a subjective phenomenon for which they find no house room in their equations. But it is a subjective argument I am making. How it feels to me, and I guess to you as well, is that the present moves from the past to the future, like a tiny spotlight, inching its way along a gigantic ruler of time. Everything behind the spotlight is in darkness, the darkness of the dead past. Everything ahead of the spotlight is in the darkness of the unknown future. The odds of your century being the one in the spotlight are the same as the odds that a penny, tossed down at random, will land on a particular ant crawling somewhere along the road from New York to San Francisco. In other words, it is overwhelmingly probable that you are dead.

In spite of these odds, you will notice that you are, as a matter of fact, alive. People whom the spotlight has already passed over, and people whom the spotlight has not reached, are in no position to read a book… What I see as I write is that I am lucky to be alive and so are you.

Painting by William Blake for Dante's 'Divine Comedy.' Click image for more.

Dawkins later explores this interplay of life and death from another angle as he turns to his favorite poet, Yeats. (The irony of the choice, given Yeats’s dismissal of science as “the opium of the suburbs” — a play on Marx’s dismissal of religion as “the opium of the masses” — doesn’t evade Dawkins as he writes: “I am almost reluctant to admit that my favorite of all poets is that confused Irish mystic William Butler Yeats.”) Yeats’s epitaph, Dawkins points out, “would make fine last words for a scientist”:

Cast a cold eye
On life, on death.
Horsemen, pass by!

Extracting from those seemingly morbid notions a wonderfully vitalizing perspective, Dawkins echoes Alexander Flexner’s 1939 masterpiece on the usefulness of useless knowledge and offers “the best answer to those petty-minded scrooges who are always asking what is the use of science”:

In one of those mythic remarks of uncertain authorship, Michael Faraday is alleged to have been asked what was the use of science. ‘Sir,’ Faraday replied. ‘Of what use is a new-born child?’ The obvious thing for Faraday (or Benjamin Franklin, or whoever it was) to have meant was that a baby might be no use for anything at present, but it has great potential for the future. I now like to think that he meant something else, too: What is the use of bringing a baby into the world if the only thing it does with its life is just work to go on living? If everything is judged by how ‘useful’ it is — useful for staying alive, that is — we are left facing a futile circularity. There must be some added value. At least a part of life should be devoted to living that life, not just working to stop it ending. This is how we rightly justify spending taxpayers’ money on the arts. It is one of the justifications properly offered for conserving rare species and beautiful buildings. It is how we answer those barbarians who think that wild elephants and historic houses should be preserved only if they ‘pay their way.’ And science is the same. Of course science pays its way; of course it is useful. But that is not all it is.

Complement Unweaving the Rainbow, which is magnificent in its entirety, with Alan Lightman on why the fact that we are a cosmic accident is cause for celebration, then revisit Dawkins’s children’s book about the wonders of science and his letter to his own young daughter about the importance of evidence in science, love, and life.

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15 APRIL, 2014

Why There Was No First Human

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“It’s just like how you used to be a baby and now you’re older, but there was no single day when you went to bed young and woke up old.”

We live in a culture where 40% of people don’t believe the world is more than 6,000 years old. And yet how can an intelligent being hold such beliefs when faced with a 13,000-year-old eucalyptus tree or an 80,000-year-old aspen? But even when we embrace science completely, one of the most baffling aspects of the timeline of evolution — for creatures as dependent on categories as we are to make sense of the world — is its incremental progress largely devoid of clear markers denoting when one primitive species ends and its evolved successor begins.

Inspired by The Magic of Reality: How We Know What’s Really True — Richard Dawkins’s children’s book seeking to replace myth with science — PBS’s Joe Hanson offers a concise and elegant explanation of why there was no “first human.” Tracing any one person’s family tree — yes, yours, as well as mine — back 185 million generations takes us not to another human but to a fish, which begs the question of where the human species “began”:

You can never pinpoint the exact moment when a species came to be — because it never did. It’s just like how you used to be a baby and now you’re older, but there was no single day when you went to bed young and woke up old… Evolution happens like a movie, with frames moving by both quickly and gradually, and we often can’t see the change while it’s occurring. Every time we find a fossil, it’s a snapshot back in time, often with thousands of frames missing in between, and we’re forced to reconstruct the whole film. Life is what happens in between the snapshots.

For a closer look at The Magic of Reality, go here, then see more of Henson’s terrific science illuminators, like the science of why we kiss, the mathematical odds of finding your soulmate, and why we can consider the avocado a curious ghost of evolution.

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02 OCTOBER, 2013

How Richard Dawkins Coined the Word Meme: The Legendary Atheist’s Surprising Religious Inspiration

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“Just as genes propagate themselves in the gene pool by leaping from body to body via sperms or eggs, so memes propagate themselves in the meme pool by leaping from brain to brain.”

Most people know that the word “meme” was coined by legendary evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins in his seminal 1976 book The Selfish Gene. What few realize, however, is that the vocal atheist and champion of evidence as the holy grail of life, who even penned a children’s book rebutting religious mythology with science, had his first experience of a true meme, decades before he had the word for it, in a religious context. In his altogether fantastic new memoir, An Appetite for Wonder: The Making of a Scientist (public library), Dawkins describes his largely unhappy days at boarding school, where he was sent away at the age of seven:

Every night in the dormitory we had to kneel on our beds, facing the wall at the head, and take turns on successive evenings to say the goodnight prayer:

Lighten our darkness, we beseech thee, O Lord; and by thy great mercy defend us from all perils and dangers of this night. Amen.

None of us had ever seen it written down, and we didn’t know what it meant. We copied it parrot fashion from each other on successive evenings, and consequently the words evolved towards garbled meaninglessness. Quite an interesting test case in meme theory. . . . If we had understood the words of that prayer, we would not have garbled them, because their meaning would have had a ‘normalizing’ effect, similar to the ‘proofreading’ of DNA. It is such normalization that makes it possible for memes to survive through enough ‘generations’ to fulfill the analogy with genes. But because many of the words of the prayer were unfamiliar to us, all we could do was imitate their sound, phonetically, and the result was a very high ‘mutation rate’ as they passed down the ‘generations’ of boy-to-boy imitation.

Dawkins adds that it would be interesting to investigate this effect experimentally, but admits he’s yet to do it. (I wonder whether he knows of Buckminster Fuller’s scientific revision of The Lord’s Prayer.)

But rather than mindlessly succumbing to the meme, young Dawkins found himself asking the types of profoundly philosophical questions of which children are capable, and seeking their answers in science rather than religion:

I became a secret reader. In the holidays from boarding school, I would sneak up to my bedroom with a book: a guilty truant from the fresh air and the virtuous outdoors. And when I started learning biology properly at school, it was still bookish pursuits that held me. I was drawn to questions that grown-ups would have called philosophical. What is the meaning of life? Why are we here? How did it all start?

Richard Dawkins at age 7. Photograph courtesy of Edge.org

Nearly thirty years later, he came to formulate his meme theory in The Selfish Gene, which remains an essential piece of cultural literacy. In considering the primeval soup of “replicators” responsible for the origin of all life, he casts human culture as a different kind of “primeval soup” driven by the same mechanisms and coins his concept of the “meme,” which has since itself mimetically overtaken popular culture, even offering a pronunciation pointer:

I think that a new kind of replicator has recently emerged. . . . It is staring us in the face. It is still in its infancy, still drifting clumsily about in its primeval soup, but already it is achieving evolutionary change at a rate which leaves the old gene panting far behind.

The new soup is the soup of human culture. We need a name for the new replicator, a noun which conveys the idea of a unit of cultural transmission, or a unit of imitation. ‘Mimeme’ comes from a suitable Greek root, but I want a monosyllable that sounds a bit like ‘gene’. I hope my classicist friends will forgive me if I abbreviate mimeme to meme. If it is any consolation, it could alternatively be thought of as being related to ‘memory’, or to the French word même. It should be pronounced to rhyme with ‘cream’.

Examples of memes are tunes, ideas, catch-phrases, clothes fashions, ways of making pots or of building arches. Just as genes propagate themselves in the gene pool by leaping from body to body via sperms or eggs, so memes propagate themselves in the meme pool by leaping from brain to brain, via a process which, in the broad sense, can be called imitation.

Returning to his days at public school, Dawkins offers another intriguing example of meme theory in action by way of “the weirdness of nickname evolution,” which operates much like mimetic mutation:

One friend of mine was called ‘Colonel’, although there was nothing remotely military about his personality. ‘Seen the Colonel anywhere?’ Here’s the evolutionary history. Years earlier, an older boy, who had by now left the school, was said to have had a crush on my friend. That older boy’s nickname was Shkin (corruption of Skin, and who knows where that came from — maybe some connection with foreskin, but that name would have evolved before I arrived). So my friend inherited the name Shkin from his erstwhile admirer. Shkin rhymes with Thynne, and at this point something akin to Cockney rhyming slang stepped in. There was a character in the BBC radio Goon Show called Colonel Grytte Pyppe Thynne. Hence my friend became Colonel Grytte Pyppe Shkin, later contracted to ‘Colonel’. We loved the Goon Show, and would vie with each other to mimic (as did Prince Charles, who went to a similar school around the same time) the voices of the characters: Bluebottle, Eccles, Major Denis Bloodnok, Henry Crun, Count Jim Moriarty. And we gave each other Goon nicknames like ‘Colonel’ or ‘Count.’

An Appetite for Wonder is an altogether fantastic read, offering a fascinating glimpse of how one of today’s most influential scientific minds blossomed into himself.

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26 MARCH, 2013

Happy Birthday, Richard Dawkins: An Atheist’s Animated Altercation with God

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Knocking on heaven’s door of lamentable ignorance.

Yesterday, we explored humanity’s age-old paradox of grappling with mortality. Today, as evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins — tireless myth-buster, vocal atheist, and one level-headed dad — celebrates his seventy-second birthday, LA-based filmmaker Kevin R. Breen brings us Richard Dawkins Dies: a delightfully South-Park-esque confrontation between Dawkins and God as the two engage in a smack-down at the heart of the creationism vs. evolution quasi-debate.

The best excuse for [people who don’t believe in evolution] is lamentable ignorance.

Complement with The Magic of Reality: How We Know What’s Really True, Dawkins’s science-driven antidote to creationist mythology, one of the best children’s books of 2011.

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28 DECEMBER, 2012

Richard Dawkins on Evidence in Science, Life and Love: A Letter to His 10-Year-Old Daughter

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“All through the day when you are with somebody who loves you, you see and hear lots of little tidbits of evidence, and they all add up.”

When his daughter turned ten, evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins — arguably today’s most vocal atheist and celebrated skeptic — wrote her a simply worded but tremendously thoughtful letter about how we know what we know, stressing the importance of evidence over blind belief. The letter, found in the 2004 essay anthology A Devil’s Chaplain: Reflections on Hope, Lies, Science, and Love (UK; public library), is a fine addition to history’s best letters of fatherly advice and an important reminder that it’s never too early for critical thinking.

Dawkins writes:

To my dearest daughter,

Now that you are ten, I want to write to you about something that is important to me. Have you ever wondered how we know the things that we know? How do we know, for instance, that the stars, which look like tiny pinpricks in the sky, are really huge balls of fire like the Sun and very far away? And how do we know that the Earth is a smaller ball whirling round one of those stars, the Sun?
The answer to these questions is ‘evidence’.

Sometimes evidence means actually seeing (or hearing, feeling, smelling….) that something is true. Astronauts have traveled far enough from the Earth to see with their own eyes that it is round. Sometimes our eyes need help. The ‘evening star’ looks like a bright twinkle in the sky but with a telescope you can see that it is a beautiful ball — the planet we call Venus. Something that you learn by direct seeing (or hearing or feeling…) is called an observation.

Often evidence isn’t just observation on its own, but observation always lies at the back of it. If there’s been a murder, often nobody (except the murderer and the dead person!) actually observed it. But detectives can gather together lots of other observations which may all point towards a particular suspect. If a person’s fingerprints match those found on a dagger, this is evidence that he touched it. It doesn’t prove that he did the murder, but it can help when it’s joined up with lots of other evidence. Sometimes a detective can think about a whole lot of observations and suddenly realize that they all fall into place and make sense if so-and-so did the murder.

He then offers an oblique addition to the finest definitions of science:

Scientists — the specialists in discovering what is true about the world and the universe — often work like detectives. They make a guess (called a hypothesis) about what might be true. They then say to themselves: if that were really true, we ought to see so-and-so. This is called a prediction. For example, if the world is really round, we can predict that a traveler, going on and on in the same direction, should eventually find himself back where he started. When a doctor says that you have measles he doesn’t take one look at you and see measles. His first look gives him a hypothesis that you may have measles. Then he says to himself: if she really has measles, I ought to see… Then he runs through his list of predictions and tests them with his eyes (have you got spots?), his hands (is your forehead hot?), and his ears (does your chest wheeze in a measly way?). Only then does he make his decision and say, ‘I diagnose that the child has measles.’ Sometimes doctors need to do other tests like blood tests or X-rays, which help their eyes, hands and ears to make observations.

Dawkins goes on to warn against “three bad reasons for believing anything” — “tradition,” “authority,” and “revelation” — particularly as they apply to religion.

But perhaps the most moving part of his letter deals with love, exploring the difference between naming feelings with concrete labels and intuiting them from the living fabric, the “evidence,” of experience:

People sometimes say that you must believe in feelings deep inside, otherwise you’d never be confident of things like ‘My wife loves me’. But this is a bad argument. There can be plenty of evidence that somebody loves you. All through the day when you are with somebody who loves you, you see and hear lots of little tidbits of evidence, and they all add up. It isn’t purely inside feeling, like the feeling that priests call revelation. There are outside things to back up the inside feeling: looks in the eye, tender notes in the voice, little favors and kindnesses; this is all real evidence.

He relates this to the importance of intuition in scientific discovery, something a number of famous scientists have attested to, but only as a starting point:

Inside feelings are valuable in science too, but only for giving you ideas that you later test by looking for evidence. A scientist can have a ‘hunch’ about an idea that just ‘feels’ right. In itself, this is not a good reason for believing something. But it can be a good reason for spending some time doing a particular experiment, or looking in a particular way for evidence. Scientists use inside feelings all the time to get ideas. But they are not worth anything until they are supported by evidence.

After returning to the perils of tradition, Dawkins concludes with some practical advise reminiscent of the Baloney Detection Kit:

What can we do about all this? It is not easy for you to do anything, because you are only ten. But you could try this. Next time somebody tells you something that sounds important, think to yourself: ‘Is this the kind of thing that people probably know because of evidence? Or is it the kind of thing that people only believe because of tradition, authority or revelation?’ And, next time somebody tells you that something is true, why not say to them: ‘What kind of evidence is there for that?’ And if they can’t give you a good answer, I hope you’ll think very carefully before you believe a word they say.

Your loving,

Daddy

A Devil’s Chaplain is excellent in its entirety — highly recommended.

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