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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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