Measured Against Reality

Monday, October 30, 2006

Richard Dawkins Book Reading

Richard Dawkins came to Menlo Park yesterday, to read a bit from his book, field some questions, and sign books. It was quite crowded, I was actually a bit surprised by how many people came out to see him. I was even more surprised when he said that his reception in the US has been very positive. I can’t believe he hasn’t been protested.

I was actually a bit disappointed with what he had to say, it wasn’t much new stuff. He did have one point that has been made before, but that I’d like to reiterate.

You are profoundly lucky to be here. Of all the consciousnesses that genes and environment could produce, nearly none will ever see the light of day. The particular combination that makes you you is fantastically unlikely, and the number of things that had to go the way they did is staggering.

Of course, you are here, and maybe it could have been no other way (we’ll never know). But this life is incredibly precious. A person will get one hundred years alive, if they’re lucky, an eye-blink in terms of the universe’s, our planet’s, even our species’ history. But it’s the only eye-blink you’ll get. Make the most of it. Try your best to live so that as you die, you feel you couldn’t have done better. It’s all you can do.

Besides that I kind of got the feeling that Dawkins is getting tired. He didn’t seem as energetic or as enthusiastic as he does in interviews. Or maybe he just doesn’t really want to be a pseudo-celebrity, signing books for fans. I can’t really tell, and I might be plain wrong.

He also made a point about how questions like, “raping women would propagate my genes better than not, so shouldn’t I do it?” come from a very naive understanding of Darwinism. One day I plan to go into it, but it’s a fairly well-covered topic, (there’s a lack-luster treatment of it here). The short answer is that “is does not imply ought”, and the longer answer involves the fact that humans evolved as social animals, and as such have to be able to cooperate in groups, where antisocial behavior wouldn’t be (as) tolerated.

When Dawkins answered it he went into the fact that selfish genes fit with altruism because in social groups many of the animals you encounter will be related to you, and you’ll encounter them over and over. Both of these things lead to cooperation. But it’s much simpler to say that social animals will evolve to be able to work together, which means that they’ll need the traits that we see as positive, and will tend to lose the negative ones, which is exactly why we see altruism, kindness, and charity as good and rape, murder, and theft as bad. The fact that this is compatible with the “gene’s eye view” of evolution is entirely incidental, and Dawkins’s answer suffered because of the fact that he brought it back to his theory (regardless of how good that theory is).

Reading this you might think I was entirely disappointed, which isn’t true at all, Dawkins is still a good speaker, and a great biologist and atheist. If anything, the fact that I’ve watched his shows and read his books simply means that I’ve heard it all before. If he’s coming to a city near you any time soon, I’d recommend going and having a listen.

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