Monday, September 08, 2003

Dawkins was wrong

Richard Dawkins series 'Root of All Evil' is causing a lot of interest at the moment. As a scientist, Dawkins criticises religion for being a 'faith' - faith means that you accept an idea without doubting it. Although faith is considered a virtue by religions, in Dawkins' opinion, faith is wrong for the very reason that it's unthinking and unquestioning.

This website agrees with Dawkins about faith - and about religion. However, we consider that Dawkins has his own 'faith' - his own unreasoning belief in an idea. It's a faith that is inconsistent with his science.

Dawkins faith is that he appears to believe in human free will. We believe he has no justification - we believe humans are robots; conscious robots, but robots nevertheless.

All the conclusions of The Selfish Gene are accepted other than one: that we can overcome the tyranny of our selfish replicators. If you’ve heard these arguments before, please direct me to where. If not, please let me know what’s wrong with them. Email us

Dawkins' faith

Dawkins kicks off The Selfish Gene with the astonishing sentence:
"We are survival machines - robot vehicles blindly programmed to
preserve the selfish molecules known as genes."
Not surprisingly, the idea that we are machines is something that even he struggles with:
"This is a truth which still fills me with astonishment. Though I have
known it for years, I never seem to get fully used to it."

In 'The Selfish Gene', Dawkins shows that human behaviour can by explained as the behaviour of a 'survival machine' programmed to preserve its genes. He shows that altruism - often regarded as a uniquely human characteristic and one that appears to indicate that we have moved beyond our evolutionary heritage - is actually found in many animals (including vampire bats) and can easily be explained as an attempt to improve the survival chances of our genes.

'The Selfish Gene' has now become almost universally accepted by scientists as the correct interpretation of how evolution works: it's not about survival of the individual, it's not about survival of the species, it's about survival of our genes. Read a brief summary here.

Intriguingly, Dawkins doesn’t help us with our instinctive problem - if science says that we’re machines, how come we’re so convinced that we’re not? Indeed, Dawkins seems to get around this problem by saying that we're not machines: after spending the whole book showing us that evolution creates survival machines - and that human behaviour can be perfectly explained in this way... Dawkins heads off in a different direction.

In the final paragraph of the book Dawkins suggests that “we alone can overcome the tyranny of our selfish genes”. It seems to be Dawkins’ belief that we are born as machines but by the time we’re adults we’ve somehow achieved freedom: We - that is our brains - are removed enough from our genes to rebel against them.

Now this, at first sight, might appear to be a perfectly reasonable thing to assume.

But it's not.

For an organism to begin life as an evolutionary machine, and yet to reach adulthood with the free will to rebel against those genes is a huge assumption. And it's an assumption that appears to leave behind the laws of science.

Consider these sentences in 'The Extended Phenotype' (Ch 2, para 6).
"I suspect that both Rose and Gould are determinists in that they believe in a physical, materialistic basis for all our actions. So am I. We would also probably all three agree that human nervous systems are so complex that in practice we can forget about determinism and behave as if we had free will."

Well... complexity doesn't bring free will in any other system in the known universe. The weather is a pretty complex system. But no one's suggesting the weather has free will. Surely, the most likely explanation is that we've just difficult to predict - as is the weather.
The mystery seems to be why Dawkins is so rigid with his science and then drops it all in search of human freedom. The whole point of The Selfish Gene and The Extended Phenotype seems to be to explain animal behaviour in terms of the chemicals they're made from - so why reverse this in the final moment, and why do it without nothing more than a single sentence of justification?

A closer look at how whether we can overcome our selfish genes

Dawkins is suggesting that we’re born as survival machines ("we are built as gene machines but we have the power to turn against our creators".You’ll find this in the endnotes to chapter 11 in the 1989 edition. It’s the last paragraph of the book.)

A survival machine does what it does in an attempt to increase the survival chances of its genes. That’s all it does. Natural selection could not create anything else.

Dawkins says: "is perfectly possible that genes exert a statistical influence on human behaviour but that this influence can be modified, overridden or reversed by other influences."

But how? How do you override a behaviour?

Let’s forget humans for a moment: imagine it’s a rat’s behaviour that you trying to modify.

I want to force a rat to do something that its genes (ie the programming created by natural selection) don’t ‘want’ it to do. Maybe I want to get the rat to eat gravel. If I can get the rat ‘willingly’ to eat gravel, then I’ve overridden its genetic programming. So what do I do? I coat the gravel in sugar. Sugar-coated gravel. Rat eats gravel – by choice. But I haven’t overridden its genetic programming. I’ve fooled it. From the rat’s point of view, it’s found a source of food that will increase the survival chances of its genes.

So now to humans.

What’s different?

Let’s forget (for a moment) the actual human behaviour that we see in action everyday. Think only of the newly born human as a survival machine. It’s born with programming written into it by natural selection.

Now you’re going to override that programming.

But how? Every program in that brain has been wired up by natural selection. How do you convince it to stop doing what it’s been programmed to do and do something else? You persuade it to be nice to other people? But why would it care about other people? (Stop thinking of it as a human, think of it as a machine.) Why would it change its course? The only thing it cares about is maximizing the survival chances of its genes. It’s like that rat. The only way you’re going to convince it to be nice to other people is to show it that ‘being nice to other people’ is actually the best way to achieve its programmed aim. (Which is of course what the Selfish Gene is all about - why altruism helps our selfish genes).

So what is it about humans that is different? How can you get a machine to do something that it hasn’t been programmed to do other than reprogram it? Natural selection allows behaviour to be modified because having the ability to adjust to the environment is the best way of achieving the overall aim. But no creation of natural selection is ever going to allow the basic aim to be changed – any individual that could be thus reprogrammed would simply not be selected for and would immediately die out.

Dawkins gives the example of contraception to show how we've overcome our genetic programming. We're going to look at that in a moment.

But first, we need to consider the alternative. The alternative is that we're still survival machines. Still doing precisely what we're told to do by our selfish genes.

Let’s just suggest for a moment that our conscious choices are still under the control of our selfish genes - how might this control work? How could we make decisions that improve the survival chances of our genes, without realizing the criteria we’re using?

Let’s look at the criteria we use to make conscious decisions.

How we make a decision

“I am quite capable of jumping in my car and driving to Edinburgh right
nowand for no other reason than that I want to.... I am a free agent, equipped
withfree will.” Matt Ridley, Genome

As Dr Ridley points out, we don’t just do things ‘for no reason’ - we do them because we ‘want to’… So how does Dr Ridley know whether he "wants to" go to Edinburgh or not? We can imagine his thoughts as he mulls over whether to make the trip: maybe his mum lives there, or someone that owes him money. Perhaps he’s heard what a beautiful place Edinburgh is and that the shopping’s rather good - or possibly he just wants to prove that he's got free will. All these things are the incentives for the trip - the benefits to be gained by going to Edinburgh.

But pretty much everything we want in life has some sort of cost:It's not clear how far it is to Edinburgh, but we'll assume it's a fair distance. So Dr Ridley will have to take into account the price of petrol, the boredom of the long drive and if he's anything over 6ft, the back-ache from being wedged into the inadequate space behind the steering wheel. These are all costs of the journey - things arguing against him taking the trip.

But how does he know whether the costs of the trip outweigh the advantages? Were it a simple financial transaction, he could simply compare the cost against the profit. But how do you compare the ‘cost’ of a back-ache with the ‘profit’ of seeing your mum?

You have to think about how it will make you feel.

And we humans are equipped with the ability to imagine in advance how much pleasure or pain a particular event will give us: it’s what we do when we’re umming and ahhing about a decision – we’re trying to anticipate the situation, and compare the pain and discomfort against the pleasure to be gained.

So when Dr Ridley is ‘deciding for no reason’ whether to go to Edinburgh or not, what he’s actually doing is weighing up:

- How many ‘good feelings’ he’s going to get from the trip: how muchsatisfaction
at recovering the money he's owed, how much pleasure at seeing hismum, how much
contentment at proving that he's got free will


- How many 'bad feelings' it will cost him to get there (expense of the
petrol,aching back, frustration at slow traffic).

If the scales come down on the side of good feelings, then he's in the car and on his way. It’s how we make any decision. From ‘Which TV program shall I watch?’ to ‘Shall I get married?’, any decision is an attempt in some tiny way to carve out a pleasant life for ourselves.

- We avoid situations that make us feel guilty, sad, afraid. We try to create a
world for ourselves which is full of joy, satisfaction and contentment.

“Where are there are two desires in a man's heart he has no choice between the two but must obey the strongest, there being no such thing as free will in the composition of any human being that ever lived.”- Mark Twain in Eruption

Our personal experience tells us that our conscious choices are controlled by our feelings: we attempt to make decisions that we calculate will make us feel better. Even when we're being 'genuinely' altruistic, we're doing it because we feel better to be altruistic than to be self-interested. It's what makes us such nice people.

Furthermore, we know that these ‘feelings’ that we consciously experience are created by a part of our brain over which we have no conscious control - otherwise we'd all be a lot happier than we are.

Therefore we have a potential mechanism by which evolution could still be controlling our conscious decisions:

our conscious minds are programmed to maximize the pleasure and minimize the
pain they experience.

When an event in the world makes us feel good its because the survival chances
of our genes have increased, and when something makes us feel bad it’s because
our ‘non-conscious minds’ have calculated that the survival chances of our genes
have decreased.

It's an explanation that also shows why we might think that we're making our own choices when we're really just doing what we're told to do.

The free will dilemma is thus removed: we’re survival machines after all, we just hadn't spotted the mechanism by which our conscious choices are controlled.

If we were really free – if our conscious minds were really free – what would we do all day? We’d fulfil our programming by making ourselves feel good. All day. Regardless of what happened in the world around us.

Back to Dawkins:

Currently, as Dawkins point out, we have the ability to defeat the tyranny of our selfish replicators whenever we use contraception.

And he’s right. Our conscious mind has worked out that it can get the pleasure without the associated downside of pregnancy and cost. Natural selection could not prepare for this. But we're not doing it because we have the free will to be nice to each other. We're doing it because our conscious minds are programmed to get as much pleasure as possible - not to maximise the survival chances of the genes that made them. And so where we can, we'll sacrifice the genes for our own pleasure. We'll exploit the loopholes in the way evolution constructed us: we'll take drugs, we'll use contraception.

The next step to defeating the tyranny of the selfish replicators isn't, as Dawkins suggests, to start being nice to each other. It's to start being nice to ourselves. To feel good all the time.

By getting direct control over our neural pathways so that our conscious minds can achieve their programmed purpose: to maximise the pleasure and minimise the pain.
Not because we’re greedy or ‘hedonists’, but because that’s what our conscious minds are programmed to do.

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