Richard Dawkins – Darwin lived so you don’t need philosophy?
“Philosophy and the subjects known as ‘humanities’ are still taught today as though Darwin had never lived. No doubt this will change in time.”
-The Selfish Gene, Chapter I ‘Why are people?’
This troublesome sentence is a good starting point for addressing Dawkins’ dualistic point of view of scientific naturalism and social sciences. To iterate, this sentence literally dismisses philosophy and all of the social sciences, or explanation from art. Later in the same chapter, Richard Dawkins begins to explain what he means by altruism and selfishness, but the purposes of this essay are not to debate about whether or not Dawkins should change the name of his book, The Selfish Gene, it is to focus on the growing influence he has on modern atheism. To my knowledge, he has not rectified or clarified whether he still stands by this sentence, as we shall see Dawkins has added a few prefaces and introductions over the years to same book to address any criticisms and this line was not re-addressed. I will argue that science and philosophy are two sides of the same coin and will use Alfred North Whitehead and Henri Bergsons’ concepts of first and second order process, constructs or realities to bridge the gap Dawkins states is irreconcilable post-Darwin. I will end the essay with Dawkins and some of his intellectual friends ridiculing some post-modernist philosophers through ignorance rather than integrity.
I am going to give some examples of apparently selfish and apparently altruistic behaviour. It is difficult to suppress subjective habits of thought when we are dealing with our own species, so I shall choose examples from some other animals instead. First some miscellaneous examples of selfish behaviour by individual animals.
-The Selfish Gene, Chapter I ‘ Why are people?’
Dawkins’ split between subjective and objective qualities when taken with the opening quote context, becomes problematic. He can’t deny that there are two orders of experiencing reality, but only one of them can be put into textual form. It is this textual form that he privileges as the best possible representation of that which he calls ‘objective’.
A general reading declares an awareness of human values being imposed onto other animals’ behaviour and a recognition that the way humans think and act, may not be the case for other animals. A closer reading reveals a dualist split between nature and society. Later in chapter 3, The Gene Machine P53, Dawkins becomes more monistic by describing a ‘time-lag’ problem from gene to phenotype.
My focus is on whether biology, or more generally science, when it comes to asking and answering a factual or evaluative or an interpretative question, can represent reality in those terms. It is more generally known as the ‘why or how problem’ within science. It opens up the stakes of the boundaries of philosophy, how questions are produced and policed. What belongs ‘inside’ philosophy and what has to be expelled? What counts as a properly philosophical text? What form should it take? What kinds of language should it use? Being able to answer why we exist, why something does a particular thing can only ever be a representation of the thing, a trace that is remote from the direct experience of the thing. The thing is a contingent mass of lineages and encounters that make up what we say is its ontology.
A ‘why’ question is always a ‘how’ answer and the search for the purpose leads to another tangent within science and philosophy – to find a universal foundation. In Dawkins’ genecentric theory, the foundation is survival through selfishness or altruism, ‘whether the effect of an act is to lower or raise the survival prospects of the presumed altruist and the survival prospects of the presumed beneficiary’ (introduction to the 30th anniversery edition). In a more general outlook of science informing ethics, we usually end up with negative utilitarianism. One should act if and only if they reduce harm and suffering, which makes suffering the foundation for all existence. I will argue later in this essay that these are answers with presumptions that probably are not necessary and are just convenient explanations for a non-participatory (in the act of gathering and observing information and the methods used to reach conclusions) audience.
The genes […] control the behaviour of their survival machines, not directly with their fingers on puppet strings, but indirectly […]. All they can do is set it up beforehand; then the survival machine is on its own, and the genes sit passively inside.
Dawkins describes a time-lag problem in the form of an analogy from a science fiction novel, A for Andromeda by Fred Hoyle and John Elliot. A civilisation many light years away wants to expand their culture to distant worlds and they created a highly succinct broadcast that was encrypted. Once deciphered it would reveal plans for a dictator-type technology. The point Dawkins is making by analogy is that although the Andromedans had created the plans, they had no direct part in the manipulation of events on Earth and this is the same time-lag problem between genes and gene machines (phenotypes). This is monistic and not dualist, it explains a whole complex system that contingently/neccessarily expresses itself as seperate elements and it must be described/represented in a such a way also.
He also uses the analogy of a computer chess game. The computer is not able to participate in the same way you are participating, it has some general rules that it uses to execute moves. This is clearly philosophical and not scientific, the point being that we can’t exclude one order of reality without including a privilege of the one we include. That being metaphor through textual representation. He has also used a method within post-structural philosophy that uses art and literature to define phenomena. In chapter I page 3 (ibid),
Statements Dawkins apologised for
Dawkins gives caution of ‘the gene’s law of universal ruthlessness’ and that if we wish to extract morals from his book, ‘you can expect little help from biological nature’. He then says a line that he utterly regrets and given its deplorable literal construction and how long Dawkins took to clarify his error, it is legitimate to call this statement into question.
Let us try to teach generosity and altruism, because we are born selfish.
He clarifies in the 30th anniversary edition introduction that ‘born selfish’ is misleading and then pleads for us all to mentally delete that ‘rogue sentence’ and others like it. He then also has to apologise for the ‘anthropomorphic personification’ of genes. His explanation is based on something a molecular biologist once said where in order to think through a chemical problem, he would ask himself what he would do if he were an electron. Explanations are then based on ‘behaving like it, just as I would/are, is doing such and such’. The problem for me in regards to this explanation is that it implies function declares purpose. ‘A light beam behaving as if trying to minimise the time taken to travel to an end point’ imagined as a ‘lifeguard racing down a beach (because they can run faster than they can swim) to rescue a drowning swimmer’ comes from a question of ‘why does it (electron or light) do that?’
Science can show how already existent phenomena behaves, but why is a question for philosophy. This is not to say that philosophy can answer this particular why, it just means science can’t answer that question without violating Dawkins intentions of describing reality and find it hard to ‘suppress subjective habits of thought when we are dealing with our own species.’ Asking ‘why’ immediately begs a question of finding an explanation, without first asking whether this presumption is even necessary. Given that text is remote from phenomena, we can’t possibly transcend the problem of ‘subjective habits’ as Dawkins has already retrojected a foundation of survival through selfishness and alturism.
First and second order constructs
I want to introduce a concept from thinkers like Alfred North Whitehead, John Dewey and Henri Bergson about first and second order constructs. To simplify, ‘second order constructs, ideally based upon the first ones, arguing that all facts are interpreted facts, both for common sense and for scientific thinking.’ (Europe and the other and Europe as the Other, P235, footnote 16). A first order construct, or reality, or process is the material thing we observe and the second order construct, reality or process is the interpretation of that thing, the meaning of it. The second order is more importantly sensation or the actual action of observing the phenomena. Monism is the only way to avoid relegating particular forms of langauge, representation and direct experience. Or trying to do the impossible of seperating subjective habits while trying to answer a why question. A match is struck and it lights, but that’s due to the encounter of two objects. A constant conjunction, which has no why answer.
Let us turn back to Dawkins’ molecular biologist friend and his ‘light-guards’, we must now turn to Dawkins intended spirit of The Selfish Gene where he quotes W.D. Hamilton, ‘let us try to make the argument more vivid by attributing to the genes, temporarily, intelligence and a certain freedom of choice.’ The opening quote of this essay ‘Philosophy and the subjects known as ‘humanities’ are still taught today as though Darwin had never lived. No doubt this will change in time.’ Is it even possible to answer ‘why’ when dealing with different forms of being? In which case, naturalistic science is informed by social science, the difference is that naturalism has more quantitative substance to work with and social science is more qualitative with abstractions. His representations cannot be separated from the second order, as they are the only means of trying to answer a question of interpretation. Hume and Smith were the liberal influences of the time and we can see these same influences in todays modern evolutionary liberalism. This means that philosophy came before the science and influenced the explanations, which brings into question the problem of conventions, rather than ultimates in the representation.
Dawkins has a social responsibility to explain to the general public and will have to in a sense, ‘dumb down’ those explanations for those outside of the academic circle to grasp. It is incorrect to state that Dawkins is prescribing a natural law, but given that the anthropomorphic personification of genes is starting with a question of ‘why’, which will inevitably always be wrong in the way it is representing reality and is not as Dawkins claims in chapter I, ‘Living organisms had existed on earth for over three thousand million years before the truth finally dawned on one of them.’ That one being Darwin. So Dawkins presumes there is an ultimate truth to reality, in this instance ‘evolution tells us why we exist’ and the best way to reach this is through economic conventions that come from our own subjective habits. Incorrect, it tells us how we exist. We only know the functions (behaviour) of genetic phenomena, we don’t know ‘why’, outside of agreed cultural articulations.
Of course I am not arguing that Dawkins is being literal, ‘no sane person thinks DNA molecules have conscious personalities’, but whether the answer to a why-type-question that only requires a how-type-answer is ‘right’, is the debatable element that Dawkins may have overlooked. Dawkins, in a Q&A was asked whether or not science can answer a ‘why’ question. This does not relegate one field of study to being subdued by scientific naturalism, which we can see is one of the central embodiments within modern atheism.
“Well, what I would say about the question ‘why’ is why do you think you have any right to ask it? It’s not a meaningful question, except unless you specify the kind of answer you’re expecting. As a biologist, it’s very easy to answer the question ‘why do birds have wings?’ for example; we can do that in Darwinian terms. If you say however, ‘why do mountains exist?’ there are some questions that simply don’t deserve an answer. You could give an answer in terms of the geological processes that give rise to a mountain, but that’s not what you want is it? You want something that is about the purpose of mountains, which is a silly question.”
Before we go any further, a ‘why’ question/answer is interpretative and ‘how’ is factual and evaluative.
Let us examine his first assertion that biologists can answer ‘why do birds have wings?’ Birds have evolved many features to make flight possible. The skeleton is strong but light, with a large breastbone to support powerful muscles for flapping wings up and down. The wings themselves are curved on top, flatter beneath—air travels faster over the upper surface, producing lift. The long tail helps with direction and balance; strong legs assist with takeoff.
Birds have wings because they can take off from the ground, fly to another place, or hover above a fixed point and they can dive and land again. That is what defines a bird, what it is. It is factual and evaluative; it does not explain why they have wings. We have observed them perform these behaviors. Birds of prey eat other animals too, they eat for the same reasons other animals do, to relinquish hunger. Is that really a why answer? Was that an interpretation, or was it evaluating and factual?
The second assertion is that a geological explanation of how a mountain came to be is not the same as the why question for birds. Is it possible that due to birds having a similar form of conscious experience to humans and other animals that we think we can ask or answer an interpretative question? Birds having wings are the result of many contingent processes and as they are contingent, not necessary, we could question whether or not survival is a ‘why’ outside of the universal/particular points of view when it comes to describing phenomena.
We can say it appears to use wings to do this and that, in a conventional sense, but saying that is ultimately why is giving representation too much tenability.
If I were to stand next to you and we watched this phenomena as it happens, we can only see what is. If I were to listen to you speak about what is happening, or you to me, we would have a slight trace of what is there as we begin to explain and evaluate. When we get to text however and we begin to have an emphasis on interpretations of factual and evaluative statements, we no longer see any changes in habits, or anomalies, we have a trace of what once was. The question ‘why’ becomes unnecessary.
Biologistic explanations of ‘why do humans have sex?’ for example, have many errors from this experience-thought-speech-text problem. Science can certainly answer how we have sex and it can explain how we have children from having sex, but it can’t accurately answer why we have sex at all. Sex can be for fun. After all ‘Our brains have evolved past the point where we are capable of rebelling against our selfish genes. The fact that we can do so is made obvious by our use of contraceptives. The same principle can and should work on a wider scale.’ (Selfish Gene, xiv, Introduction to the 30th anniversary edition)
Here and now
Is that really a foundation of survival as the principle? Or could we say that organic life from micro to macro levels is a phenomena of encounters, that seem to subdue and resist each other? Survival implies an ending, a teleology, a neccessity. If we were to be factual and not interpretative, we see from moment to moment domination and resistance with multiple contingent changes that both include and transcend themselves, constantly going beyond what they are. If we are to represent reality as foolish, a mindless mass of flux, then survival can’t be included without transferring the subjective habits that go beyond the genes.
I argue that a mountain can be experienced just like the birds, a mountain can serve as a home for many animals, although it may at first glance appear to be a ‘useless tree’ in terms of Chuang Tzu, the mountain can be explained in the same way a bird has wings. We can explain how it became and how it will go beyond what it is now, how it is used in multiple contingent ways and how it provides life to animals and plants that don’t grow lower down for example. As function seems to imply purpose, a mountain cannot be treated in isolation. Destroying a mountain can mean extinction for many forms of life and any minerals we humans like to mine for various purposes would not be obtainable. We can agree that this does not answer why a mountain exists, but we can also accept that mountains are part of an assemblage of multiple contingent encounters for it to become what it is and to go beyond what it is now. A mountain is not just a large rock; it is a number of functions and particulars. Asking why would give you a how answer, the same with a bird, or any other thing in existence. As Thich Nhat Hanh puts it, ‘The cloud is in the piece of paper.’
A view of encounters and interactions go beyond the factual and evaluative/interpretative problem. The reference to Chaung Tzu and ‘the useless tree’ is a short tale of a man saying a tree in the middle of a desert is useless. Chuang Tzu then explains that one day you may be looking for shade and then the tree would no longer be useless to you. Daoism, or ‘the way’ goes further to say that all existence, all things within existence are without inherent value, or rather without fixed value, function and meaning. It is through encounters that we begin to define existence and the factual, evaluative and interpretative, not as separate categories, or as something dual, but as a dialectical monism. This is why we end up with the various sciences from naturalism to social.
Dawkins attack on post-modernism
Why the humanities become such a problem for Dawkins is moot due to how these reasoning skills come from philosophy. To add a further note on Dawkins abjection of philosophy, we can look towards Alan Sokal and Jean Birchmont in their book critiquing post-modern thought, Fashionable Nonsense, 1997. Their main objection was towards Luce Irigaray discussing the phallogocentrism of E=MC2 as a ‘sexed equation’ focusing on rigid substance and not fluidity. ‘Irigaray alleges that women have been traditionally associated with matter and nature to the expense of a female subject position. While women can become subjects if they assimilate to male subjectivity, a separate subject position for women does not exist. Irigaray’s goal is to uncover the absence of a female subject position, the relegation of all things feminine to nature/matter, and, ultimately, the absence of true sexual difference in Western culture.’ (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy)
The name of this video implies that science is the only language used within intellectual discourse.
The rationalists refuse to see beyond equations and their privilege, but in a wider scope, Irigaray was stating in a nuanced way how ‘everything said is said in the context of and received through the lens of the prevailing cultural norms’. It’s very easy to misunderstand feminist\post-structural thought. Dawkins, along with his elite intellectual friends refuse to understand and so the opening quote of this essay holds many subliminal truths. Liminality is the way we ritually order ranks in society and Julia Kristeva, another prominent French feminist focused on abjection of this sort. E=MC2 is a sexed equation as it is associated with masculine intellectual superiority. This is a social fact and this was more what Irigaray meant. You would think that an intellectual, who came up with a whole theory of memes, would be able to grasp things like patriarchy and male privilege, intellectual privilege. What we end up with is a defensive denial of power relations within the scientific establishment, who thinks science can explain everything we need to know and that we don’t require philosophy. He doesn’t do this with magnanimity or intellectual integrity, he instead sets an example of ridicule debunk which has proven to be a dominant obstruction within discourse of feminism and other social sciences. The power Dawkins denies is ironically being abused, knowledge is power.
What relevance the teaching of philosophy and the humanities has to do with Charles Darwin having ‘lived’ is in Dawkins mind, is anyone’s guess. My aim in this essay was to find habits within his texts that are dualist and contingently hierarchical when it comes to knowledge.