The Robot Rebellion of Richard Dawkins

A Review of Unweaving the Rainbow
by Richard Dawkins


Phillip E. Johnson

Originally published in Christian Research Journal 22, no.1
June 14, 2000

British biologist Richard Dawkins's latest book, Unweaving the Rainbow, is a set of chapters loosely connected around the theme of rebutting a poem by Keats, whose message was that "cold philosophy" spoils the charm of things like the rainbow by reducing them to physical causes. Dawkins responds, defensively but not unreasonably, that science has its own charms for those who can appreciate them. Of course it does, and so does law, or baseball, or stamp collecting.

Behind this seemingly trivial argument there are deeper issues, however, involving the long-standing dilemma of whether and how Darwinian ideology is to be reconciled with human dignity and freedom. So we can get to those issues, I will concede Dawkins' superficial point at the outset. My pleasure in the rainbow is not spoiled by knowing how Newton explained the prism effect, nor is my wonder at the miracle of vision diminished by reading the very interesting things Dawkins has to say about how it is possible for us to recognize other people by their faces.

The problem Dawkins ought to be addressing lies elsewhere. The cold philosophy that causes a sensitive human spirit to recoil is not scientific investigation but scientific materialism, the philosophical dogma that insists that only mindless matter is ultimately real and that only science holds the key to knowledge. Scientific materialism, the foundation for everything in Unweaving the Rainbow, is the philosophy to which Pope John Paul II referred when he wrote that "Theories of evolution which, in accordance with the philosophies inspiring them, consider the spirit as emerging from the forces of living matter or as a mere epiphenomenon of this matter, are incompatible with the truth about man."

Dawkins is a vehement scientific materialist. He has nothing but contempt for theists like the Pope, or for anyone who believes that life involves some non-material element inaccessible to science. Nonetheless, even Dawkins recoils from the logic of his own position.

According to Dawkins, as described in his previous book, The Selfish Gene, evolution is a story about competition among genes. Once upon a time, chemicals somehow organized themselves into a DNA-based system that could reproduce itself. The first organism to emerge from the chemical soup was a naked gene, a length of genetic material that did little else but reproduce. But the naked gene spawned offspring, and in the fullness of time some of those offspring learned to build bodies (phenotypes, in scientific jargon). The only purpose of the bodies was to enable the genes to reproduce their own kind more effectively. As the saying goes, a chicken is just an egg's way of making another egg.

Although there are powerful dissenters, gene selectionism is sufficiently dominant among evolutionary scientists that it is frequently referred to simply as "modern Darwinism." From this basic assumption it follows, to quote Dawkins' colorful prose, that humans (like other organisms) "are machines created by our genes. Like successful Chicago gangsters our genes have survived ...in a highly competitive world.... I shall argue that a predominant quality to be expected in a successful gene is ruthless selfishness.... When he is in his full reductionist flight, Dawkins does not hesitate to draw the logical conclusion. "We are survival machines--robot vehicles programmed to preserve the selfish molecules known as genes." [Quotes are from The Selfish Gene (TSG), 1976 edition, pp. v, 2.]

That is indeed a cold philosophy. It seems to imply that it may be very natural for "robot vehicles" to murder, rob, rape or enslave other "robots" to satisfy their genetic masters. Modern Darwinism seems also to leave little basis for valuing the humane arts like poetry and music, except to the extent that such things are useful in spreading the genes by (for example) building tribal solidarity. Nineteenth Century Darwinists, writing mainly for other members of a social elite, might have been able shrug aside such objections on the ground that science requires that we take an unsentimental view of the realities of life. Darwin himself frequently wrote of "savages and lower races" as intermediate between animals and civilized people, and in the Descent of Man he cooly predicted that the whites would exterminate these intermediate forms because that is how natural selection works. Hitler, Stalin, and Mao have demonstrated what that casual attitude towards mass murder leads to in practice, however. In consequence, even today's most ruthless Darwinists have to make some concessions to morality.

Modern Darwinists can respond that selfish genes do not always make selfish people, because it may be in the interests of the genes to encourage some forms of social cooperation, particularly within the family. For example, a mother might spread her genes most effectively by sacrificing her own life to preserve the lives of her offspring, who carry the same genes.

That's a pretty weak reassurance when contemplating the kinds of things that commissars and fuehrers tend to do. Stronger medicine is required if Darwinism is to avoid the obloquy that now attaches to "social Darwinism," and so Dawkins desperately tries to square his gene theory with some acceptable morality by proposing a robot rebellion. He writes: "Let us try to teach generosity and altruism, because we are born selfish. Let us understand what our own selfish genes are up to, because we may then at least have the chance to upset their designs, something that no other species has ever aspired to." (TSG, p. 3)

This is not only absurd but embarrassingly naive. If human nature is actually constructed by genes whose predominant quality is a ruthless selfishness, then pious lectures advocating qualities like generosity and altruism are probably just another strategy for furthering selfish interests. Ruthless predators are often moralistic in appearance, because that is how they disarm their intended victims. The genes who teach their robot vehicles not to take morality seriously, but to take advantage of fools who do, will have a decisive advantage in the Darwinian competition. If a man is preparing his son for a career with the Chicago mafia, he'd better not teach him to be loving and trusting. But he might teach him to feign loyalty while he is planning treachery!

There is an even more fundamental problem with the robot rebellion, however. Just who is this "we" that is supposed to do the rebelling? Like other Darwinian reductionists, Dawkins does not believe that there is a single, central self which utilizes the machinery of the brain for its own purposes. The central self that makes choices and then acts upon them is fundamentally a creationist notion, which reductionists ridicule as "the ghost in the machine." Selfish genes would produce not a free-acting self, but rather a set of mental reactions that compete with each other in the brain before a winner emerges to produce a bodily reaction that serves the overall interests of the genes.

In a recent joint lecture, Dawkins asked his colleague Steven Pinker: "Am I right to think that the feeling I have that I'm a single entity, who makes decisions, and loves and hates and has political views and things is a kind of illusion that has come about because Darwinian selection found it expedient to create that illusion of unitariness rather than let us be a society of mind?" Pinker answered affirmatively that "the fact that the brain ultimately controls a body that has to be in one place at one time may impose the need for some kind of circuit . . . that coordinates the different agendas of the different parts of the brain to ensure that the whole body goes in one direction." That hypothetical circuit is all that remains of the illusion of a free-acting self. [The Dawkins-Pinker exchange is available at www.edge.org]

British lecturer in psychiatry Susan Blackmore takes this logic even further in her 1999 book The Meme Machine (London: Oxford University Press, 1999), which comes with an introduction by Dawkins himself. Dawkins invented the concept of memes to extend Darwinism into the realm of ideas and expression. Memes reproduce by being copied in brains, and they are altered by copying errors. As Blackmore describes it, "Everything you have learnt by copying it from someone else is a meme. This includes your habit of driving on the left or right, eating beans on toast, wearing jeans, or going on holiday. . . . Memes are 'inherited' when we copy someone else's action, when we pass on an idea or a story, when a book is printed, or when a radio program is broadcast. Memes vary because human imitation is far from perfect.... Finally, there is memetic selection. Think of how many things you hear in a day, and how few you pass on to anyone else."

Dawkins originally proposed the meme idea cautiously, but his followers have made it (with his approval) the basis for a complete philosophy of mind. Just as the selfish genes make the body, selfish memes supposedly make the mind. Blackmore speculates that the brain evolved as a vehicle for spreading useful memes. As the selfish memes co-evolve with each other, they form complex memetic systems like languages, religions, scientific theories, and political ideologies. Their most powerful creation, however, is the illusion of the self. "We may feel as though we have a special little 'me' inside, who has sensations and consciousness, who lives my life, and makes my decisions. Yet, this does not fit with what we know about the brain."

I don't have space to explain this zany idea further. What is most significant for present purposes is her conclusion: "Dawkins ends The Selfish Gene with his famous claim that 'We, alone on earth, can rebel against the tyranny of the selfish replicators.' Yet, if we take his idea of memes seriously, and push it to its logical conclusion, we find that there is no one left to rebel."

One way or another, whether the brain is built by selfish genes or selfish memes, Darwinian philosophy insists that the unified self is an illusion and there is no one left to rebel against the selfish replicators. I surmise that all the chatter about the charm of science in Unweaving the Rainbow is designed to deflect attention from the unattractive aspects of this philosophy by portraying its critics as know-nothing opponents of scientific investigation. The materialist worldview Dawkins promotes preaches that human bodies exist to further the spread of gangster-like selfish genes, and that the self is nothing but an illusion created by some combination of genes and memes. In Blackmore's words, "We all live our lives as a lie. The memes have made us do it--because giving us the illusion of 'self' helps them to survive and spread."

In this reductionist world ideas are not good or bad, ugly or beautiful. They differ only in "infectivity," which is the capacity to induce brains to copy them. The notion that the poetry of Keats is "sublime" is itself merely a meme which increases copying by brains whose governing memes have produced a taste for things with a reputation for sublimity. Bad poems or ideas are as likely to be successful in this sense as good ones--indeed, "good" and "bad" are meaningless terms for a memetic reductionist. Dawkins himself insists that some of the most effective replicators are "viruses of the mind," meaning religions (especially Christianity), which he despises. The only criterion of success for a meme or a gene is frequency of reproduction.

Why would poets and artists--or any group of thinking people who value the mind--be attracted to a philosophy that is so tailor-made to encourage murderous barbarians? And why should they believe that gene/meme reductionism has any foundation in fact? The ultimate irony is that this philosophy implies that Darwinism itself is just another meme, competing in the infectivity sweepstakes by attaching itself to that seductive word "science." Dawkins ceaselessly urges us to be rational, but be does so in the name of a philosophy that implies that no such thing as rationality exists because our thoughts are at the mercy of our genes and memes. The proper conclusion is that the Dawkins poor brain has been infected by the Darwin meme, a virus of the mind if ever there was one, and we wonder if he will ever be able to find the cure.

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