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Entries in The Genius of Charles Darwin (1)

Tuesday
Aug192008

Dawkins and Darwin

I really enjoyed Richard Dawkins' recent television series about Darwin, The Genius of Charles Darwin. Dawkins is treated like a god by atheists (or at least a pope), and it's easy to see why. He's a very intelligent guy who is passionate about evolution as the explanation for the development of life, intelligent or otherwise; and he explains how it all works brilliantly. Not for him the creationism or 'intelligent design' theories propounded by many religious groups.


I'm sold on evolution as the explanation of how life developed, and even more so after watching Dawkins' series. The evidence for evolution is there in abundance - in fossils, bones and DNA - and Dawkins' presentation of it, despite my prior knowledge of how the process generally works, was illuminating. Dawkins described nature as it really is: an arms race between species, with only the winners getting to pass on their genes - resulting, over time, in the emergence and development of different kinds of creatures.

Above all though,  The Genius of Charles Darwin depicted how bleak evolution is. Natural selection isn't concerned with morality; it is all about effective mechanisms passing their genes on, regardless of what the mechanisms in question do. This is why parasites that feed on young children's eyes have evolved successfully, or viruses like AIDS. When you look at these horrendous examples of nature's handywork, it almost seems as though they in themselves argue against the existence of a creator, or certainly a benign one. What kind of creator, for example, would want to create cancer?

Looking at the biological evidence presented by Dawkins and other scientists, and the sheer brutalness of nature, I'm convinced that natural selection, not godly intervention, is the driving force behind the development of species.

What still confuses me though, is the context in which all this happens. Natural selection has to operate in accordance to the laws of physics: it can't circumvent fundamental laws/units or concepts such as matter, time, space, or gravity - regardless of how much a clever insect wants to pass on its genes. There is an order in the universe which all processes and entities have to obey. The apple must fall from the tree; the electron has to spin around the atom; a triangle has to have three sides. 

Which inevitably leads to that age-old question: why? I don't think Dawkins or Darwin, for all their brilliance, offer us an answer to that. Accepting the reality of natural selection - and it is very real - doesn't detract from the other reality, which is that we may be naturally selected, but we're still living in a very odd (if beautiful) universe with lots of big balls going round other big balls. I find this profoundly weird, and natural selection doesn't explain the origin of the laws of physics, or, let's face it, natural selection. Frankly, I want to know why the universe was created the way it was, and why its fundamental units facilitate natural selection.

It is nature's fundamental laws - for laws they are - that leave the door open in my mind to the existence of a creator. During my time on this particular big ball, I've never come across a physical law that natural selection was responsible for (and not a civil servant). Earthly laws, at least, are created; could the physical ones be?

If a creator is responsible for the laws of the universe, I'm not sure whether he, she or it is a God, and I certainly think that if he/she/it exists, it's not necessarily benign, and maybe it's not even clever. Part of me suspects that the universe may have been created by the cosmic equivalent of a GSCE science student who heated up some dodgy chemicals using his Bunsen burner when his teacher wasn't looking (I know I tried that in the lab; somebody's probably blogging about it at a microscopic level right now). 

I remain a big fan of Dawkins and I love his work; he's really got me thinking about nature. But more than that he's got me thinking about why nature exists at all. And neither he nor any religious figure has ever answered that one satisfactorily for me.

There's always the comments section of this blog though - feel free to have a bash.

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