‘The Selfish Gene’: Classic science worth checking out

TheSelfishGeneCoverI don’t usually read old science books.  After a decade or so, I find that their content tends to have too much dated material.  But ‘The Selfish Gene‘ keeps coming up in conversations, not just because its author, Richard Dawkins, is the world’s most famous atheist, but also because of its core message, that genes are the center of evolution, and that animals, including humans, are largely programmed to act in the interest of their genes.

A substantial portion of the book is filled with game theory analyses demonstrating why apparent acts of altruism really aren’t.  They may feel like conscious acts of altruism on the animal’s part, but the acts follow programming that benefits the animal’s survival or genetic legacy.  Dawkins is careful to make sure that we understand that these aren’t conscious calculations the animals make, just the naturally selected programming that drives them.

Toward the end of the book, Dawkins discusses humanity directly, noting that as intelligent creatures, we are the first animals able to override our selfish gene’s programming  (think birth control) and that game theory demonstrates that being nice is often a survival advantage.

The book finishes up with a discussion of memes, units of cultural information that may replicate similar to genes, and of the extended phenotype, the idea that the causal effects of genes reach outside of their host animals to affect other animals and their habitats.

All in all, I enjoyed this book.  It wasn’t nearly as dated as I feared it might be, and where it was, the 30th anniversary edition had excellent end notes with updated information.  Note, religious readers should know that, although Dawkins mostly leaves religion alone in this early book, he does take the occasional swipe.

Would the World Be Better Off Without Religion?

In a Skeptical Inquirer article that I’m a bit surprised hasn’t received more attention, Scott O. Lilienfeld and Rachel Ammirati take a look at this question: Would the World Be Better Off Without Religion? A Skeptic’s Guide to the Debate – CSI.

In this article, we address the overarching question of whether high levels of certitude are warranted among partisans of either position. In the interest of full disclosure, both authors of this article are atheists. At the same time, we have become concerned by what appears to be unjustified dogmatism by both religious skeptics and believers in discussions concerning an exceedingly complex and multifaceted question. Therefore, we attempt to demonstrate that (a) scientific data bearing indirectly on the question have routinely been neglected by many individuals on both sides of the debate; (b) such data, although informative, do not permit anything approaching conclusive answers to the question of whether religion makes the world a better or worse place. At the same time, such data cast serious doubt on broad-brush contentions (e.g., Dawkins 2006) that religion is usually or always associated with a heightened risk of immoral behavior, including violence. Hence, we view our article as a modest call for greater epistemic humility on the part of ardent defenders of both positions.

This article is a long one, but informative, and if you have strong opinions on this subject, I encourage you to read the full thing.

I think the problem with saying that religion is good or bad is how amorphous that statement is.  We can’t even succinctly define religion, at least not in a way that includes all the movements usually accepted as religious.  In many non-western cultures, the dividing line between that culture’s religion and the rest of the culture is non-existent, meaning that their religion is their culture.

Are there evils committed in the name of religion?  Undoubtedly, and there are plenty of examples.  Are there beneficial acts inspired by religion?  Also undoubtedly, also with plenty of examples.  Another way to think of this is, are there evils committed by cultures?  And are there good acts inspired by cultures?  Again, the answer for both must be yes.  Yet I’ve never heard anyone condemn the overall idea of culture.

This later snippet in the article I think gets at the position that many atheists hold, either explicitly or implicitly.

Some nonbelievers may react to this debate by staking out an alternative position: as scientific thinkers and skeptics, we should be seeking the truth, the consequences be damned. From this perspective, if God does not exist, we should be discouraging uncritical acceptance of religious tenets regardless of whether they exert beneficial or detrimental long-term effects on society. Knowledge, Sir Francis Bacon asserted, is power. In our view, this position is both intellectually consistent and intellectually honest, and we see merit in it. At the same time, advocates of this position need to be forthright in acknowledging that it may entail unknown risks that need to be weighed in public discussions of the value of religion to society.

Actually, I think I recall Dawkins taking this position explicitly.  I have to admit that this used to be my position, although I’ve come to think that it’s probably a position of privilege.  Many of the most religious people are religious because they need the existential comfort that their religion provides them, often because their lives are uncertain, sometimes because their life is dangerous and desperate.

I’m far less comfortable than I used to be with the idea that these people must be disabused of their beliefs.  The standard anti-theist talking points are that removing those beliefs would encourage people to better themselves, that anyone uncomfortable with the idea of convincing them out of their faith is simply being a patronizing snob.

While it makes for a good line, it sounds disturbingly like the rhetoric I often hear from political conservatives when arguing that we shouldn’t help those in poverty.  It may well just be that removing those beliefs would take away a source of comfort for those people, and make their lives more psychologically difficult than they already are.  In any case, attempting to convince such people out of their faith usually just causes hostility.  (I know there are exceptions, but they are exceptions.)

None of this is to say that I think atheists shouldn’t try to sell their worldview, or that clearly dangerous or repressive religious beliefs shouldn’t be challenged.  But we should realize that atheism, like much of skepticism,  is an emotionally expensive proposition.  Those of us who can afford to accept such propositions should be careful not to be cruel to those who cannot.

And as I’m sure many believers will point out, we can’t prove that some version of God doesn’t exist, at least except for the fundamentalist versions.  Whether or not to believe in one of those versions is a philosophical conclusion, and like all philosophical choices, it’s a personal one.

h/t Connor Wood, who did an assessment of this article