2 Flaws That Plague Unscientific Belief, from the Alt-Right to Religious Doctrine
Richard Dawkins responds to the Alt-Right, Trump's policies, and discusses the evil potential of ideology.
Richard Dawkins is an evolutionary biologist and the former Charles Simonyi Professor of the Public Understanding of Science at Oxford University. He is the author of several of modern science's essential texts, including The Selfish Gene (1976) and The God Delusion (2006). Born in Nairobi, Kenya, Dawkins eventually graduated with a degree in zoology from Balliol College, Oxford, and then earned a masters degree and the doctorate from Oxford University. He has recently left his teaching duties to write and manage his foundation, The Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science, full-time.
Richard Dawkins: It’s very unfortunate when you inadvertently find people agreeing with you who are the last people you would wish to agree with you. I mean, I despise Trump. I despise everything that he stands for. But it’s perfectly true that many people think that I ought to be on his side because he has these draconian, illiberal, horrible policies towards Muslims. I mean, trying to stop Muslims entering the country, what a horrible thing to do. What an impolite, unwise, illiberal, inhumane thing to do. And so I’m embarrassed if people on the Alt-Right agree with something that I say for the wrong reasons.
There’s not a great deal about religion in 'Science in the Soul'. Most of what I have to say about that is in my earlier book 'The God Delusion', so I can rehearse that if you wish. To me, as a scientist, the main argument is a scientific one. I think that the hypothesis that the universe was created by a supernatural intelligence is a scientific hypothesis—it’s a bad hypothesis, it’s a false hypothesis—but it has to be judged on its scientific merits.
The universe would be a very different kind of universe if there was a supernatural creative intelligence in it than if there wasn’t. So much of my argument is a scientific argument. There is no positive reason to believe in anything supernatural. If you look at all the reasons that have been offered, none of them stand up, none of them hold water.
In the form of Darwinian evolution, we have a superb theory of why living things have come into being, why they are the way they are, why they look as though they’ve been designed—and they undoubtedly do look as though they’ve been designed. The illusion of design in living things is immensely powerful and it’s no wonder that until Darwin came along almost everybody believed that it was created by a supernatural intelligence.
But we now have Darwin, we now have Darwin and his successors. We now know how life came about. And the complexity and the beauty, the elegance and the illusion of design of life has always been by far the most powerful argument for the existence of supernatural gods and that is completely blown out of the water.
The secondary argument is whether religion has evil effects, whether religion has bad effects, and on balance I think it does. The real problem is that religious faith prides itself on not needing support. You can’t argue somebody out of their faith, they simply say, "Oh, that’s my faith you have to accept it." And that means that if their faith tells them, if their religious upbringing tells them that they must do bad things like blow things up, kill apostates, throw gay people off high buildings, et cetera, if their religion tells them that, then you can’t argue them out of it because it comes from their faith, and faith by definition has no argument. Faith, by definition, is sheltered behind the wall that says, "No, it’s my faith, I don’t have to defend. It it’s just there, it’s just faith." That, I think, is potentially very evil.
That’s very far from saying that every religious person is evil. Of course, many people do good things because of their faith and that’s great, but the fact that faith can lead to and does lead to significant numbers of evil things and the horrific repression of women, for example, in certain theocracies and of gay people in theocracies, the sentences of apostates to death, the joyless suppression of music and art and fun in certain countries because of religious indoctrination, religious faith, the fact that this can follow from religious faith—the people who do these awful things don’t think they’re terrible they think they’re doing good, they think they’re being righteous, they think they’re obeying the will of their god and that they’re going to go to paradise because of it. That, I think, because it has the potential to be evil, we have to regard that as an evil.
What's it like to be worshipped by the Alt-Right? Not good, especially if you're a passionate rationalist like Richard Dawkins. He was very recently accused of Islamophobia by KPFA radio—which is why some of the Alt-Right have flocked toward him—however Dawkins released a statement calling any alleged "abusive speech" by him preposterous, and clarified his views: "I have indeed strongly condemned the misogyny, homophobia, and violence of Islamism, of which Muslims—particularly Muslim women—are the prime victims. I make no apologies for denouncing those oppressive cruelties, and I will continue to do so." Here he responds to how unpleasant it is to have your rational thoughts and your name hijacked by political extremists, and he expresses his disdain for President Trump's policies, specifically the 'Muslim ban'. With that as context, he proceeds to do what he does best: use science to investigate the idea of supernatural gods as the creators of the universe—which is a scientific hypothesis, he states, but one of the failed kind. Dawkins explains that we already have a superb theory of why living things have come into being—Darwinian evolution—and the evils that can come from too much faith. Richard Dawkins' most recent book is Science in the Soul: Selected Writings of a Passionate Rationalist.
What do we see from watching birds move across the country?
- A total of eight billion birds migrate across the U.S. in the fall.
- The birds who migrate to the tropics fair better than the birds who winter in the U.S.
- Conservationists can arguably use these numbers to encourage the development of better habitats in the U.S., especially if temperatures begin to vary in the south.
The migration of birds — and we didn't even used to know that birds migrated; we assumed they hibernated; the modern understanding of bird migration was established when a white stork landed in a German village with an arrow from Central Africa through its neck in 1822 — draws us in the direction of having an understanding of the world. A bird is here and then travels somewhere else. Where does it go? It's a variation on the poetic refrain from The Catcher in the Rye. Where do the ducks go? How many are out there? What might it encounter along the way?
While there is a yearly bird count conducted every Christmas by amateur bird watchers across the country done in conjunction with The Audubon Society, the Cornell Lab of Ornithology recently released the results of a study that actually go some way towards answering heretofore abstract questions: every fall, as per cloud computing and 143 weather radar stations, four billion birds migrate into the United States from Canada and four billion more head south to the tropics.
"In the spring," the lead author Adriaan Dokter noted, "3.5 billion birds cross back into the U.S. from points south, and 2.6 billion birds return to Canada across the northern U.S. border."
In other words: the birds who went three to four times further than the birds staying in the U.S. faired better than the birds who stayed in the U.S. Why?
Part of the answer could be very well be what you might hear from a conservationist — only with numbers to back it up: the U.S. isn't built for birds. As Ken Rosenberg, the other co-author of the study, notes: "Birds wintering in the U.S. may have more habitat disturbances and more buildings to crash into, and they might not be adapted for that."
The other option is that birds lay more offspring in the U.S. than those who fly south for the winter.
What does observing eight billion birds mean in practice? To give myself a counterpoint to those numbers, I drove out to the Joppa Flats Education Center in Northern Massachusetts. The Center is a building that sits at the entrance to the Parker River National Wildlife Refuge and overlooks the Merrimack River, which is what I climbed the stairs up to the observation deck to see.
Once there, I paused. I took a breath. I listened. I looked out into the distance. Tiny flecks Of Bonaparte's Gulls drew small white lines across the length of the river and the wave of the grass toward a nearby city. What appeared to be flecks of double-crested cormorants made their way to the sea. A telescope downstairs enabled me to watch small gull-like birds make their way along the edges of the river, quietly pecking away at food just beneath the surface of the water. This was the experience of watching maybe half a dozen birds over fifteen-to-twenty minutes, which only served to drive home the scale of birds studied.
Explore how alcohol affects your brain, from the first sip at the bar to life-long drinking habits.
- Alcohol is the world's most popular drug and has been a part of human culture for at least 9,000 years.
- Alcohol's effects on the brain range from temporarily limiting mental activity to sustained brain damage, depending on levels consumed and frequency of use.
- Understanding how alcohol affects your brain can help you determine what drinking habits are best for you.
If you want to know what makes a Canadian lynx a Canadian lynx a team of DNA sequencers has figured that out.
- A team at UMass Amherst recently sequenced the genome of the Canadian lynx.
- It's part of a project intending to sequence the genome of every vertebrate in the world.
- Conservationists interested in the Canadian lynx have a new tool to work with.
If you want to know what makes a Canadian lynx a Canadian lynx, I can now—as of this month—point you directly to the DNA of a Canadian lynx, and say, "That's what makes a lynx a lynx." The genome was sequenced by a team at UMass Amherst, and it's one of 15 animals whose genomes have been sequenced by the Vertebrate Genomes Project, whose stated goal is to sequence the genome of all 66,000 vertebrate species in the world.
Sequencing the genome of a particular species of an animal is important in terms of preserving genetic diversity. Future generations don't necessarily have to worry about our memory of the Canadian Lynx warping the way hearsay warped perception a long time ago.
Artwork: Guillaume le Clerc / Wikimedia Commons
13th-century fantastical depiction of an elephant.
It is easy to see how one can look at 66,000 genomic sequences stored away as being the analogous equivalent of the Svalbard Global Seed Vault. It is a potential tool for future conservationists.
But what are the practicalities of sequencing the genome of a lynx beyond engaging with broad bioethical questions? As the animal's habitat shrinks and Earth warms, the Canadian lynx is demonstrating less genetic diversity. Cross-breeding with bobcats in some portions of the lynx's habitat also represents a challenge to the lynx's genetic makeup. The two themselves are also linked: warming climates could drive Canadian lynxes to cross-breed with bobcats.
John Organ, chief of the U.S. Geological Survey's Cooperative Fish and Wildlife units, said to MassLive that the results of the sequencing "can help us look at land conservation strategies to help maintain lynx on the landscape."
What does DNA have to do with land conservation strategies? Consider the fact that the food found in a landscape, the toxins found in a landscape, or the exposure to drugs can have an impact on genetic activity. That potential change can be transmitted down the generative line. If you know exactly how a lynx's DNA is impacted by something, then the environment they occupy can be fine-tuned to meet the needs of the lynx and any other creature that happens to inhabit that particular portion of the earth.
Given that the Trump administration is considering withdrawing protection for the Canadian lynx, a move that caught scientists by surprise, it is worth having as much information on hand as possible for those who have an interest in preserving the health of this creature—all the way down to the building blocks of a lynx's life.
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