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Why Darwin matters - Comments

AnthSynthasome's Avatar Comment 1 by AnthSynthasome

Indeed. I do think Hitchen's summary is one of the best - alluding to Darwin as the greatest emancipator.

Fri, 08 Feb 2008 11:01:00 UTC | #117990

AllanW's Avatar Comment 2 by AllanW

This article, like the 'Breaking the Science barrier' videos et al, is why Dawkins is so important in my opinion; he is in a position to, posseses the capabilities to, and has the vision to significantly engage the populace in scientific endeavours and understanding.

Congratulations on another good article.

Fri, 08 Feb 2008 11:06:00 UTC | #117993

Steve Zara's Avatar Comment 3 by Steve Zara

The last paragraph alone is one of the most powerful arguments against theism.

Richard Dawkins has an amazing gift for expressing rich ideas simply. I back what AllanW has posted.

Fri, 08 Feb 2008 11:11:00 UTC | #117996

Aaron's Avatar Comment 4 by Aaron

I think Darwin matters because the theory of evolution gives humans something in common that can unify us all. The fact that we all share a common ancestor and evolved into a social species that relies on evolved morality to perpetuate a peaceful society can be something that we can all know and understand equally. We cannot get that from religion. One believer's god is slightly different than the god of his neighbor and very much more different than the god of his neighboring country. Believers are never on common ground even when they sit in the same church pews.

We have the ability to say morality is not what is deemed by the god of one's choosing but and evolved sense of what benefits individuals by creating a healthy environment in which we and our offspring can survive. We just need to keep saying it...they'll listen eventually.

Fri, 08 Feb 2008 11:14:00 UTC | #117997

Copernic's Avatar Comment 5 by Copernic

Great article.
However, I don't understand the continual caution about using the term "fittest".

The fittest do largely survive and pass on their genes. This is largely Evolution by definition.

Rather than warn against ideas like social darwinism or free-market economies finding themselves in the discussion about evolution, why not better explain what "fittest" means?

Fittest isn't just stronger, faster, sexier, and more fecund. Those who are fittest are always so in the context of their environment which may require organisms to use strategies such as cooperation, symbiosis, reciprical altruism.

I wish he'd stop tapdancing around this topic and expand the definition of "fitness" altogether.

Fri, 08 Feb 2008 11:24:00 UTC | #118002

Geoff's Avatar Comment 6 by Geoff

I don't normally read the Guardian, but I'll be buying tomorrow's edition.

Fri, 08 Feb 2008 11:25:00 UTC | #118003

Aaron's Avatar Comment 7 by Aaron

Copernic,

When most people think of fittest in the context of evolution they think of the fastest cheetah that is more apt to catching and eating animals.

We need to start stressing that in the context of evolution of social animals fit means the best adapted to the society which in part means being moral and good.

I agree with you. Instead of tapdancing around a valid term we need to stress the importance in this other context to give people a better understanding of what it means.

Fri, 08 Feb 2008 11:35:00 UTC | #118004

bitbutter's Avatar Comment 8 by bitbutter

Excellent introduction!

I had a bit of trouble with one passage though:

"If life exists elsewhere in the universe - and my tentative bet is that it does - some version of evolution by natural selection will almost certainly turn out to underlie its existence."

Creationists continually complain that the theory of evolution is invalidated by its failure to explain how life got started. People who understand the theory often reply by saying that the theory is not intended to explain how life got started, but to explain biodiversity--and that all the evidence we have points to the fact that it succeeds in doing so very well.

Here though, Dawkins seems to imply that the theory of evolution has something to say about how life got started. Is it not better to keep these two questions separate?

Fri, 08 Feb 2008 11:47:00 UTC | #118007

D'Arcy's Avatar Comment 9 by D'Arcy

A good article, and I will probably buy tomorrow's (Saturday) Guardian for the freebie. Like Lyell, Hutton and Rev. Buckland in the field of geology, Darwin was a Christian for a significant period of his life. The death of his daughter didn't help reinforce his belief and together with what he and Wallace had discovered (independently), undoubtedly turned him away from his religion. Like Darwin, the early geologists were reluctant to come to conclusions that varied with what was written in the Bible. The empirical observations forced a change of mind upon these people.

IMO Darwin's great discovery was that things have changed, change, and will change in the future, and not in a random manner. "Given enough time" I hope the creationists will come to understand the enormity of Darwin's ideas.

Fri, 08 Feb 2008 11:49:00 UTC | #118008

plastictowel's Avatar Comment 10 by plastictowel

Bitbutter I'd have to politely disagree. I think Dawkins is again saying what all honest Darwinian biologist are saying. ONCE life get's started, it follows Natural Selection. And Dawkins is simply stating that once life get's started on *insert random planet* by whatever natural path leads to such a thing, it will follow a natural selection process on its on unique environment.

Keep in mind he says he "believes" life exist elsewhere. So he isn't saying how or why it came to be elsewhere.

Fri, 08 Feb 2008 12:28:00 UTC | #118025

Styrer-'s Avatar Comment 11 by Styrer-

Here though, Dawkins seems to imply that the theory of evolution has something to say about how life got started. Is it not better to keep these two questions separate?


Your own quote in your post surely indicates that the Prof is not talking about abiogenesis here? Does this quote not answer your own question?

In any case, how wonderful it is to be reminded that the Professor is right at the top of his game.

It's also great to see that he shows that language itself, and not only evolutionary theory, has the power to demonstrate the complex whilst based in the simple. Dawkins' use of language should be compulsory study in language classes around the globe to show the power it can hold.

Great stuff.

Best,
Styrer

Fri, 08 Feb 2008 12:38:00 UTC | #118028

Hippocrates's Avatar Comment 12 by Hippocrates

Bitbutter, the role of natural selection in the process of how life got started is not as irrelevant as you may think. Its effect would start as soon as a self replicating molecule such as nucleic acid would appear.

Now, to imagine how nucleic acid could form under certain physical/chemical conditions is not particularly difficult. Hence, depending on your definition of life, natural selection could well have something to do in the appearance of e.g. the first proto-cellular machinery helping some nucleic acid molecules to replicate faster than their neighbors.

Fri, 08 Feb 2008 12:47:00 UTC | #118031

jeepyjay's Avatar Comment 13 by jeepyjay

Yes, Nice. But I do wish he hadn't said:

And of course there was Social Darwinism, culminating in the obscenity of Hitlerism.


This is just playing into the hands of propagandists who like to link these two subjects. I've never seen anything by Hitler that mentions Darwin. "Might is Right" is just fascism, not socialism of Darwinian or any other form.

Fri, 08 Feb 2008 12:48:00 UTC | #118033

Styrer-'s Avatar Comment 14 by Styrer-

This is just playing into the hands of propagandists who like to link these two subjects. I've never seen anything by Hitler that mentions Darwin. "Might is Right" is just fascism, not socialism of Darwinian or any other form.


Bollocks. Dawkins is doing precisely the opposite to 'playing into the hands of propagandists who like to link these two subjects.' He is attacking their argument at its very roots and saying it is a completely wrong-headed interpretation.

You are wrong to say that Social Darwinism is not a well-known and popularised piece of dogma - refer to http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Social_darwinism if you're not convinced.

It's out there, and the Prof's reference to it is essential in an attempt to refute its claims.

Best,
Styrer

Fri, 08 Feb 2008 13:01:00 UTC | #118036

pedlar's Avatar Comment 15 by pedlar

I’m afraid this short paragraph:

Maybe the "fittest" firms survive in the marketplace of commerce, or the fittest theories survive in the scientific marketplace, but we should at very least be cautious before we get carried away. And of course there was Social Darwinism, culminating in the obscenity of Hitlerism.


just screams “quotemine”. Expect to see bastardised versions of it on the ID blogs any day now. Like a couple of earlier commenters - and like Charles Darwin himself - I am not happy with the Spencerian connotations of the word ‘fittest’. I wish the great man had listened to his instincts and avoided it.

At its simplest natural selection is merely an unarguable tautology: those organisms best at producing the most offspring, produce the most offspring. (Or, in post-Darwinian terms - those best at passing on their genes, pass on their genes.) Phrasing it in that unthreatening way can get you quite deep into enemy territory before they even realise they’re under attack.

Fri, 08 Feb 2008 13:04:00 UTC | #118037

SilentMike's Avatar Comment 16 by SilentMike

Great piece. One remark though.

Although Most of the "interesting stuff" happens within species it would be inaccurate to assert -if I remember "The Blind Watchmaker" correctly- that species selection is not something that happens and has an effect at all. This could be understood from reading this piece, and is not strictly true. I think one should be careful not to overstate one's point so as not to have one common misconception replaced by another. Clearly species selection can and does happen (some species end up in blind alleys and die off, others manage to find a path that leads to survival), although complexity itself evolves within a species.

Fri, 08 Feb 2008 13:08:00 UTC | #118038

jimbob's Avatar Comment 17 by jimbob

There remain deep questions, in physics and cosmology, that await their Darwin. Why are the laws of physics the way they are? Why are there laws at all? Why is there a universe at all? Once again, the lure of "design" is tempting. But we have the cautionary tale of Darwin before us. We've been through all that before. Darwin emboldens us - difficult as it is - to seek genuine explanations: explanations that explain more than they postulate.


Darwin himself took some time to think about how his discoveries changed his personal views of religion. It was not until 1958 that the process of his change became known, because, until then, the relevant parts of his autobiography had been censored by his family.

On p. 78 of the 1958 biography he recounts how his confidence in the idea of god:

"....has very gradually with many fluctuations become weaker."

With regard to the difficulty people have in shrugging off their religious indoctrination (my words, not his) he went on to observe:

"Nor must we overlook the probability of the constant inculcation in a belief in God on the minds of children producing so strong and perhaps an inherited effect on their brains not yet fully developed, that it would be as difficult for them to throw off their belief in God, as for a monkey to throw off its instinctive fear of a snake." (pp. 77-78).

Now that's a quote worth sharing on his birthday!

Fri, 08 Feb 2008 13:20:00 UTC | #118039

Styrer-'s Avatar Comment 18 by Styrer-

just screams �quot;quotemine”. Expect to see bastardised versions of it on the ID blogs any day now. Like a couple of earlier commenters - and like Charles Darwin himself - I am not happy with the Spencerian connotations of the word ‘fittest’. I wish the great man had listened to his instincts and avoided it.

At its simplest natural selection is merely an unarguable tautology: those organisms best at producing the most offspring, produce the most offspring. (Or, in post-Darwinian terms - those best at passing on their genes, pass on their genes.) Phrasing it in that unthreatening way can get you quite deep into enemy territory before they even realise they’re under attack.


I could not disagree more with your 'back off, don't say it as it is for fear of offending or being quotemined' approach.

Perhaps you would like to elaborate on your criticism of Dawkins' words by supplying us all with a list of words we can use/avoid?

No. Your approach will never eliminate those disingenuous individuals on blogs you seem to fear simply by using different terminology.

Full marks to Dawkins for his unflinching and nigh-on heroic insistence on using words just as they are meant to be used.

Your fearful and cowardly response to Dawkins' precise and felicitous use of certain words does not do you, Dawkins and his ideas, or this site, any justice whatsoever.

Best,
Styrer

Fri, 08 Feb 2008 13:23:00 UTC | #118040

Big City's Avatar Comment 19 by Big City

I hate to agree with Styrer[notable edit], but in this case I do agree that it is best to address the issue. This is why we look to humanism for morality and not to an observation about nature.

Fri, 08 Feb 2008 13:37:00 UTC | #118043

D'Arcy's Avatar Comment 20 by D'Arcy

"Nor must we overlook the probability of the constant inculcation in a belief in God on the minds of children producing so strong and perhaps an inherited effect on their brains not yet fully developed, that it would be as difficult for them to throw off their belief in God, as for a monkey to throw off its instinctive fear of a snake." (pp. 77-78).


jimbob, what a great quote! Not only do we have the cultural indoctrination of children into belief, but also the "instinctive fear of the snake". Eve should really have been better primed to resist!

Fri, 08 Feb 2008 13:51:00 UTC | #118047

Styrer-'s Avatar Comment 21 by Styrer-

19. Comment #124149 by Big City on February 8, 2008 at 1:37 pm

I hate to agree with Styrer (cos more often than not he's a pretentious douchebag), but in this case I do agree that it is best to address the issue. This is why we look to humanism for morality and not to an observation about nature.


Big City

Pretentious? Moi-meme, monsieur?

Pray elucidate the thesis of your proposition with alacrity, sir.

Seriously, why pretentious, and why a douchebag? If you disagree with me, speak up! Tell me why I'm being such a wanker, when you think it. I don't want to be the High Twat of the site, so I'll welcome your comments, even if I don't finally agree.

Fair?

Surely your agreement with the idea that Dawkins is using words precisely as they should be used is more central here, in any case.

It is when the Prof uses his well-earned public prominence to communicate with the masses as he does here that I think there may be a chance for superstitious supernaturalism to be delivered a blow which the likes of you, Big City, and I are unable to do.

Certainly the Prof does not give me 'faith'; but he does bring me hope. Long may he continue to do so through his words, without so-called adherents of rationality ceding, all too often, possible ground to the pro-supernaturalists by cowardly backing off from the words, properly used by the Professor, we need to refute their pernicious and irrational propositions.

Best,
Styrer

Fri, 08 Feb 2008 14:50:00 UTC | #118058

krisking's Avatar Comment 22 by krisking

"Nor must we overlook the probability of the constant inculcation in a belief in God on the minds of children producing so strong and perhaps an inherited effect on their brains not yet fully developed, that it would be as difficult for them to throw off their belief in God, as for a monkey to throw off its instinctive fear of a snake." (pp. 77-78).


Is this a quote from Dawkin's writings? If so, I find it astounding that he can make such a statement, given that he himself was brought up in christian church-going family, and claims to have had a personal religious conversion/experience as a teenager. How difficult was it for him to shake off his inculcated beliefs?

Fri, 08 Feb 2008 15:14:00 UTC | #118064

Steve Zara's Avatar Comment 23 by Steve Zara

How difficult was it for him to shake off his inculcated beliefs?


There is evidence for snakes in the world. There is no evidence for gods.

Fri, 08 Feb 2008 15:19:00 UTC | #118069

Frankus1122's Avatar Comment 24 by Frankus1122

Richard Dawkins has an amazing gift for expressing rich ideas simply.

The empirical observations forced a change of mind upon these people.

"Given enough time" I hope the creationists will come to understand the enormity of Darwin's ideas.


Education is key. The message needs to be told again and again. There is an astonishing amount of ignorance in the world regarding basic science. The "Break the Science Barrier" video amply demonstrates this and is a good antidote to the ignorance. As is this article.

Even God thinks Darwin matters:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UaZDcS-rMf4

Note the book he is reading in the opening shot.

Fri, 08 Feb 2008 15:32:00 UTC | #118073

Teratornis's Avatar Comment 25 by Teratornis

In reply to comment #124102 by Aaron:


I think Darwin matters because the theory of evolution gives humans something in common that can unify us all. The fact that we all share a common ancestor and evolved into a social species that relies on evolved morality to perpetuate a peaceful society can be something that we can all know and understand equally. We cannot get that from religion. One believer's god is slightly different than the god of his neighbor and very much more different than the god of his neighboring country. Believers are never on common ground even when they sit in the same church pews.


In the good old days, religious people could find plenty of common ground by gathering to burn witches and heretics. The age-old formula for uniting people is to give them a common enemy.

Lions and zebras share a common ancestor, and they share common ground, but they hardly share common goals. Their common ancestry "unifies" them, to be sure, but not in a way that might comfort the zebra being torn limb from limb by hungry lions.

Thus I would not be too quick to assume Darwinism must inevitably and thoroughly support any particular social commentary or agenda, no matter how laudable or trendy.

Evolution by mutation and natural selection is one of the most monstrously cruel design methods anyone could cook up. The main source of inefficiency is the need to kill an entire organism just to weed out a single gene.

Consider just one example: the number of female hominids who had to die agonizing deaths in childbirth, to select for genetic mutations that allowed the female pelvis to widen in lockstep with the enlarging hominid brain. In most other mammal species, deaths during childbirth are quite rare; but among humans they are routine in the absence of modern medicine. If we leave it up to evolution, billions more women will have to die to get hips to catch up with skulls. That's assuming skulls stop enlarging.

I think evolution teaches us that if any sort of God is responsible for setting the whole process in motion, then we understand this God to be cruel beyond our comprehension.

At best we can say evolution created us to view the process of evolution itself as monstrously cruel and in need of improvement. (Perhaps we could just as easily have turned out to find cruelty appealing; a few sociopaths certainly do.) We might, for example, learn to take over our own evolution by applying selection directly at the level of the gene, instead of by killing entire individuals.

Fri, 08 Feb 2008 15:37:00 UTC | #118074

Cartomancer's Avatar Comment 26 by Cartomancer

I see that "Darwin" and "Dawkins" have now become one and the same person according to krisking here. Maybe in a couple of thousand years' time we'll all be talking about the biological works of the prodigiously long-lived Charles-Richard Darkins, and radical revisionist historians will be shouted down for trying to suggest that he was actually two different people.

Fri, 08 Feb 2008 15:39:00 UTC | #118075

Styrer-'s Avatar Comment 27 by Styrer-

I see that "Darwin" and "Dawkins" have now become one and the same person according to krisking here. Maybe in a couple of thousand years' time we'll all be talking about the biological works of the prodigiously long-lived Charles-Richard Darkins, and radical revisionist historians will be shouted down for trying to suggest that he was actually two different people.


Well spotted, Cartomancer.

I've just aborted my own comment in this regard. Yours is far funnier, in any case. :)

Best,
Styrer

Fri, 08 Feb 2008 15:51:00 UTC | #118076

Aaron's Avatar Comment 28 by Aaron

Teratornis,

Although zebras and lions share a common ancestor they haven't evolved to rely on each other's cooperation in society. We have. There's the difference.

Fri, 08 Feb 2008 15:58:00 UTC | #118078

DamnDirtyApe's Avatar Comment 29 by DamnDirtyApe

Hee hee. That's an amusing point Cartomancer. I'm totally picturing a bizarre future situation where people in the future believe Stephen Dawkins went to the Galapagos in his hover-wheelchair and discovered evolution despite his crippling disease.

Hopefully the future won't be that stupid...

Fri, 08 Feb 2008 15:59:00 UTC | #118079

SPS's Avatar Comment 30 by SPS

Darwin matters because he helped save us from ourselves...and because he can really pull off that hat.

Fri, 08 Feb 2008 16:10:00 UTC | #118082