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← Intelligent Design and the cruelty of nature

Richard Dawkins's Avatar Jump to comment 59 by Richard Dawkins

In 1856, three years before the publication of On the Origin of Species, and before he wrote the famous letter to Asa Gray about the Ichneumonidae quote above, Darwin wrote to his friend Hooker:

What a book a Devil's Chaplain might write on the clumsy, wasteful, blundering low and horridly cruel works of nature.

I adopted the phrase A Devil's Chaplain as the title of my book of collected essays and wrote one new essay with the same title, which deals with this whole question. I follow T H Huxley and George C Williams in regarding natural selection as an object lesson in how not to behave and how not to plan human society. Huxley was uncompromising:

Let us understand, once for all, that the ethical progress of society depends, not on imitating the cosmic process, still less in running away from it, but in combating it.

And here is Williams, saying much the same thing a century later:

With what other than condemnation is a person with any moral sense supposed to respond to a system in which the ultimate purpose in life is to be better than your neighbor at getting genes into future generations, in which those successful genes provide the message that instructs the development of the next generation, in which that message is always "exploit your environment, including your friends and relatives, so as to maximise our genes' success", in which the closest thing to a golden rule is "don't cheat unless it is likely to provide a net benefit"?

Bernard Shaw's revulsion actually led to his preferring to believe in a kind of Lamarckian evolution. He said of Darwinian selection:

When its whole significance dawns on you, your heart sinks into a heap of sand within you. There is a hideous fatalism about it, a ghastly and damnable reduction of beauty and intelligence, of strength and purpose, of honor and aspiration.

Shaw fell into the common trap of assuming that because something is unpleasant it cannot be true. Even Darwin tried to mitigate the horror, at the end of his chapter on the Struggle for Existence:

When we reflect on this struggle, we may console ourselves with the full belief, that the war of nature is not incessant, that no fear is felt, that death is generally prompt, and that the vigorous, the healthy, and the happy survive and multiply.

I wish I could believe it. Terrible as it is, I stand by what I wrote in River Out of Eden:

The total amount of suffering per year in the natural world is beyond all decent contemplation. During the minute it takes me to compose this sentence, thousands of animals are being eaten alive, others are running for their lives, whimpering with fear; others are being slowly devoured from within by rasping parasites; thousands of all kinds are dying of starvation, thirst and disease. It must be so. If there is ever a time of plenty, this very fact will automatically lead to an increase in population until the natural state of starvation and misery is restored.

And I ended the chapter in melancholy vein:

The universe we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil and no good, nothing but blind, pitiless indifference. As that unhappy poet A.E.Housman put it:

For Nature, heartless, witless Nature
Will neither care nor know.

DNA neither cares nor knows. And we dance to its music.


Fri, 18 May 2012 10:42:13 UTC | #942157