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Are there parallels between the "moment of insight" in science and the emergence of the "unknowable" in religious faith? Where does scientific insight come from? Award-winning biologist Robert Pollack argues that an alliance between religious faith and science is not necessarily an argument in favor of irrationality: the two can inform each other's visions of the world.
Pollack begins by reflecting on the large questions of meaning and purpose — and the difficulty of finding either in the orderly world described by the data of science. He considers the obligation to find meaning and purpose despite natural selection's claim to be a complete explanation of our presence as a species — a claim that calls upon neither natural intention, nor design, nor Designer. Next, the book focuses on matters of free will, from the choice of a scientist to accept evidence, to the choice of a religious person to accept a revelation, to a patient's loss of free will in medical treatment. Here Pollack addresses questions of ethics and offers a provocative comparison of two difficult texts whose contents remain incompletely understood: the DNA "text" of the human genome and the Hebrew record of Jewish written and oral law. In closing, Pollack considers the promise of genetic medicine in enabling us to glimpse our own future and offers a reconsideration of the possible utility of the so-called placebo effect in curing illness.
Whether refuting a DNA-based biological model of Judaism or discussing the Darwinian concept of the species, Pollack, under the banner of free inquiry, presents a genuine, vital, and well-argued assay of the intersection of science and religion.
Columbia University Press
Pollack, distinguished as a clear persuasive writer on the biological sciences, makes a challenging entry into the developing academic field of science and religion with The Faith of Biology and the Biology of Faith. His mix of cutting-edge life science and open-minded Judaic exploration is original, meaty, and moving.
— Sandee Brawarsky
Pollack lucidly explores the interface between science and religion, and thoughtfully discusses the bioethical issues that loom large as the twenty-first century begins. Drawing on his own faith and his work in molecular biology, he highlights striking parallels between the seemingly disparate practices of science and Torah study.
Pollack's short book is a thoughtful addition to current efforts to integrate the messages of objective science and subjective spirituality.
Pollack's book is enigmatic and provocative... [He] argues for the value of religious or spiritual insights in making decisions about DNA research and other aspects of medical biology... [and] shows that good medicine is as much a religious as well as a scientific exercise.
Pollack writes gracefully, and is able to make science, in particular, molecular biology, accessible to the layman. His approach is original and provocative, as he brings emotions and religious experience to the scientific discourse.
— Sandee Brawarsky
A thought-provoking and refreshingly good read.
Order Versus Meaning:
Science and Religion
Science is meaningless because it gives no answer to our question, the only question important for us: what shall we do and how shall we do it?
—Leo Tolstoy, quoted in Lewis Wolpert,
The Unnatural Nature of Science
The seal of Columbia College—subsequently Columbia University—is almost a quarter of a millennium old. It personifies all of us, faculty and students alike, as naked babies. Seated before us is the ideal Teacher, the spiritual mother of us all, Alma Mater, arms out, scepter of wisdom in her hand. Below her is a reference to chapter 2 of the first Epistle of Peter: "Wherefore laying aside all malice, and all guile, and hypocrisies, and envies and all evil speakings / As new born babes, desire the sincere milk of the word, that ye may grow thereby." Around her shoulders is a fragment of a line in Latin from the Hebrew Scriptures, psalm 36, line 10: "By Your light do we see light." Together these Biblical references are a brilliant and poetic evocation of the acts of teaching and learning.
I have been saying the words of the psalm in Hebrew every day for a few years, since I found myself convinced of the need to accept the Jewish obligation—kept by my ancestors for thousands of years—to say traditional prayers every morning. I had become accustomed enough to the Hebrew some time ago to think about what I was saying as I said it. One morning it came to me with great force thattheLatin of the seal's psalm was an edited version of the psalmist's intention. From the prayer I saw that the full line is "With You is the fountain of life; by Your light do we see light." And when I went back to look at the seal embedded at the threshold of Low Memorial Library, there indeed was the Hebrew for "Light of God" on a scroll in the Teacher's hand.
I wish I knew who designed our seal, and when, and why we leave out the first premise—that there is an unknowable Deity at the source of everything to be taught and everything to be learned, that everything known to be, and everything yet to be known, is surrounded by the Unknowable.
The Known, the Unknown, and the Unknowable
This book is about the boundary of the knowable and the unknowable. Science works at the boundary of the known and the unknown, a different place entirely. The unknowable as a notion does not come easily to the scientifically minded. Dealing with it is a project full of paradox, requiring that one talk about the unutterable and anatomize the unmeasurable. I chose to work at this new boundary, nevertheless, because I have the habits of thought of a scientist. As soon as the notion of the unknowable as distinct from the unknown placed itself before me, the shock changed both my career and the way I see the world. The unknown was the raw material of my career, and the notion that it might be bounded in this way seemed to me deeply subversive of the entire enterprise.
My first reaction was as a scientist: I kept this idea to myself and went on about my business as a laboratory director while I thought about how it might be put to a test of some sort. But then, like the spotted Dalmatian who leaps to run after any truck that sounds like a fire engine, my training—begun as a physics major in Columbia College—eventually obliged me to grab onto what was most interesting rather than what was expedient, to try to understand the notion of the unknowable in all its untestability, and to make what I could understand about the unknowable understandable to others in turn. That is what I have wished to do in this book, as I would have done for the data of my laboratory if that is where my curiosity had led me instead.
Science proceeds by the testing of hypotheses, but because a hypothesis that can stand up to testing expands the territory of the known, scientific hypotheses about the unknowable are not meaningful. Put another way, it is not worth a moment of anyone's time to seek the proof through science of any religious belief. And as this book is about the consequences of potential unknowability—a notion as foreign to many reasonable nonscientists as it is to the scientific method—I needed first to provide some working terminology for the unknowable, without calling upon the tools of scientific hypothesis testing.
Insight, Revelation, and the Unknowable
Ask any scientist what lies at the core of her work, you will learn that it is not the experimental test of the hypothesis—although that is where most of the time and money in science go. It is the idea, the mechanism, the insight that justifies all the rest of the work of science. The moment of insight that reveals the new idea, where an instant before there was just fog, is the moment when the unknown first retreats before the creativity of the scientist. Here, then, is the first door into the unknowable: where does scientific insight come from? Surely from someplace currently unknown. Let us consider the possibility that scientific insight, like religious revelation, comes from an intrinsically unknowable place.
It is a safe bet that working scientists would agree to the notion that there is a lot we don't know yet, and that the boundary between the known and unknown that science pushes back is the shoreline of a small island floating in a vast sea of the unknown. Let us say—make the further hypotheses—that the sea of the unknown is not the edge of everything, and that the unknown itself is wholly bounded, blurring into an intrinsically inaccessible and immeasurable unknowability. Then science would still be increasing the territory available to the world of the understood. As the length and complexity of the shoreline with the unknown grew in step with every discovery, there would still be no edge to the unknown except the unknowable. The enterprise of science would be assured of a limitless future of successes, none of them ever bringing the unknowable any closer.
Can these hypotheses—that the unknowable exists, and that it will remain unknowable—be tested through the methods of science? Probably not, as they posit notions that resist testability. But they are nevertheless a fair representation of worldwide human experience outside science. It will be my first task to make the case that they are, as well, consistent with the actual experience of scientists, if not the institutional ideology of organized science. I hope then to demonstrate that, at least for the life sciences I am most familiar with, there is a way to practice the enterprise while also acknowledging that the shoreline may be remodeled but that in the end the sea is not drainable.
I can anticipate the response of many to what I have said so far: to beg the question. The unknowable is not a category that gives itself easily to demonstration of its existence. If it were a mental quirk only, a fantasy not worth worrying about, an idea of something that cannot be, then that would be a sufficient answer: No unknowable, no problem. The problem with that glib answer is that science itself depends on the periodic emergence of the unknowable for its own progress.
There is no way to think through a good idea in advance; insight is not a phenomenon subject to prior scientific analysis. At every instant of insight, every moment of Aha! what had not been conceivable becomes clear. Where was the idea before it was thought? Only afterward, once it was thought, can science begin the determination of the known from the unknown, using the idea as a guide. But before it was thought there were no tasks, there was no path, no idea that a question even existed to be asked.
The unknowable is worth a scientist's attention if for no other reason than that it is the source of insight, the irrational part of science that has no chance of being brought under rational control. Moments of insight in science are not reproducible, neither is their occurrence modeled by any hypothesis of its own. As scientific insight cannot be harnessed to the engine of experimental testing, each occurrence may as well be a gift from an unknowable source. Good ideas emerge in the mind of a scientist as gifts of the unknowable. They are not, as data are, simply trophies of a struggle with the unknown.
Insight Is No More Reproducible Than Revelation
The essence of the measurable is reproducibility; insight is by definition not a reproducible thing. Recall how few such ideas have come to any of us in the hundreds of years we have been trying to understand the world and ourselves through science. Yet without moments of insight that emerge from nowhere, science bogs down in mindless repetition of acts that look serious but cannot be in the service of anything except confirmation of what is already known.
Scientific insight is not the only example of such a gift from the unknowable. Other events—also occurring rarely, inexplicably, unpredictably—can give meaning to our lives, just as scientific insights can explain the world outside ourselves. By meaning, in this context, I mean a new understanding drawn from the internal emotional content of the experience, not the intellectual understanding that may follow as it does when experimentation proves a scientific insight to be useful. Meaning, purpose, teleology, the end of things: these are not notions that we naturally associate with science. Such experiences are commonly called religious.
Yet the central event in science—the sudden insight through which we see clearly to a corner of what had been unknown—is so similar to these religious experiences that I see only a semantic difference between scientific insight and what is called, in religious terms, revelation. That difference remains small, whether one says that insight or revelation both come from nowhere interesting, or that they come from the unknowable that surrounds all that can be known, or that they come from God.
The differences between science and religion that have crystallized and reified into a wall separating the two do not lie in the semantic difference between insight and revelation. Whether prepared for or not, prophetic experiences and scientific insights will occur with similar rarity, irrationality, and unpredictability. The real differences grow from the different uses made of scientific and revelatory insight. In both insight takes the form of a vision of an invisible and hidden mechanism. In science such insights are made into guides for learning how nature works, thereby reducing our ignorance of the world around us. Guiding the formation of religious obligation, revelatory insights are prerequisite to the rituals and observances of a religion, which ease the burden of living by lifting a felt ignorance of the purpose and meaning of our mortal lives.
In all organized religions I am aware of, revelation takes the form of a sense of being overwhelmed by sheer feeling arising within without reason nor cause. Just as a scientist prepares for insight by deep immersion in the study of what has been dragged out of the unknown by her predecessors, a person adept at religious insight—a holy person, a prophetic person—may prepare by study of earlier revelation and prophecy, and by trying to be alert to the moral or lesson taught through what might be—to an unfeeling observer—just a coincidence.
Although both science and religion presume that the territory of the unknown is vast, most religions are far more comfortable with the notion of a residue of unknowability than are most sciences. Many practicing scientists instead believe—they would say they know—that what is not known today must and will be known tomorrow, or the next day, and that this will go on until everything is known.
The notion that nothing exists except what is knowable is wholly unprovable. Holding on to this belief in the absence of any way to test it through experimentation, and despite the counterevidence of scientific insight itself, puts science at the risk of being trapped in dogma. Like the worst of religious dogmas, the insistence that everything is knowable is an unprovable position assumed in the face of the evidence of the natural world. In this case the evidence includes the fact of uncontrollable insight as the wellspring of scientific discovery.
Scientists will argue that the reproducibility of scientific experiments assures that science as an enterprise can always be brought to internal consistency, while religions, free to call upon individual revelation and unreproducible miraculous events, necessarily fall into contradiction with one another and thereby cancel any reason for a sensible person to take any of them as seriously. In a negative template of this position many people of faith will argue that science is a fragmented enterprise unable to paint a coherent picture of the natural world, limited by conflicting and inconsistent models and the finite limits of a mortal mind.
Whereas many scientists cannot really accept that anyone could believe in a way around mortality, and though many religious persons cannot really believe that any serious person could fail to experience those feelings, some people—I am one of them—choose to carry both sets of thoughts at once. From the point of view of a scientist who is also a religious person—or of anyone else willing to allow the irrational portion of his life to be admitted to the discourse—religions respond to a small number of universally felt human experiences, the most easily recognized across all cultural boundaries being the obsessive need to somehow come to terms with the rational vacuity of one's own mortality and the recurring need to vest one's life with a meaning that transcends it.
Accepting the Irrational in Science and Religion
In my book The Missing Moment I concluded that current scientific studies of the brain and the mind require us to acknowledge that science has an irrational component, and that scientists are likely to experience this irrationality as the same waves of awe, joy, fear, or wonder that can overtake a religious person or even the "oceanic experience" of a shared, external, unknowable presence that Freud protested too much he could not feel.
The barrier erected by scientists who push aside, deny, or ignore these irrational states of mind is an artificial unnecessary one, built on denial of the reality that their own work depends upon uncontrollable and unpredictable moments of insight. The same artificial barrier is maintained from the other side with equal futility each time the resultant discoveries of science are denied, ignored, or pushed aside by people anxious to protect the same irrational states of mind so precious to them in their religious faith.
To dismantle the wall from both sides, both camps will have to admit what they must already know: the reality of irrational inward experience. They will have to acknowledge it as the source of the unexpected and unpredictable insight upon which both organized science and organized religion depend. Such admissions will not come easily. Characters like me are not at all used to putting religious feelings in the foreground and, rather, have the habit of pushing our feelings away, repressing them into unconscious reservoirs from which they may emerge but where they do not interfere with the dream of lucid rationality.
This makes speaking about religious feelings in an academic setting particularly tricky. Scientists and others who use their powers of repression to avoid accepting the reality of religious feeling, or even its origin the natural world, tend to have great difficulty accounting for such feelings even in themselves. Not just moments of insight and revelation but other feelings as well—emotional states that overtake one, unbidden and unplanned by conscious rational anticipation—seem to be a different order of phenomena than those easily studied under reproducible conditions. It is extremely difficult to do a controlled experiment on feelings.
In terms of the expected behavior of scientists, strong feelings as such are also in bad taste. Data have to be examined in terms of the model they test, and models as well as data have to be able to stand on their own in the eyes of other scientists. This situation too has its mirror image in organized religion, where a spontaneous feeling of disbelief or doubt in the face of incomprehensible evil or simple bad luck may not be easily squared with the presumption that we are moral beings in a moral universe. Neither can all the unwanted strong feelings associated with love, aggression, or, of course, death be fitted into most religious frameworks of expected right conduct. Too much doubt is as much in bad taste from a religious person as too much enthusiasm from an overeager experimenter.
The Avoidable Risk of Dogma
While insight and prophecy may both visit a single person, neither organized science nor organized religion expect each of their members to share in the prophetic experience. Rather, each transmits the gifts of its most insightful leaders. As those of us in a university know better than most, teaching is a human interaction rich in emotion, and therefore subject to abuse. The abuse of the teaching function takes the same form in both organized science and organized religion: what begins as the fully engaged experience of meaning can be compressed, through unfeeling teachers, into flat cold dogma. All religions have their dogmas, and so do all the sciences. Dogma always takes the same form: do not ask, just memorize; do not feel, just do.
Perhaps the most cogent reason to seek a reengagement of science and religion is that each can help the other to shed dogma that constrains their adherents, freeing each scientist and each person of faith so that they may be available for their own rare but precious moments of revelatory, insightful understanding. If that seems too ambitious an enterprise, it is because one has forgotten the great harm that can come from unchecked dogma coupled with even a slight excess of aggression. The usual failure of dogmatism is self-inflicted ignorance, but there is a pathological variant that insists on teaching ignorance to others, or making others pay for one's own willful denial of an aspect of the world.
As Thomas Cahill writes in the introduction to his problematic book on Judaism from a Christian point of view, The Gifts of the Jews,
The teacher ... is ... someone who attempts to re-create the subject in the student's mind, and his strategy in doing this is first of all to get the student to recognize what he potentially knows, which includes breaking up the powers of repression in his mind that keep him from knowing what he knows.... Why are belief and disbelief, as ordinarily understood, so often and so intensely anxious and insecure? The immediate answer is that they are closely connected with the powers of repression I referred to earlier as being the teacher's first point of attack.
Dogma is unlikely to be a part of any serious science, nor of any serious religion. As dogma is the enemy of insight, it is as well the enemy of both scientific progress and religious revelation. The front page of the New York Times of August 12, 1999, provided a clear example of the consequences of pathological dogmatism. Two articles that day seemed unconnected except by coincidence, but together they taught an important lesson. The lead on the right side read "Board for Kansas Deletes Evolution from Curriculum: A Creationist Victory." The lead on the left read "Man with a Past of Racial Hate Surrenders in Day Camp Attack." I doubt that this man had any notion of evolution—for or against—when he "issued his message to America by killing Jews," nor do I imagine the Kansas Board of Education had any differences between Jewish and Christian children in mind when it removed from them all any reward for learning about evolution and the central value that natural selection places on the uniqueness of each person and the subsequent diversity of our species. Nevertheless, both articles were about just those dogmatic matters. In both cases dogma had had the power to deny aspects of our common ancestry and, in so doing, to override the revelatory insights of both science and religion.
Natural Selection Without Dogma
Free of the dogmas of both science and religion, any curious and self-aware person should also be able to know clearly the facts of nature through science and to feel clearly the meanings and purposes of those facts through religion. But, for me, this has not been so easy. I find it particularly difficult, for instance, to connect my place in the universe and my reason for being here with certain facts uncovered by my scientific colleagues. The molecular biology of evolution, in particular, has uncovered facts about me and the rest of us through the experimental testing of scientific insights that fit badly, if at all, into my religion's revelation of meaning.
Since Darwin wrote On the Origin of Species 150 years ago it has been a strong fact of my own science that the tens of millions of kinds of living things that seem to breed true over time—we call them species—share a common ancestry. Out of this fact of common descent comes the unlikely notion of a species having a finite lifetime. Species are not the stable entities they seem to be; each collection of slightly different individuals capable of producing fertile offspring, despite their differences, is transient. As the variants in each species jostle with each other for food, space, and a fighting chance for their offspring, some will survive and others not; in time species will change as a result. Eventually—a species' lifetime that can run for many millions of years or can be much shorter—it will either die off as it is pushed aside by other species invading its ecological territory or be supplanted in that territory by a new species emerging from a minority of its members.
The two notions of common descent and species mortality were well laid out by Darwin and confirmed by others immediately thereafter, but it took one more century for another unintuitive insight to complete today's scientific understanding of the origin of species: the fact that inherited changes in a chemical called DNA could accomplish much of what the Darwinian ideas of common descent and origin of species required.
DNA, assembled in long, informationally rich threads called chromosomes, forms the genome of a species. A genome carries all the information necessary for the construction of each organism in a species; organisms in a species vary from one to the next because their genomes vary. Each of us carries our version of the human genome in each of our million billion cells. Each of us—and each individual in every species—becomes slightly different from the others because the copying of a DNA genome from generation to generation is never error free.
When error generates new sequences of DNA that happen to encode enhanced survivability in a species' offspring, a new fertile population may emerge from an existing species. In time it may become a new species, replacing its parent; species themselves are thus no different from the individuals that make them up: like individuals, species are born, live, and die. That is why either replacement or simple disappearance is the certain fate of all species, including our own. These facts from science tell us, in other words, that our species—with all our appreciation of ourselves as unique individuals—is not the creation of design but the result of accumulated errors.
The Imperfectability of the Living World
The scientific confidence in these facts about our own origins and our own eventual fate is buttressed by other, equally well-documented facts about DNA-based life on Earth. In earlier times there were no humans, and in even earlier times there were no mammals, nor vertebrates, nor any organism bigger than a single cell. From those earliest times until now, all that we might want to think of as progress has been simply the selection of one subset of DNA sequences or another from a constantly refreshing pool of copying errors. We can be fairly certain that replacement or death will be the fate of all humanity as a species, just as death is the certain fate of every person.
The methods and strategies of science have thus brilliantly succeeded in explaining how we got here and where we are going next, and the explanation seems to leave absolutely no room for meaning or purpose. A mutation just happens to land in the sperm or egg that will make one individual and not another; no design to its occurrence is either necessary nor even demonstrable. This most successfully defended null hypothesis of science has been so amply confirmed that there is no longer any reason to doubt it.
The living world, ourselves included, is intrinsically imperfect and intrinsically unperfectable. It changes, but even the changes that make each of us individually unique and interesting to each other are meaningless differences in DNA, creating the differences among us toward no purpose beyond the possible improvement in survival of one or another particular version of DNA over time. Even that imputation of purpose to the data may be unjustifiably teleological.
I am not exaggerating the seriousness of this problem: scientific insight into the meaninglessness of DNA-based life is not simply missing meaning. It is the demonstration that a satisfactory, even elegant explanation of the workings of this aspect of nature actually conflicts with the assumption of purpose and meaning. There is neither the need, nor any sign, of an unknowable designer in these data, nor any sign that greater meaning and purpose will one day be drawn from these data.
Honest scientists know their limits. Newton excused himself from the task of finding meaning in his discovery of the laws that govern the movement of stars and planets by saying, "I have not been able to deduce from phenomena the reason of these properties and I do not feign hypotheses." Unless we force science to do just what Newton did not deign to do and simply articulate our wishes as if they were in the data, though they are not, we must accept the meaninglessness and purposelessness of our presence on Earth as the verdict of testable science.
Yet you may, as I do, find it impossible to understand your place in the universe on these facts alone, and find yourselves asserting with me the irrational certainty that there must be meaning and purpose to one's life despite these data. With those assertions we can begin to take down that wall, by asserting as well that the irrational certainty meaning exists—based not on data but on emotional necessity—is itself a data point about the living world that can and must also be understood. Many scientists do not agree with any of these assertions, a personal choice they are certainly entitled to. Such a data-free choice, as irrational as any of mine, is not a problem so long as it is not illegitimately given the weight of a further fact of science. As is any act of free will, their choice is no different in its emotional inward origins than my own, except that theirs does not allow for any further discussion.
Denying the Unknowable
Steven J. Gould of Harvard University and Natural History magazine is a lucid writer and a very serious student of evolution, so it was all the more remarkable to see him choose to refuse to accept the parity of unbidden religious revelation and unbidden scientific insight in a surprisingly conflicted 1999 editorial essay for Science magazine. Taking on the task of helping scientists to make the facts of evolution palatable to religious people, Gould seemed at first to agree that the acquisition of meaning and purpose through inward and emotional religious experience is real even for scientists: "Factual nature cannot in principle answer the deep questions about ethics and meaning that all people of substance must resolve for themselves. When we stop demanding more than nature can logically provide ... we liberate ourselves to look within."
Clearly, then, he has agreed that questions of meaning—like my question of how to make sense of my own life in a world brought about by natural selection—can be answered only by "looking within," and that answers cannot be had for questions like these from any corner of science. But Gould does not follow the concessions of his heart. Instead he reverses course and ends his essay with a paean to the facts of evolution. He accepts our evolved brains and bodies as real, but rejects some of the equally real feelings generated within these evolved brains and bodies—such as the certainty of a transcendent purpose in the face of all evidence against it—as meaningless, parochial, wordplay: "Let us praise [evolution]—a far more stately mansion for the human soul than any pretty or parochial comfort ever conjured by our swollen neurology to obscure the source of our physical being, or to deny the natural substrate for our separate and complementary spiritual quest."
For a religious person, to "look within" is to look to one's feelings for the knowable signs of intention and meaning, regardless of the unknowability of their source. Such a conviction is not properly addressed as a "pretty or parochial comfort." The notion that the Unknowable must not exist if evolution does is not pretty, but it is parochial insofar as it lets the facts of evolution set the terms of what we can feel as well as what we can know.
The parochialism of science is to erect this barrier against thoughts and feelings that are not rational, so that what we cannot rationally understand is not allowed to exist. Perhaps the real "trick of swollen neurology" is Gould's trick of raising this barrier against a significant aspect of that neurology's output, even as he appears to be completely open-minded.
Gould, a fastidious scientist and the preeminent popularizer of the evidence for natural selection and evolution, had staked out a simpler position earlier, that science and religion have little or nothing to say to each other. He argued then that the sciences, which deal with what can be known through direct experience of the world, and the religions, which deal with what can be known by direct experience of inner feelings, are so completely separate as to be distinct and independent magisteria, with no point of contact.
That seems to me less heated but no more fair. His recent editorial in Science suggests that Gould has perhaps come to agree that the surface of contact between science and religion touches not only the common experience of revelatory insight but also a larger set of shared feelings. These feelings too are data points consistent with the notion that the meaning and purpose of the natural world can—some would say must—extend beyond a description of its workings.
Accepting Meaningless: Religion as a Parasitic Meme
Richard Dawkins of Oxford is the inheritor of Huxley's mantle —pulpit—as the current expert on natural selection who best articulates a vision of science that would abolish all religious insight and reduce all irrational certainty of purpose and meaning to meaninglessness. A quarter-century ago his landmark book The Selfish Gene set out the case for a science—and a world—free of all unknowability, and so also free of all meaning beyond its own orderliness, whether from religious impulse or from any other spontaneous modulator of free will. It took him only three steps. Whether you see it as a tour de force or catastrophe, it is worth attending to his line of argument.
First, he lays out the great and polished set of data confirming the basic premises of Darwinian natural selection: that no ideal form exists for any species, that each individual of every species differs slightly from all the rest, that whenever any of these differences leads to even the smallest increment of possibility that its progeny will survive and be fertile in turn, the variant's DNA will prosper at the expense of other versions of the species' genome, and that therefore all living things including ourselves are simply survival machines.
Next he argues that we too must all be Dawkins survival machines, thinking we have free will but actually—no matter what we may think or feel—devoid of any other purpose but to survive, gifted with no other special attributes but a set of variant DNA sequences compatible with differential survival, and as certain as any other species eventually to be overtaken and supplanted. Among these DNA sequences must be ones that give us the ability to teach and learn through the full use of language; these have undoubtedly conferred on our species a major portion of the additional survival capacity that has helped us to surge upward in numbers by a thousandfold in only the last ten thousand years.
Dawkins accepts that our brains are indeed special, but argues that what makes them special is not the free will to choose from among personal insights and revelations, but only the capacity to learn and propagate the ideas of others. Then he drops his bomb: he makes the hypothesis that our species' unique, idea-driven survival strategy of teaching and learning means that our societies are no more than the test-beds for Darwinian natural selection in the mental world of competing variant ideas.
Ideas that survive the filter of natural selection in our societies to be taught, learned, and remembered by large numbers of people he calls memes, by analogy to DNA sequences that survive and are called genes. Successful memes will, in this model, have survived for the same reason, and toward the same goal and purpose, as successful genes, to wit, no purpose at all beyond their own survival.
1. Order Vs. Meaning: Science and Religion
2. The Meaning is in the Order: DNA-based medicine
3. Meaning Beyond Order: The Science of One Life at a Time
Columbia University Press