Friday, November 24, 2006

Showcase Spectacle

It is exceedingly rare that something catches my attention enough to engross me for hours on end. When it happens I savor it, and when I can find nothing to engross me, I search far and wide usually in vain. These science and religion conference archives are a treasure. I stayed up until 2am last night watching and only went to bed so I can get up early enough to continue watching this morning. Okay, I don't expect very many other people to sit through them all with any interest. But what a gift it is to sit and listen to the best and the brightest on this issue. I am grateful for my limited education for giving me the opportunity to understand enough of it to follow the conversations. Fortunately, since I am not married, I can enjoy the benefits of being able to do whatever I want, when I want, and for how long I want (at least during this 4 day thanksgiving break). I will certainly stay this way as long as I can.

Richard Dawkins gave a stunning performance. He seemed a bit tired and sort of stumbled through some of it, but the material grabs the issue by the throat. He speaks of the selfish gene, altruism, and then goes on to completely devastate the idea that religion is responsible for our morality with extraordinary snippets from various writings, notably from Abraham Lincoln and H.G. Wells which, if you have never heard them before, will literally make you gasp. Both were considered luminaries of liberalism for their time, and both were sharply and undeniably racist. His discussion of the evolution of altruism makes it crystal clear to me that a soul has nothing whatsoever to do with it. It is purely selected for the benefits of selfish genes by a random process.

Watching the video, you can tell that many members of the science elite reveal through their questions that they have a very incomplete understanding of modern theory of natural selection. Of course, it's not the business of a mathematician to do this anymore than a highschool P.E. teacher, but it is very telling for how science runs so disconnectedly in it's various branches.

Dawkins raised issues that cut to the very core of what we call our humanity and likens the core of our humanity (our altruism) to a moth who was once guided by the light of the moon and stars only to now be guided into the flames of candles. Altruism the way we evolved to use it, was for the vast majority of our heritage amongst those of our own kin. We did not mix nearly as much genetically, and helping others without question preserved many of the very same genes that your own genome contained.

Now it's different, we help those mostly who have nothing to do with our family line (if you are in a service profession, say). Dawkins says this is an evolutionary mistake, like the moth who flies into candles for reasons which once suited it's navigation for millions of years. It would be idiotic to ask why a moth evolved to fly into flames. It is also idiotic to wonder why humans evolved to help people they don't even know for no benefit to themselves, for the very same reasons. There once was a benefit to their genes for caring for their kin like they would care for themselves (everything makes sense from a "genes-eye-view" and the proper question is not "how does this trait help me" but "how did my genes use this trait to replicate themselves"). But this point is utterly lost on 99.5% of the populace who takes the existence of altruism as a perfectly bullet-proof argument for a moral universe, and can't grasp even the basics of natural selection.

As I said, I could tell that some of the elite scientists who were not biologists, had a shaky grasp of natural selection and it's implications by their questions and their stunned looks as Richard smashed cherished notions with the ease and naturalness of taking a shit. This is not surprising, because I am convinced that half the students who go through biology 101 in college still have no real grasp of natural selection. It isn't really the focus of the class. It is also not surprising that those astrophysicists and mathemeticians who don't dwell on natural selection would be more likely to believe in a creator, and statistically they are. Why do people have trouble grasping natural selection? Because it cuts to the very core of our humanity. The implications can be destructive. We literally fight to ward off this understanding, (I know I did this for a decade even after I had somewhat grasped it). It's not that I didn't believe it, it's that I needed a more human-centric explanation that gave my life meaning. But after having so many of my own experiences with people and being a very self-reflective person, I have come to see that my own mind and the mind of humanity itself is a cauldron of political sales pitches, mostly masquerading as something done for the benefit of others, and mostly having nothing at all to do with the benefit of others directly. Sort of like buying the warranty at Best Buy- a complete rip off, but packaged in such a way that makes you think it might be wise.

Part of the discussion was about a man of science who learned about the selfish gene and the origin of altruism. He was a very caring person who would randomly give to the poor and needy, I think he was also a Catholic Priest. As he grasped the concept, he slipped into a profound depression, eventually leading to the taking of his own life. Can't remember his name.

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