Saturday, February 3, 2018

A Devil’s Chaplain by Richard Dawkins

I have this system that decides which book I’m going to read next. I’m a bit of a pack rat when it comes to acquiring books I want to read (as of this writing, there are a total of 241 books on my “to read” shelf) that if I don’t have a system to decide which books gets read next, I know that there are some that I will simply never get to.

I won’t go into all the details about how that system works, but one of its fundamental mechanisms is a series of head-to-head comparisons. Of the following two books, which would I rather read right now? After my disappointing experience with The Selfish Gene, the few other books I had already acquired by Richard Dawkins started losing these head-to-head comparisons. It seemed like I’d rather read almost any other book in my possession than another title by Dawkins.

Through a new wrinkle I introduced into the system, whereby I save a handful of books from the oblivion of the bottom of the list, A Devil’s Chaplain recently got the nod. I didn’t know what to expect.

What I got was a collection of essays that did not live up to the hype on the front and back covers of my paperback copy. “Intensely thought-provoking,” and “Each essay will grip you at once” seem like the two biggest whoppers.

There are a few thought-provoking ideas. One comes in Gaps in the Mind, an essay Dawkins describes as his contribution to Peter Singer’s Great Ape Project -- a movement focused on “granting the other great apes, as near as is practically possible, civil rights equivalent to those enjoyed by the human great ape.” Dawkins doesn’t really come down on either side of that issue, choosing to focus instead how arbitrary the separation of different species (great apes or otherwise) are, both in evolutionary science and in their taxonomic designations.

Anyway, the thought-provoking idea comes when he provides the following thought experiment to help contextualize the blurred lines that exist between species.

Happenings are sometimes organized at which thousands of people hold hands and form a human chain, say from coast to coast of the United States, in aid of some cause or charity. Let us imagine setting one up along the equator, across the width of our home continent of Africa. It is a special kind of chain, involving parents and children, and we’ll have to play tricks with time in order to imagine it. You stand on the shore of the Indian Ocean in southern Somalia, facing north, and in your left hand you hold the right hand of your mother. In turn she holds the hand of her mother, your grandmother. Your grandmother holds her mother’s hand, and so on. The chain wends its way up the beach, into the arid scrubland and westwards on towards the Kenya border.

How far do we have to go until we reach our common ancestor with the chimpanzees? It’s a surprisingly short way. Allowing one yard per person, we arrive at the ancestor we share with chimpanzees in under 300 miles. We’ve hardly started to cross the continent; we’re still not half way to the great Rift Valley. The ancestor is standing well to the east of Mount Kenya, and holding in her hand an entire chain of her lineal descendents, culminating in you standing on the Somali beach.

Speculating on why he chose Africa instead of the United States for this thought experiment provides for a nitpicky digression. Seems to me that most of his readers are not that familiar with the geography of Somalia and Kenya. For me personally, the best possible context would be to place me not in Somalia on the shores of the Indian Ocean, but in Milwaukee on the shores of Lake Michigan, and for the line of my ancestors to follow not due west, but along the route of I-94 heading towards Minneapolis -- a drive I have made many times. That way, when he says that the common ancestor I share with chimpanzees stands less than 300 miles away, he can say that that is about 40 miles short of Minneapolis -- perhaps close to Hudson, Wisconsin, on the St. Croix River, where my cousin lives with her family.

I didn’t really expect him to choose Milwaukee as his starting point for the experiment, but it may have made better sense for him to choose New York City (where 300 miles would put you three-fifths of the way across Pennsylvania on I-80), or Washington, DC (on the outskirts of Raleigh, North Carolina, down I-95), or even London (start at Trafalgar Square and catch the M-6 until you’re just short of Carlisle). Any one of these may have made it easier for the majority of his readers to contextualize the point he’s making, but Dawkins seems to have a thing against books written for Americans.

Here’s an excerpt from Human Chauvinism and Evolutionary Progress, his review of Full House by fellow evolutionary biologist Stephen J. Gould.

Gould’s modest and uncontroversial statistical point is simply this. An apparent trend in some measurement may signify nothing more than a change in variance, often coupled with a ceiling or floor effect. Modern baseball players no longer hit a 0.400 (whatever that might be -- evidently it is something pretty good).

Wait. Is he trying to be funny there?

But this doesn’t mean they are getting worse. Actually everything about the game is getting better and the variance is getting less. The extremes are being squeezed and 0.400 hitting, being an extreme, is a casualty. The apparent decline in batting success is a statistical artefact, and similar artefacts dog generalizations if less frivolous fields.

That didn’t take long to explain, but baseball occupies 55 jargon-ridden pages of this otherwise lucid book and I must enter a mild protest on behalf of those readers who live in that obscure and little known region called the rest of the world.

No. He’s not trying to be funny.

I invite Americans to imagine that I spun out a whole chapter in the following vein:

“The home keeper was on a pair, vulnerable to anything from a yorker to a chinaman, when he fell to a googly given plenty of air. Silly mid on appealed for leg before, Dicky Bird’s finger shot up and the tail collapsed. Not surprisingly, the skipper took the light. Next morning the night watchman, defiantly out of his popping crease, snicked a cover drive off a no ball straight through the gullies and on a fast outfield third man failed to stop the boundary … etc. etc.”

Readers in England, the West Indies, Australia, New Zealand, India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and anglophone Africa would understand every word, but Americans, after enduring a page or two, would rightly protest.

Okay. Two things. First, I refuse to believe that a man of Dawkins’s intelligence is not able to understand baseball batting averages. And, more importantly, align his understanding with the metaphor chosen by the author whose book he is reviewing. After all, I’m not nearly as intelligent as Dawkins and I didn’t get my nose bent out of shape when he used Africa instead of Wisconsin for his chains of human and chimpanzee ancestors. So what is this carping really about? He’s English, he’s famous, and he doesn’t like baseball? Again, one has to ask if Dawkins isn’t seriously trying to be funny, because if he is being serious, his attitude is about as funny as they come.

And second, everyone knows the retired English international cricket umpire spelled his name Harold Dennis "Dickie" Bird.

But let’s get back to Africa. Because we still haven’t gotten to the thought-provoking idea.

The daughter that she is holding in her right hand is the one from whom we are descended. Now the arch-ancestress turns eastward to face the coast, and with her left hand grasps her other daughter, the one from whom the chimpanzees are descended (or son, of course, but let’s stick to females for convenience). The two sisters are facing one another, and each holding their mother by the hand. Now the second daughter, the chimpanzee ancestress, holds her daughter’s hand, and a new chain is formed, proceeding back towards the coast. First cousin faces first cousin, second cousin faces second cousin, and so on. By the time the folded-back chain has reached the coast again, it consists of modern chimpanzees. You are face to face with your chimpanzee cousin, and you are joined to her by an unbroken chain of mothers holding hands with daughters. If you walked up the line like an inspecting general -- past Homo erectus, Homo habilis, perhaps Australopithecus afarensis -- and down again the other side (the intermediates on the chimpanzee side are unnamed because, as it happens, no fossils have been found)...

Wait. Stop right there. That’s it. No fossils have been found on the chimpanzee side of Dawkins’s imaginary line? I don’t know when Dawkins wrote his essay, but Google tells me it must have been before 2005 when this article appeared announcing the discovery of the first (and still only?) fossil of a chimp ancestor. Think of all the intermediates on the human side of Dawkins’s line, only some of whom he mentions above. Some may be offshoots and dead ends (Homo neanderthalensis, anyone?) but they are all part of the story that starts with the common human/chimpanzee ancestor and ends with modern humans. And there is nothing on the chimpanzee side of that chain? Nothing, based on the above article, except three fossilized teeth from 500,000 years ago? I’m not an evolutionary biologist, but that seems almost impossible to believe.

Is it a symptom, I wonder, of the special treatment modern humans are afforded in nearly all of our discussions of evolution? One of the things I like about Dawkins’s thought experiment is the way it illustrates that modern humans and modern chimpanzees are evolutionarily equal, that you can’t claim that humans are more evolved than chimpanzees if there are an equal number of generations that take each of us back to our common ancestor. And yet, Dawkins himself sometimes succumbs to this implicit bias. His Gaps in the Mind essay seems singularly written to dispel the notion, self-evident to many, that humans are entitled to some kind of special treatment. Yet in other essays, including here the titular A Devil’s Chaplain, he seems to defend that very instinct.

For our species, with its unique gift of foresight -- product of the simulated virtual reality we call the human imagination -- can plan the very opposite of waste with, if we get it right, a minimum of clumsy blunders. And there is true solace in the blessed gift of understanding, even if what we understand is the unwelcome message of the Devil’s Chaplain. It is as though the Chaplain matured and offered a second half to the sermon. Yes, says the matured Chaplain, the historic process that caused you to exist is wasteful, cruel and low. But exult in your existence, because that very process has blundered unwittingly on its own negation. Only a small, local negation, to be sure: only one species, and only a minority of the members of that species; but there lies hope.

This whole Devil’s Chaplain business is misguided, if you ask me. It comes, evidently, from a letter Charles Darwin wrote in 1856:

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

It’s a rhetorical device, I know, idiosyncratic to the age and culture in which Darwin lived, but Dawkins should know better than to embrace it the way he does in this more modern age. Nature is not the work of God or the Devil. Nature is its own thing, and we will fail to truly understand its mechanisms -- evolution perhaps most of all -- if we don’t abandon our obsession with framing it in the context of our human morality and its bugbears.

But the larger point that Dawkins seems to be making above is that humans are special in the evolutionary arms race. Special in a way that he specifically says they’re not other essays in the same book. In Gaps in the Mind he says humans are so un-special that we can’t even draw a line between them and other species, while in A Devil’s Chaplain he says humans are so special that they are the only species in existence that can use something it has come to call imagination.

I’ve trained myself to reflexively question every assertion I come across which makes the claim that humans possess a characteristic that is unique in the animal kingdom. Imagination, consciousness, a soul -- you name it, authors of both scientific and religious mindsets do this, claiming, usually without evidence, that humans are not just special, but unique. They are almost always wrong, as a few minutes on Google will usually reveal.

So why do they do it? Dawkins at least has that part right. Because there lies hope.

+ + +

This post first appeared on Eric Lanke's blog, an association executive and author. You can follow him on Twitter @ericlanke or contact him at

No comments:

Post a Comment