Monday, January 09, 2006

Roots of all evil

I am a great fan of Richard Dawkins. As a writer on evolution he is second to no one, and this in a discipline that is unfairly blessed with good writers. I also value his role as a defender of the scientific method against creationists, intelligent designers, psychics, mystics and other frauds. But, I'm just not sure about his just-screened TV programme The roots of all evil?

I certainly agree with him that creationism and intelligent design have no place being taught alongside evolution in science classes. The reason is simple: they aren't science. The basic reasoning of intelligent design is as follows. Such-and-such is too complex to have arisen "by chance" (as if chance were all there were) so it MUST have been designed. And if it were designed then it follows that the designer was at least as intelligent and skillful as a human designer. The problem is, though, that this designer has to be more complex than the thing you are trying to explain, so it is not an explanation. So you replace a big problem with an even bigger one. This is bad science, but it still could, conceivably, be considered within the realms of scientific explanation (albeit violating one of sciences guiding principles of parsimony). Most IDers, do not take this path however, they argue that the designer is not in itself scientifically explainable because it exists outside the material world. The use of immaterial causes, causes that cannot, ultimately, be reducible to the various laws of physics, is strictly off limits to science which HAS to be founded these laws. So ID is NOT science because it violates the materialist principle that lies at the heart of all scientific explanation. Using gods in science is an absurdly slippery slope. Any time you come up against an apparently insoluble problem (and this happens frequently) you can simply posit a godly intervention and slip off out to the pub: job done.

No I don't disagree with Dawkins on this one.

The bit I am struggling with is captured by the title the programme; that religion is to blame for a great deal of the evils of the world. Religions, he argues have the unique ability to (1) foster hatred against "the other" and (2) provide individuals with the means to carry out atrocities with a belief in the universal right of their actions and the reward of reward in the afterlife.

Somehow I don't think that this stands up as an argument. Many atrocities (including genocide) have involved conflicts between religions, but it is also true that many have not. The industrial-scale genocide perpetrated by the Nazis on the Jews, Gypsies and others during the second world war was not motivated by religion. Nor was the massacre of the Tutsis in Rwanda; Pol Pot's killing of 2 million Cambodians; and the ongoing conflict in Darfur doesn't cleave cleanly along a religious fault line.

So if not religion, what? Intriguingly given Dawkins's interest in all things evolutionary, the answer might lie in natural selection itself. Humans are not purely selfish (or at least if they are selfish it is not simple garden variety selfishness), indeed they frequently engage in many cooperative and altruistic behaviours with other individuals who are genetically unrelated to them. (Genetic unrelatedness is important since, evolutionarily speaking, giving to a relative is tantamount to individual selfishness as your genes are benefitting to an extent determined by how closely related the individual is to you.) And recent research has suggested that cooperation with others is motivated by moral emotions such as shame, guilt, awe, anger and so on. From this perspective morality evolved as a way of encouraging us to reap the rewards of joint activity with others; we cooperate because we fear the anger of others, wish to avoid the public shame of being identified as a defaulter, or wish to be held in esteem as a good cooperator (this last motivation is often suggested as a reason why we give to charity). There is also a dark side to morality. For reasons that evolutionists don't properly understand the ties that bind us together in our group can also lead us to have negative attitudes to other groups-- something that social psychologists have known for some time. In extreme cases, such as when resources are scarce, or we feel threatened by another group these negative attitudes can lead to violence or even murder usually motivated by emotions such as disgust and contempt for the "other" (see my previous post on the power of disgust).

So to conclude. I am arguing that religion is neither necessary nor sufficient factor for leading us to commit atrocities, what matters most is our evolutionary heritage. We can, in equal measure, be saints and demons; the root of all evil is not religion but natural selection and although there are those that would like to ban the idea, it is harder to see how one might ban the process.

No comments:

Post a Comment