Tuesday, 12 August 2008


Having missed the first episode - a friend said all could have been delivered in minutes - I did watch Richard Dawkins' Channel Four programme on The Genius of Charles Darwin (Monday 11 August). I have a lot of criticism these days of Channel 4 documentaries as they churn out numbers of them to formulas and spin out indeed to an hour (punctuated by irritating muted adverts) what can be said quickly. This one was reasonable enough, however, as Richard Dawkins puzzled about human altruism from his biological standpoint.

First of all I have no significant criticism of Richard Dawkins and his biology and that of evolution. There is no grand plan, no ghost in the machine: it is all (as he could have said) local and specific. He of course takes it to the genes being "selfish", which is a confusing concept of purpose as a critic said. It starts to look like intention - rather the genes pass on what the environment in one place prefers.

It struck me that Dawkins' problem with humanity is the opposite from that of religionists. Whereas the God people have trouble explaining all the evil in the world if God is good, Dawkins has a problem with why people are good. He puts it down to kinship and reciprocal altruisms, and we have these hardwired in our evolved human heads.

My criticism was the same as the one when we had three women in the programme searching out the sperm banks for a decent biological father for their intended children. Why should the sperm carry the characteristics claimed in the written personality CVs? Surely, the characteristics of a "decent chap" are the decent chap to be present in the home, creating the environment that is apparently characteristic of their lives.

Clearly we are more chimp like and socialise than Orang Utan like and stay alone, though some like to be alone a bit. However, when we are self conscious and know we are conscious, and when we have such talk that leaves libraries and learns, our organisation becomes such that we indeed can rise above purely competitive instincts. It may be reciprocal in part, and it is not so much family as being tribal. Witness the war between Russia and Georgia over the regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia. We see human tribalism everywhere. But we can rise to one human tribe or one human family (and then of course the tribe that includes the apes and more).

This is where the role of art and religious myth comes in. Art expresses our creativity, and we can be creative for its own sake, but it builds human wonder. Religious myth does this too, a kind of supporting reflective and contemplative basis for ethical behaviour, building notions of the Good and asking not only what values transcend but if there are signals of cultural and artistic transcendence whether there is transcendence itself.

For me, religion is about asking again about your own and your own groups' stances in life. What sort of change can there be, what further service can be offered to the other, and how can being sacrificial aid building something long term that enhances that human spirit seen in art.

I do this in a Christian setting, where its central prophetic character was certainly within a tribal setting - that tribe was selected to be holy, and saw it had to endure oppression prior to its expected God-delivered liberation. He did though build reversal and compassionate ethics within that tribal setting, ethics that were easily universalised after his death in the context of beliefs about his imminent return and a kind of pre-return visit. My own view is many of us already do a Bultmann on the mythic nature of all this, and sometimes far more thoroughly than Bultmann did himself.

I sometimes think that Dawkins picks on evangelicals for a bit of easy sport. He should come and debate with me. He will find a huge measure of agreement, but I would want to stress language, experience framed by language, and culture framed by language and symbolism. I would want to show how these shift and twist, and suggest the possibility, for example, that his Darwinism might be superseded by a better overall scientific explanation. For example, in what sense is there intelligence in the universe (even as a late concept) and how does that connect?

For me, the power of Charles Darwin is not simply that he produced a biological theory, but that (as in understandings of business, illustrated in the programme) he produced a whole way of seeing things. For example, we have the evolution of religions. The Victorians loved the idea of the evolution of religions taken to a kind of developmental extreme - from localised magic at the bottom upwards to liberal Protestantism (and even secularism) at the top. We now see religions evolving, but as horses for courses, and expressions of cultural development and ways of seeing.

There is something else about evolution too. Every localised situation produces redundancy, that is varieties exist that are uncompetitive. Some higher order creatures protect their uncompetitive types. We might say this, in purely reproductive terms, of gays and lesbians (seen throughout the animal world). Why are levels of variety protected? Because when there is a massive environmental shift, it is the minority that often becomes the one most able to adapt when a majority population finds itself incapable of survival. A species, a group, that can look after its minorities is one that serves its unknown and long term future.

Yes we are of African Apes, down to one species of human from many, but we are the ones who talk with precision and have libraries. We look in mirrors and we are the ones who can do cartoons of Richard Dawkins that might, in amongst a fast if good scribble, hopefully show something of the essence of the man.

When Richard Dawkins uses the word "hope", as he did, he uses a very loaded word.

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