Origins and evolution:
Richard Dawkins’ session
On Friday January 20, Richard Dawkins appeared for one hour at the
Galle Literary festival. His talk was the first event for which all
tickets had sold out online, in Colombo and in Galle a week before.
There were people queueing outside the hall an hour before his session.
Once the doors opened, the crowd’s attitude was one of focused
determination, to secure the best seats in the house. People scrambled
desperately towards the front seats, only to realise with dismay that
the entire row had already been claimed. This had been achieved by
strategically placing orange peel and other bits of fruit across the
chairs adjacent to those already seated. Within a few short minutes,
every place in the house had been taken. Right up until the moment that
the session started, people were still piling through the door.
Finally, there seemed to be almost as many people standing as
sitting, such was the eagerness to hear Professor Dawkins. In fact, many
attendees had come especially for a couple of hours on the Friday,
simply to attend this session.
Popularity of Richard Dawkins
We may well ask ourselves “Why is Professor Dawkins so popular? Why
do so many people want not only to read his work but also want to see
and hear him ‘in the flesh’?”. One explanation is undoubtedly that his
reputation goes before him.
He is often described as “The evolutionary biologist who says that
your genes care about themselves, not about you. You're just a vehicle
to pass on genes down through the generations”. He is also described,
more often than not, by the adherent’s of the monotheistic religions as
a “strident, shrill atheist”. I don’t believe that this assertion is
entirely fair. In every interview or debate that I have seen (and the
Galle Literary Festival is no exception), Professor Dawkins always
answers both politely and in a measured, respectful way.
Admittedly, he does strongly assert that he thinks it is “wicked” to
indoctrinate children with any belief system or label them as belonging
to any religious group. He asserts that there is no such thing as a
“Catholic” or “Muslim” child but rather that there are children of
Catholic or Muslim parents. This is not only sensible, but also
consistent with his belief that all life can be explained scientifically
with no reference to a deity.
Consequently, it is obviously wrong and totally pointless to
indoctrinate anyone or threaten them with hellfire and eternal
damnation. It could be argued that, while Professor Dawkins is a
brilliant evolutionary biologist, he is not a philosopher nor a
theologian. Yet he never actually asserts that there is “definitely no
God”. His London bus campaign slogan was, after all that “There is
probably no God.... now stop worrying and enjoy your life”.
However, the idea that there may well be no God throws up another
problem. How can we, as a collection of societies, either recognise or
make moral standards for ourselves? If there is no deity, and no holy
book to dictate the morals that we should live by, what is to stop
society from total moral decline? This is subject beyond the scope of
this column and one which I will return to in a subsequent article. The
other consideration that deserves an in- depth study is how it is
possible and / or probable that the universe actually came into
existence without a creator. This is the ultimate question of origins
and it is essentially the final frontier for those seeking a thorough,
plausible explanation for life, without recourse to a creator.
There is also another possible reason for Professor Dawkins’
popularity. In modern societies, where science and rational thought
reign supreme, people are perhaps seeking liberation from the fears and
constraints of religion.
They recognise that religion has often been used as a means of social
control and that man is now capable of having decent moral standards of
behaviour without religion.
However, the difficulty with this is that, having written God out of
the equation, many feel as though they have moved from under a security
blanket, into a chill wind.
Without God, some feel alone in an indifferent universe. Everything
seems meaningless....and objectively speaking, from this standpoint, it
is! Yet life does have great subjective meaning for each of us and I
shall return to this in a later column.
The Magic of Reality
Professor Dawkins began his session by reading from his most recent
book “The Magic of Reality: How we know what is really true”. The topics
within the book were firstly, the difference between Supernatural Magic,
Stage Magic and Poetic Magic. Supernatural Magic comprises myths and
fairy tales and Stage Magic includes conjuring shows and tricks. Poetic
Magic describes beautiful music, starry skies and stunning sunsets, to
name but a few.
The evolution of life on earth is included in this category of Poetic
Magic. Professor Dawkins pointed out that although mythical narratives
and make-believe tales are a fun part of growing up, reality, with its
fundamental capacity for beauty, is much more magical than anything
The Fairy Godmother from Cinderella cannot magically turn a pumpkin
into a carriage outside the bounds of fiction, the reason being that
such objects as pumpkins and carriages in reality possess internal
organisation that is fundamentally complex.
A large pumpkin randomly reassembled at the most minute level would
be much more likely to result in a featureless pile of ash or sludge
than a complex and intricately organised carriage.
Aliens and the Drake Equation
The other part of the book that Professor Dawkins read from was
Chapter 9, which includes contemporary alien abduction mythology.
He then spoke about the likelihood of the existence of life on other
planets. He briefly mentioned the Drake Equation, which is a
mathematical formula used to calculate the probability of there being
some life form on other planets.
The Drake equation states that:-
N = the number of civilizations in our galaxy with which
communication might be possible;
R* = the average rate of star formation per year in our galaxy
fp = the fraction of those stars that have planets
ne = the average number of planets that can potentially support life
per star that has planets
f? = the fraction of the above that actually go on to develop life at
fi = the fraction of the above that actually go on to develop
fc = the fraction of civilizations that develop a technology that
releases detectable signs of their existence into space
L = the length of time for which such civilisations release
detectable signals into space.
However, this is the most simplistic expression of the Drake
Equation. There are many other factors to be taken into consideration,
all of which I will not include here. However, one of the most
significant of these factors is the Reappearance Number.
Or how many times an intelligent civilization may occur on planets
where it has happened once. Even if an intelligent civilization reaches
the end of its lifetime after, for example, 10,000 years, life may still
prevail on the planet for billions of years, permitting the next
civilisation to evolve.
Thus, several civilisations may come and go during the lifespan of
one and the same planet. Thus, if nr is the average number of times a
new civilisation reappears on the same planet where a previous
civilisation once has appeared and ended, then the total number of
civilisations on such a planet would be (1+nr), which is the actual
reappearance factor added to the equation.
The factor depends on what generally is the cause of civilisation
extinction. If it is generally temporarily uninhabitable, (for example a
nuclear winter), then nr may be relatively high. On the other hand, if
it is generally permanently uninhabitable, such as stellar evolution,
then nr may be almost zero. In the case of total life extinction, a
similar factor may be applicable for f?, that is, how many times life
may appear on a planet where it has appeared once.
Habitability and the Goldilocks Zone
During the course of his talk, Professor Dawkins did mention that the
planets which are able to sustain life will typically be found very far
apart from one another. He didn’t go into detail about why this should
be, but I think his hearers would agree that it is because of the need
for something known as “The Goldilocks Zone”.
Also called the habitable zone or life zone, the Goldilocks Zone is
an area of space in which a planet is just the right distance from its
home star so that its surface is neither too hot nor too cold. That
means that the planet could possibly host liquid water.
Few planets have been found in the Goldilocks Zone to date, but in
April 2007, European astronomers announced the discovery of one. It was
also, at that point, that the most Earth-like planet ever was
discovered. The planet, named Gilese 581c, is 12,000 miles in diameter,
or not much larger than Earth (8,000-mile diameter). It orbits a massive
red star called Gilese 581, located in the Libra constellation, 20.5
light years from Earth.
Gilese 581c orbits its star very closely, completing an orbit in just
13 Earth-days. This short orbit would make a planet too hot for life,
except that Gilese 581's surface temperature is 1/50th that of our sun.
Since it lies in the Goldilocks Zone, Gilese 581c's surface temperature
ranges from an estimated 32 degrees Fahrenheit to 102 degrees
Fahrenheit. The research team that discovered it believes it has a
developed atmosphere. The planet might not only have water; it might be
entirely covered by oceans.
Gilese 581c does have some things working against it. Its gravity is
about twice as strong as Earth's, and it receives significant doses of
radiation from its star. Both could inhibit life from developing. Even
so, Gilese 581c is exciting not only for its Earth-like conditions, but
also because of its relative proximity to Earth and its location in the
elusive Goldilocks Zone. The ideal discovery would be a planet similar
in composition to Earth that lies within the Goldilocks Zone and orbits
a stable star (which is something that Professor Dawkins did
mention).Yet it's important to keep in mind that popular depictions of
extraterrestrial life are most likely to be incorrect.
Some life forms may be no more advanced than bacteria. Others may be
highly advanced but unrecognisable. Professor Dawkins suggests that
since these outposts of life are bound to be separated by such huge
distances, they are as unlikely to have the technology to visit us
bodily, as we are to visit them. If we are contacted, it is most
probable that this would occur through radio signals. Professor Dawkins
believes that we should put our money into equipment which sends out
these radio signals, which could be detected across large distances.
The Last Common Ancestor
During his session at the Galle Literary Festival, the other topic
which Professor Dawkins touched on was what is known as our relationship
to “The Last Common Ancestor”. This is what links mankind to all other
species on the planet. He took the audience on a long imaginary journey
back through time to the point where the ancestor that we have in common
with other species is a fish. He did this by asking us to imagine a long
line of species going back millions of years.
Each creature looks no different to its mother or its offspring,
which stand side by side in this imaginary line. However, at one end
stands a human, at another distant point, a fish. Further still is the
last common ancestor. In fact in his book “The Ancestors Tale”, we first
meet the “co-ancestor” which we share with the species that are our
closest relatives, the chimpanzee and bonobo. Professor Dawkins
estimates this to have occurred between 5 and 7 million years ago.
Another way of looking at this is to say that our (approximately)
50,000-great-grandparent was a creature from which all humans,
chimpanzees and bonobos are directly descended. Further on in Dawkins'
imaginary journey, we meet the co-ancestor we share with the Gorilla,
our next nearest relative, then the Orangutan, and so on, until we
finally meet the co-ancestor of all living organisms, known as the last
universal ancestor (which is obviously not the same thing as the
When Professor Dawkins’ session moved all too quickly to conclusion,
one of the questions asked by the audience was (to paraphrase) “if
religion is unnecessary and cannot dictate moral standards to us, what
does science have to say to us about our sexual conduct”? Mr Dawkins’
diplomatic response was (to paraphrase) “I don’t believe that it is the
place of a scientist to dictate to people about their sexual conduct.
However, it is obvious that by using contraceptives, sexuality has
become emancipated from it’s original purpose. Another example is that
the practise of homosexuality is not going to be successful from a
Darwinian point of view, but it is what some people like”.
The other question which Professor Dawkins answered diplomatically
was (to paraphrase) “You have spoken against indoctrination by
monotheistic religions but what have you to say about Buddhism?”. The
reply to this question was (again to paraphrase) “I feel at rather a
disadvantage being in Sri Lanka and knowing very little about Buddhism.
From what I understand, there are many different types of Buddhism and
the majority of them, rather than being religions are ways of
life....And I think this could be rather good. But do admit to knowing
only a little about it”.
It is interesting that the key issues raised by the audience had to
do with both religion and sexuality. This is perhaps because there is a
historic link between the two subjects. Throughout the ages, religions
has sought to control human passions and desires.
To take the Torah as an example, it is a holy book upon which the
monotheistic religions are predicated. Throughout the Torah's texts,
sexual desire figures fairly regularly as the cause of problems for key
individuals. (The predicaments of Samson with Delilah and King David
with Bathsheba are obvious examples). However, I digress again into
another subject - of how we can reconcile the evolutionist’s view of
origins with ethics and morality.
This is a question which I shall revisit in greater detail in
subsequent columns. Professor Dawkins’ purely scientific worldview does
allow for a personal integrity which encourages mutual cooperation. This
often leads to goods social cohesion (which also benefits the
individuals within that society).
Ultimately, these effects tend to encourage a nurturing, supportive
environment within which to raise successful offspring. This brings us
once again to a goal which is essentially Darwinian.