On Channel 4 last night, the author, evolutionist and self styled atheist, Richard Dawkins, presented a support or was it a defence of Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution. Deploring the lack of tuition about evolution in schools and the growing debate on intelligent design, he used as his ‘hook’ the scepticism of a group of A level students from a London school.  He (and a film crew) spent time with the students.  He lectured, hectored, challenged.  The students stared at him, looking slightly bored.  He would have had more response if he had talked to a group of chimpanzees.       

 

Describing the background to Darwin’s discovery,  Dawkins explained how as a young man, Darwin had his career mapped out for him.  Confident in the Grand Design and Bishop Ussher’s calculation that God had created the world in 4004BC and all the variety and intricacy of different species were just wondrous manifestations of his omnipotence, Darwin was going to lead a quiet, studious life as a country parson.  But he had the opportunity to travel around the world as a naturalist on the survey ship, HMS Beagle, and this voyage was to change him and us forever. 

 

Everywhere Darwin went he collected specimens of birds, animals and fossils.  He noted that although species from different parts of the world had a similar design, there were modifications – differences.  This was particularly clear where they were close but  separated by islands.  He studied the finches on the Galapagos and found the shape of the bill was different on different islands, modified for extracting seeds from the different plants that grew there. 

 

Charles Darwin, like many intelligent young men and women at the time, was interested in geology.  He noted the skeletons and imprints of animals of a familiar design, trapped in rocks millions of years old, proving forever that life on earth must have developed slowly over aeons.   

 

When he came back, he gave up the idea of becoming a parson and devoted himself to his grand idea.  He wrote to people.  They sent him drawings, skeletons of different species.  He realised that the design of limbs was similar across many species – the bones were in the same place, but modified for different functions, swimming, flying, burrowing – and for different habitats.  He studied embryology and found that the design of embryos looked the same across species but as they developed, differences were revealed.  Embryology recapitulates ontogeny!  He studied fossils and noted the similarity to contemporary species, but in strange places.  He intuited the sense that the world was a very different place millions of years ago.  What is now the south downs was once the bed of a shallow sea with species similar to those that now live in the tropics, adapted to live in that environment.  He became fascinated with breeding pigeons.  He learnt how to select out different characteristics, bill size, plumage shape  by interbreeding.   

 

Pigeon breeding was an exercise in artificial selection, but Darwin realised that the same thing could occur more slowly by what he called ‘natural selection’.  The  separation of a species by geological forces, climate change and the creation of habitats that were slightly different, led to adaptations in design, optimal to the habitat, and in time,  different species.  This was the origin of species.  The changes in habitat favoured those with advantageous features, longer necks to reach taller trees, stronger bills to crack open harder seeds.  Only those with those features would survive and would be fit enough to interbreed and so in time, new strains and then new species would be selected out.  

 

‘Nature is red in tooth and claw’,  Dawkins observed.  ‘It’s a battlefield out there.’  Only the fittest survive.  Only those most adapted to hostile environments, more resistant to disease, more swift of food, strong in physique,  would survive – the  survival of the fittest. 

 

Dawkins is a Darwinist, an evolutionist.  His first edition of ‘The Origin of Species’ is his most prized possession. He described how Darwin’s theory is reinforced by recent discoveries in the structure and function of DNA and the mapping of genomes.  The DNA of simple species like bacteria is essentially similar to our own.  The DNA of the chimpanzee is 99% the same as ours.  The closer the match, the more recent the same ancestor.  So we are descended from monkeys.  We are the naked ape. 

 

It was Dawkins who coined the term, the selfish gene, indicating that the purpose of life is to ensure survival of not the individual but the genetic code.  Species are but a carrier for the code.  It’s like the golden chalice.  It is kept sacred, despite all the dangers and the disasters of life.  In fact we might say that all the variety of life is but a carrier for the genetic code.  There is no design in it, just chance.  Evolution chanced upon a self replicating code for life, and as the competition for food and survival and mates ensued, the design of the carrier changed, the code continued on.  There’s something almost religious in this, Dr Dawkins, ‘In the beginning was the word.  And the word was ACGT’   

 

Darwin knew nothing about DNA.  He knew nothing about genes.  The term hadn’t been invented.  He observed life and came up with a theory that all species were interrelated and came from a common ancestor.  It was the geneticists who developed the notion that slight changes in the genetic code were occurring all the time – random mutations – and if these were advantageous, they would be selected out and slowly letter by letter, protein by protein, changes would occur and if populations were geographically separated,  new species would develop. 

 

But evolution doesn’t just occur by random mutation.  Sexual selection accelerates it because it mixes the gene pools from two individuals.  Moreover, those two individuals may select out those that were most fit for breeding and rearing of children – stronger, more intelligent, more attractive – and their children would embody those advantages. 

 

Symbiosis can jerk it along quite dramatically.  Consider trees and fungi.  A tree takes root in relatively poor soil on the edge of the arctic tundra, for example. It grows but slowly and is quite stunted.  Fungi live sparsely in the same soil but are starved on energy.  The two associate by chance.  The fungal hyphae join with the root fibres.  The fungi make the minerals and protein in the soil available to the tree while the tree provides the fungi with glucose for energy.  The two separate species select out modifications that suit their association and both change, becoming in time different species.  We have developed a symbiosis with the bacteria that inhabit our colons. They break down undigested carbohydrate and protein and make it available for absorption, they manufacture vitamins, boost the gut immune system and discourage pathogens in our guts, while accepting shelter and energy from our waste. 

 

There is even evidence for the inheritance of acquired characteristics.  Recent work has shown that environmental influences, nutrition, stress, chemicals can modify the genetic code, activating histones, methylating DNA, silencing genes, so that the next generation and perhaps even future generations is changed.  Think of how feeding royal jelly creates a queen bee.  The queen contains exactly the same genetic code as the workers but it is modified in response to the environment and resultant ‘strain’ is very different.  Exposing the water flea, daphnia to predators causes large defensive spines to develop on their backs and this modification is passed on to their offspring even when there are no predators around.  Some scientists even believe that the present epidemic of obesity is caused by dietary induced modification of ‘the thrifty gene’. 

 

This notion – the study of epigenetics is likely to have a great impact on the neverending argument between those who think the way we are is a product of our nature or inheritance – the geneticists or evolutionists, and those that think it is the effect of our nature.  The answer is that it is both.  The environment will select out different features not just through usage, like the development of nerve connections through use – paths through the forest, but also by modifying genes though histones.       

 

It’s an exciting time to be a scientist.  Which brings me onto God.  Dawkins is scathing about God.  He champions atheism and from his perspective as a scientist, of course, God does not exist.  God is an invention, a product of our imagination, our mind.  God only exists in our collective minds to give sense to what we cannot understand – to provide a meaning for our lives.  In Darwin’s time, the creation myth offered an explanation – intelligent design.  How wondrous are Gods works!  Nowadays, God, for those who believe, is more a moral compass, ‘He’ is a reassuring presence, a belief that will guide us though life, a code of ethics and even, being a forgiving God, our redemption and salvation.  This is deeply reassuring for the believer.  No wonder they resist Dawkins’ evangelistic atheism. 

 

God, like beauty only exists in the eye and the mind of the beholder.  But that doesn’t mean the concept of God has no value. It may be a belief in God that is holding societies and individuals together.  The missionaries to Africa in the time of Darwin supplanted the beliefs that were holding societies together and detached people from the meaning of their lives.  Dawkins in danger of doing the same now.  Although I admire Dawkins and share his beliefs about evolution, I felt disturbed by his evangelistic zeal in trying to convert the unbelieving teenagers. They may need that moral compass when their world is falling apart. 

 

Don’t misunderstand me.  I am a scientist too. I am also a psychoanalyst.  And I am an atheist.  God or at least Jesus Christ doesn’t do it for me.  I do however, find peace in some of the ideas incorporated in Buddhist teachings.  I can live with that.  Sometimes I wish I had a stronger faith.  It may have helped me manage the crises that uncontained enthusiasm and curiosity propelled me into. 

 

In my work as a doctor and therapist, I try to help people with illnesses of the mind, body and spirit, the depletion or desperation brought about by what has happened.  I work with them to  recover the meaning and purpose in their lives. Many come to me with fixed ideas, beliefs that have helped them.  They have yeast intolerance and as long as they take the diet, it helps them.  They find certain homeopathic remedies useful.  Meditation is helpful.  Colonic irrigation clears out all the rubbish.  Although the NICE guidelines say otherwise, I rarely disabuse my patients of  their beliefs unless I believe they will do them damage.  Instead, I tend to work with the belief but at the same time try to optimise its efficacy through an understanding of what has happened to make them ill and how they might deal with it.  The aim is to restore self confidence.    

        

To have confidence is empowering.  Often that confidence comes from a faith a belief in something.  It doesn’t have to be God or Allah or even the Pantheon of Hinduism,  it could be our community, our family, the institution we work for, the football team we worship; it could even be science.  

 

Yes, Dr Dawkins, there is something quasi-religious about a belief in science to solve all the world’s problems.  But science is a poor God.  Scientific method, after all, is constructed on doubt.  Karl Popper has indoctrinated a generation of scientists to try to disprove our hypotheses. A good hypothesis is one that can be disproved withstands all our attempts to do so.  So, according to Popper, Natural selection is a good hypothesis.  We can test it with genomics and it stands firm.  Freud’s notions of the importance of infantile sexuality and the Oedipus complex are not so good.  They are plausible, even clever ideas. They may seem to fit the psychopathology of some patients, but they cannot be proven.  But there again, from Popper’s viewpoints, some of the notions of theoretic physics; quantum mechanics, the nature of subatomic particles, the expanding universe, while seeming to explain the inexplicable and supported by some observations, are hardly testable.  The point is that science depends on what can be measured and the degree to which we can trust our measurements, depends on the assumptions we make to derive them and the accuracy of our equipment.   

 

It seems to me, having spent most of my life as a medical scientist, that the more we test science, the more it begins to look like religion.  There’s no problem about that, in my opinion.  The greatest attribute any scientist can have is imagination.  Darwin had it in spades.  From a group of seemingly disconnected observations on fossils, finches, iguanas and pigeons, he constructed a massive theory of life that has stood the tests of both time and molecular genetics.  Other theories are less easy to test, but they make sense of our lives and so, even as scientists, we cling to them while pretending to test them to destruction (we always kill the thing we love…).  

 

Scientists are human too.  They have to believe.  If Dawkins rejects God, because the idea of a great creator somewhere out there in the ether is patent nonsense to any rational mind, I wonder how he regards love.  Does he love his family?  Has he ever been in love?

 

There’s more to our understanding of life than is rational.  Not everything can be measured.  There is the existence of feeling.  We can’t measure it, but we all know it’s there.  And there is the ‘meaning’,  that is based on our experience of life and being human, our culture, our heritage, our ethics and morality.  But this is the realm of sociology, of psychology, how we think, how we live in society, empathy, altruism, love, respect, collaboration as well as the ever present negative aspects such as competition, fear, anger, conflict, guilt shame, depression and loneliness.  We may try to make a science out of these things.  We may try to measure them by demographics and statistics, but it is through a glass darkly.  Many of them we can’t possibly measure, we can only feel them and try to understand their meaning.  We just feel they exist because of the way we are, the way we were brought up, our family, education, experience and culture. This is where religion comes in. 

 

In its broadest sense, religion implies the meaning we ascribe to situations, their moral, ethical, empathic dimensions.  It has more to say about what it means to be alive, on the great political questions of leadership and conflict and competition and control than what is commonly regarded as science.

 

To my mind, the old debate about science and religion is a false dichotomy, the difference between one type of belief and another.  To be human and try to affect wisdom, we have to embrace both.  We have to integrate our hard won knowledge of our existence with our sense of the meaning of our lives, both within our head and with other people. 

 

‘Meaning’ has always been there.  Indeed, my reading suggests that people understood much more about what it was to be human than they do now.  People now are too blinded by science and technology to detect the meaning of their lives.  We could argue that what we call ‘progress’ is just the changing frame around the same picture.  Sometimes the frame is just too ornate, too big – and we lose sight of the picture. 

 

Human beings are rational/emotional creatures. We need both aspects of our being.  Too far in the rational direction and we become dry, detached from life, boring. Too far the other way and we risk becoming crazy, separate from reality, impusive and dangerous.  We and the the society we are part of must be balanced.  We need our science , if we are to understand and create a better life.  We need our literature, our art, our music and our religion if we are to have a life that is meaningful.  

Advertisements