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Subject: RICHARD DAWKINS CALLS FOR REASON
YOUR HIGHNESS, SCIENCE IS NOT PERFECT, BUT NOR IS NATURE: IN AN OPEN LETTER
TO PRINCE CHARLES, RICHARD DAWKINS CALLS FOR REASON.
June 1, 2000
The Ottawa Citizen
OXFORD, U.K. - Richard Dawkins writes to Your Royal Highness, saying your
Reith lecture (published in The Citizen May 18) saddened me. I have deep
sympathy for your aims, and admiration for your sincerity. But your
hostility to science will not serve those aims; and your embracing of an
ill-assorted jumble of mutually contradictory alternatives will lose you
therespect that I think you deserve.
I forget who it was who remarked: ``Of course we must be open-minded, but
not so open-minded that our brains drop out.'' Let's look at some of the
alternative philosophies which you seem to prefer over scientific reason.
First, intuition, the heart's wisdom ``rustling like a breeze through the
leaves.'' Unfortunately, it depends whose intuition you choose. Where aims
(if not methods) are concerned, your own intuitions coincide with mine. I
wholeheartedly share your aim of long-term stewardship of our planet, with
its diverse and complex biosphere. But what about the instinctive wisdom
in Saddam Hussein's black heart? What price the Wagnerian wind that
rustled Hitler's twisted leaves? The Yorkshire Ripper heard religious
voices in his head urging him to kill. How do we decide which intuitive
inner voices to heed?
This is not a dilemma that science can solve. My own passionate concern
for world stewardship is as emotional as yours. But where I allow feelings
to influence my aims, when it comes to deciding the best method of
achieving them I'd rather think than feel. And thinking, here, means
scientific thinking. No more effective method exists. If it did, science
would incorporate it.
Next, Sir, I think you may have an exaggerated idea of the naturalness of
``traditional'' or ``organic'' agriculture. Agriculture has always been
unnatural. Our species began to depart from our natural hunter-gatherer
lifestyle as recently as 10,000 years ago -- too short to measure on the
Wheat, be it ever so wholemeal and stoneground, is not a natural food for
Homo sapiens. Nor is milk, except for children. Almost every morsel of our
food is genetically modified -- admittedly by artificial selection, not
artificial mutation, but the end result is the same. A wheat grain is a
genetically modified grass seed, just as a pekinese is a genetically
modified wolf. Playing God? We've been playing God for centuries! The
large, anonymous crowds in which we now teem began with the agricultural
revolution, and without agriculture we could survive in only a tiny
fraction of our current numbers. Our high population is an agricultural
(and technological and medical) artifact. It is far more unnatural than
the population-limiting methods condemned as unnatural by the Pope. Like
it or not, we are stuck with agriculture, and agriculture is unnatural.
Does that mean there's nothing to choose between different kinds of
agriculture when it comes to sustainable planetary welfare? Certainly not.
Some are much more damaging than others, but it's no use appealing to
``nature,'' or to ``instinct'' in order to decide which ones. You have to
study the evidence, soberly and reasonably -- scientifically. Slashing and
burning (incidentally, no agricultural system is closer to being
``traditional'') destroys our ancient forests. Overgrazing (again, widely
practiced by ``traditional'' cultures) causes soil erosion and turns
fertile pasture into desert.
Moving to our own modern tribe, monoculture, fed by powdered fertilizers
and poisons, is bad for the future; indiscriminate use of antibiotics to
promote livestock growth is worse. Incidentally, one worrying aspect of
the hysterical opposition to the possible risks from GM crops is that it
diverts attention from definite dangers already well understood but
largely ignored. The evolution of antibiotic-resistant strains of bacteria
is something that a Darwinian might have foreseen from the day antibiotics
were discovered. Unfortunately, the warning voices have been rather quiet,
and now they are drowned by the baying cacophony: ``GM GM GM GM GM GM!''
Moreover if, as I expect, the dire prophecies of GM doom fail to
materialize, the feeling of let-down may spill over into complacency about
real risks. Has it occurred to you that our present GM brouhaha may be a
terrible case of crying wolf? Even if agriculture could be natural, and
even if we could develop some sort
of instinctive rapport with nature, would nature be a good role model?
Here, we must think carefully. There really is a sense in which ecosystems
are balanced and harmonious, with some of their constituent species
becoming mutually dependent. This is one reason the corporate thuggery
that is destroying the rainforests is so criminal. On the other hand, we
must beware of a very common misunderstanding of Darwinism. Tennyson was
writing before Darwin but he got it right.
Nature really is red in tooth and claw. Much as we might like to believe
otherwise, natural selection, working within each species, does not
favour long-term stewardship. It favours short-term gain. Loggers, whalers
and other profiteers who squander the future for present greed are only
doing what all wild creatures have done for three billion years.
No wonder T.H. Huxley, Darwin's bulldog, founded his ethics on a
repudiation of Darwinism. Not a repudiation of Darwinism as science, of
course, for you cannot repudiate truth. But the very fact that Darwinism
is true makes it even more important for us to fight against the naturally
selfish and exploitative tendencies of nature. We can do it. Probably no
other species of animal or plant can. We can do it because our brains
(admittedly given to us by natural selection for reasons of short-term
Darwinian gain) are big
enough to see into the future and plot long-term consequences. Natural
selection is like a robot that can only climb uphill, even if this leaves
it stuck on top of a measly hillock. There is no mechanism for going
downhill, for crossing the valley to the lower slopes of the high mountain
on the other side. There is no natural foresight, no mechanism for warning
that present selfish gains are leading to species extinction -- and
indeed, 99 per cent of all species that have ever lived are extinct.
The human brain, probably uniquely in the whole of evolutionary history,
can see across the valley and can plot a course away from extinction and
towards distant uplands. Long-term planning -- and hence the very
possibility of stewardship -- is something utterly new on the planet, even
alien. It exists only in human brains. The future is a new invention in
evolution. It is precious. And fragile. We must use all our scientific
artifice to protect it.
It may sound paradoxical, but if we want to sustain the planet into the
future, the first thing we must do is stop taking advice from nature.
Nature is a short-term Darwinian profiteer. Darwin himself said it: ``What
a book a devil's chaplain might write on the clumsy, wasteful, blundering,
low, and horridly cruel works of nature.'' Of course that's bleak, but
there's no law saying the truth has to be cheerful; no point shooting the
messenger -- science -- and no sense in preferring an alternative world
view just because it feels more comfortable.
In any case, science isn't all bleak. Nor, by the way, is science an
arrogant know-all. Any scientist worthy of the name will warm to your
quotation from Socrates: ``Wisdom is knowing that you don't know.'' What
else drives us to find out? What saddens me most, Sir, is how much you
will be missing if you turn your
back on science. I have tried to write about the poetic wonder of science,
but may I take the liberty of presenting you with a book by another
author? It is The Demon-Haunted World by the lamented Carl Sagan. I'd call
your attention especially to the subtitle: Science as a Candle in the Dark.