Sometimes it stuns me, that people who are apparently very clever, can also say very stupid things. Last week I picked up a copy of 'What It Means to Be 98% Chimpanzee' by Jonathan Marks, a professor of anthropology. He was recently named a fellow of the AAAS, and I was interested to find out his opinion on human being.
Unfortunately, after reading the conclusion of the book, I couldn't really bring it on myself to read any more. An extract will show why:
Thirty years ago, in a widely read scientific-philosophical work called Chance and Necessity, the French molecular biologist Jacques Monod argued that evolution shows life to be meaningless. While this might easily be dismissed as “Sartre among the test-tubes,” it carried the authority of science, because a prominent scientist wrote it. Is the proposition true? Perhaps, but there is no way to know. There is no class of data to be collected that would indicate whether life is meaningful or not. It is not a scientific proposition.
More than that, it is a distasteful proposition. Bluntly put, people care more about whether their life has meaning than they do about whether they came from apes. If you tell them that science shows life has no meaning and that we came from apes, it is not surprising to imagine that they would reject both scientific propositions. In fact, it is pretty dumb to think otherwise.
The problem is that science is very good at answering questions people don’t care about. To the extent that physics aids the technology that allows you to reheat frozen food in a few minutes, it is obviously useful. But using technology derived from it, and caring about it, are different things. The things that people care about tend to be the things outside the domain of science—What is death? Will I always be able to take care of my children? Why do good things happen to bad people? How can I be happy?
All humans care about these things. All cognitive systems provide answers for them. In addition, they provide explanations for how humans and the world they live in came to be—as the scientific myth does. And more than that, other myths explain not simply how we came into existence, but why.
And science doesn’t.
Science explains how we came to exist more accurately than does any other myth. By its own criterion, it is therefore the best explanation. But it is an answer to a relatively small and trivial question. Science tells us that we are descended from apes, a fact that affects people’s lives and minds minimally, if at all. On the other hand, science says nothing about whether the cosmos is ultimately benevolent or just. The perpetual crisis in science education is largely the result of a consistent failure of scientists themselves to be educated about what they do and its implications.
Richard Dawkins writes in River Out of Eden:
[I]f the universe were just electrons and selfish genes, meaningless tragedies . . . are exactly what we should expect, along with equally meaningless good fortune. Such a universe would be neither evil nor good in its intention. It would manifest no intentions of any kind. In a universe of blind physical forces and genetic replication, some people are going to get hurt, other people are going to get lucky, and you won’t find any rhyme or reason in it, nor any justice. The universe we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil and no good, nothing but blind, pitiless indifference.
And for good measure he adds, “DNA neither knows nor cares. DNA just is. And we dance to its music.”
Well, maybe we do and maybe we don’t. Since the author is not an expert on molecular genetics, we may consequently take his musings about DNA with a grain of salt, falling within the domain of folk heredity. But what about his dour view of the universe? Here Dawkins presents a consistency argument, not a test of an hypothesis. After all, the universe also has precisely the properties we would expect to find if it were benevolent and designed, and we simply didn ’t understand it, lacking the key to its pattern. If the only language you speak is Greek, other languages may sound like random noise, like “bar, bar, bar,” which is why the Greeks called non-Greek speakers “barbarians.” But that’s a statement about the limitations of the Greeks, not about the other peoples.
Random noise may be random noise or it may simply be stuff you don’t understand, which consequently looks or sounds like random noise. The history of modern science, after all, is about the discovery and imposition of order on what formerly looked like chaos. Perhaps ultimately there is just chaos, but Dawkins’s assertion about it is no more than that, an assertion. Dawkins ’s interpretation of the universe might be true, but again, since there is no positive knowledge we can acquire, no controlled set of data we can collect that would indicate whether it is in fact likely to be true, we are obliged to identify the statement as nonscience.
The scientist is, of course, welcome to his opinion. It is not, however, the case that his opinion about this is more scientific than any other. Indeed, since it reflects an inability to tell science from nonscience , it might actually be regarded as less scientific than any other. The important criticism, however, lies in the implications of teaching such philosophy as if it constituted science, indeed as if it constituted the theory of evolution. The scientist says: “Science has explained many things about the universe. Your life has no meaning. Have a nice day.” And then he is surprised and appalled at the public rejection of that philosophy. If the goal of science is to make people miserable, then Dawkins and his gloomy philosophy would seem to be the ideal evangelical tool.
But for those of us who think that perhaps people do have the right to be happy (or at least, as Thomas Jefferson believed, the right to pursue happiness), it is an impoverished and unfulfilling worldview. Small wonder it is so unpopular! Small wonder that people would rather derive pleasure from the comforting inanities of The Celestine Prophecy.
And here is the truth then. We are descended from apes. Life is meaningless. Everything is pointless. Don't shoot the messenger for telling you the truth. And if you're too scared to face it, go and join a monastery!
Most people = 98% chimp. 100% dumb.Go Top