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« Richard Dawkins's Cosmology Delusion | Main | The Problem of Beauty »

Dawkins and Delusion, Continued

A couple of other points on which I diverge from Dawkins, whose antipathy toward religion I share (if he sees these posts, he’ll probably think, “With friends like these…”):

First, in God Delusion and elsewhere he exaggerates the degree to which Darwinism explains life. Dawkins opens The Blind Watchmaker by declaring that life "is a mystery no longer," because Darwin solved it with the theory of evolution. That's probably the silliest thing Dawkins has ever said. Life is as mysterious as ever, in spite of all the insights provided by evolutionary theory and more-recent biological paradigms, such as genetics and molecular biology. Neither Darwinism nor any other scientific theory tells us why life appeared on earth in the first place, or whether it was probable or a once-in-eternity fluke. Francis Crick, whose antipathy toward religion rivaled that of Dawkins, once stated that "the origin of life appears to be almost a miracle, so many are the conditions which would have to be satisfied to get it going." I make these and related points in “The Mystery of Life: Darwinism Doesn’t Solve It,” my review of Dawkins’s book Climbing Mount Improbable.

Dawkins has also urged anti-religious folks to join a group such as the Brights. I think these groups are a bad idea, as I explained in “Keeping the Faith in my Doubt,” an oped piece for the Times a couple of years ago.

Otherwise, let me offer an admiring pat for Dawkins in his fight against irrationality.


nigel cook

That is a good point, very thought provoking. Another error of Dawkins is his insistence on continuous evolution, not jumps. He doesn't seem aware that DNA can only change in jumps, not continuously. The apparently continuous range of lengths of necks and tails is due to smearing of discrete DNA information by a physical mechanism: the chemical growth hormones etc which implement evolutionary changes. These chemicals are not produced in discrete amounts, because of the great number of variables involved in producing and releasing them, which results in continuous statistical distribution. But natural selection will not just be based on such continuous variables, but upon discrete mutations caused occasionally by factors like radiation hitting DNA and producing an individual with some useful characteristic which then propagated because it helped survival more.

Regards life, you demand that evolution should explain the origin of life, do you also demand that physics - to be complete - should explain how the universe began?

Is it enough to describe and explain mechanisms for on-going evolution today, or should evolution - to be considered complete - include a scientifically defensible origin of life?

If you read Smolin's book "Life of the Cosmos" the way I do, there is a kind of link between the origin of life and the universe, because of order emerging naturally from initial chaos.

It is obvious the universe is becoming more organised, despite the 3rd law of thermodynamics. The reason entropy increases is simply that the universe is expanding so energy has a ready heat sink in outer space which cannot - due to expansion effects like redshift etc - ever radiate back as much energy to us as we emit to it.

But it is not true what you read in popular books about things naturally becoming more disorganised. Naturally, the opposite happens - largely due to effects like gravity! Entropy doesn't actually increase. Order increases!

The universe (matter and radiation) was all close to 3000 K at 400,000 years after the big bang. Today, space is at 2.726 K while the middle of the sun is at 15,000,000 K.

This is an increase in order. As time goes on, the universe becomes more ordered. People who claim that fuel is running out and a heat death will be the final result, need to be aware that rising entropy is not a general principle, and that with the universe ever expanding, there will ALWAYS be a heat sink colder than you! Space in an eternally expanding cosmos can never radiate back as much energy to earth as earth radiates away, and this fact is purely due to redshift considerations, so the "heat death" is rubbish, and a better understanding of (quantum) gravity may cause vast changes to the picture!

Life on earth probably began in Gabon, Africa in the natural nuclear reactor, which provided a more constant source of heat than day/night, and also provided a strong source of nuclear radiation to speed up early mutations from which useful combinations would survive. For evidence see comment in


Re: Entropy, etc.

Is it correct to say, ". . . it is not true what you read in popular books about things naturally becoming more disorganised. Naturally, the opposite happens - largely due to effects like gravity! Entropy doesn't actually increase. Order increases!"?

Every star we see in the sky will some time cease to exist. Every creature that is born, dies. Every structure that man creates will decay and disintegrate. Great nations of the past are lost somewhere in history, and all existing nations are in various states of decay. Our religions, sooner or later, "will wear their brave state out of memory." These are obvious examples of Entropy--a fact of life and of nature that came into being with the Big Bang.

It may be true that "Space in an eternally expanding cosmos can never radiate back as much energy to earth as earth radiates away. . ." This may be due to the red shift, but it also appears to be Entropy in action.


In your article 'keeping the faith in my doubt,' you basically scorn the idea of a bunch of athiests or skeptics congregating because, as you say, they get very obnoxious and a little too pleased with themselves and in turn, are no different than evangelicals and commies. I disagree for two reasons: one is that, they sure can be pleased with themselves because of the time and effort they put into researching and producing FACTS!! As opposed to pseudo-science and dogma. And second, I think it is essential that free-thinkers come together to debate and combat these huge religious masses pushing their agendas into science classrooms and courts, not to mention blowing the shit out themselves. I think the dynamic trio(dawkins, harris, dennett) are a perfect example of coming together and starting an intelligent, anti-religious movement.

Dana Sawyer

I love your comment about Dawkins and his book. These days we are experiencing a rebirth of Creationism in the guise of "intelligent design," but few people are aware that we are also experiencing a backlash to that in the form of Positivism in the guise of the Brights, Dawkins, etc. Positivism (sometimes also called "scientific materialism"), was decontructed long agoas a viable philosophical position. Any professional philospher today will tell you that there are holes in Positivism that are big enough to throw a cat out of (last year at Oxford I delivered a paper listing the most common ones). So I salute you, John, for championing the insight that science can answer many questions but has NOT, by a long shot, solved life's mystery.

Mike Cook

The hotbed of intelligent design is the Discovery Institute here in Seattle. I am not a member but have attended many of their public gatherings. I grow weary of hearing intelligent design equated to creationism by another name.

I.D. proponents (like myself) hold that the universe is 14 billion years in age, our solar system maybe 5 billion, that life began most likely as single, primitive cells, that life has changed (evolved) over time, and that all primates including us are cousins.

The main thing we don't believe is that it all happened by blind, random chance. Michael Horgan better than anyone should know that some theoretical physics at least also calls the whole concept of chance a mere illusion. At bottom this is because time itself is an illusion of our consciousness. Spacetime is in actuality a flat, frozen tableau. The only thing that moves along it is our window of conscious perception.

Because of this reality we can have phenomena like time reversed light and anti-particles coming from the future perfectly synchronized to join their paired particle's journey from the past.

Time being an illusion, chance is an illusion,both randomness and free will are oxymorons, and there is no possibility that the universe is a meaningless accident or that any of its local permutations, including life, can be accidents.

Strictly in this view we never even know if branching universes exist, because all branching events are only illusions of our consciousness and we can never simultaneously experience two things at once. Everything is sequential to our consciousness. All laws of nature are simply the way things come to us. It was a shock to find out that the expansion of the universe is accelerating and any "law" about bio-chemistry may only be contingent upon new insights that the morrow brings.

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