Friday, October 16, 2009
THE NOT-SO-ANGRY EVOLUTIONIST
Newsweek may call Dawkins "the angry evolutionist," but in his latest book, Dawkins at least makes an attempt to lower the temperature. He reserves his harshest words for "history-deniers" who refuse to accept the evidence for evolution, comparing them to Holocaust-deniers or hypothetical "ignoramuses" who insist the Roman Empire never existed because they weren't around to see the Caesars. Dawkins traces the investigation step by step, including the fossil record and the latest DNA evidence as well as the small-scale changes we see in bacteria, dog breeds and even the size of elephant tusks. All the clues point to nature as the perpetrator of biological change, using "weapons" such as climate and predation. Some mysteries are still unsolved, however. Dawkins cited four of his favorites last week during a talk at the University of Washington:
The origin of life: It might surprise some of Dawkins' critics to hear that he offers no explanation for what kick-started life in the first place. "That is a complete mystery," he said. Scientists have plenty of suspects to check out, however.
The origin of sex: Dawkins said scientists are also puzzling over "what sex is all about" - in evolutionary theory, that is. After all, sexual reproduction isn't strictly necessary for the evolutionary process to do its thing. Some researchers surmise that sex arose to help weed out harmful mutations or provide more options for propagation.
The origin of consciousness: Where does subjective consciousness come from? Dawkins sees this as the "biggest puzzle" facing biology. Scientists have their ideas, and one of the latest ideas is that consciousness serves as the Wi-Fi network for an assortment of "computers" inside your brain.
The rise of morality: What drives us to do good, even for people we don't even know? The expectation of reciprocity provides a partial explanation, but "it doesn't account for the extremely high degree of moral behavior that humans show," Dawkins said. He surmises that altruism might have arisen as a "mistaken misfiring" of neural circuits involved in calculating the mutual give and take among kin.
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