The Dangerous Delusions of Richard Dawkins

August 8, 2017

The recent cancellation of a book event with Richard Dawkins by the radio station KPFA has caused reverberations around the world. KPFA cited offensive remarks Dawkins has made about Islam. Dawkins and his followers have claimed these were taken out of context and that he’s been equally critical of Christianity. What this controversy misses, however, is the far greater destructive force of other ideas Dawkins has promulgated over decades, which have helped form the foundation of a mainstream worldview that endorses gaping wealth inequalities and encourages the wanton destruction of the natural world.

Richard Dawkins is seen as a superhero by rationalist thinkers seeking to overturn the delusions of monotheistic thought, which have wreaked havoc on the experience of billions of people over the past two millennia. In a 2013 poll, the readers of a respected British magazine, Prospect, voted him as the world’s top thinker. His bestselling popularization of evolution, The Selfish Gene, published in 1976, was recently named the most influential science book of all time in a Royal Society poll.

In fighting for science against religious superstition and climate deniers, Richard Dawkins deserves some of his popular acclaim. However, rational as they appear at first, Dawkins’ ideas are based on delusions of their own. The flaws implicit in his own belief system may be less obvious than those of monotheism, but they are at the root of much that is wrong in the current mainstream worldview. Important as it is to point out the dangerous delusions of monotheism, it is equally important not to replace one set of misconceptions with another.

In my book, The Patterning Instinct, I explored the underlying misconceptions that have led to our current crisis of civilization, and realized that Dawkins has been popularizing two of the most pernicious. One is the idea that all living organisms are controlled by selfish genes, and that humans, by implication, are innately selfish. Another is the notion that nature is nothing more than a very complicated machine. Both of these core ideas have been shown by countless scientists to be fundamentally wrong. Yet, partly because of the popularity of Dawkins’s own writing, they are widely taken on faith by the same intelligentsia that reject the fallacies of monotheism—and are used to justify some of our civilization’s most destructive behaviors.

The ‘Selfish Gene’ Is Bad Science and Bad Economics

Since Dawkins’s 1976 publication of The Selfish Gene, millions of people have come to understand evolution as the result of genes competing against other in a remorseless drive to replicate themselves. Ruthless competition is seen as the force that separates evolution’s winners from losers. Even altruism is interpreted as a sophisticated form of selfish behavior used by an organism to propagate its own genes more effectively. “Let us try to teach generosity and altruism,” Dawkins suggests, “because we are born selfish.”

It’s a harsh story, and one that has become a bedrock of modern economics, which argues that human beings are motivated by their own self-interest, and their collective self-serving actions result in the best outcome for society. This has led to a commonly accepted pseudo-scientific rationalization for laissez-faire capitalism, using the misappropriated term “survival of the fittest” to justify ruthless exploitation of the poor by wealthy corporations.

It is, however, a story that has been shown in recent decades to be erroneous at each level of its narration. Dawkins’s idea of the “selfish gene,” while still holding currency in the popular imagination, has been extensively discredited as a simplistic interpretation of evolution. In its place, biologists have developed a far more sophisticated view of evolution as a series of complex, interlocking systems, where the gene, organism, community, species, and environment all interact with each other intricately over different time frames.

Rather than a battleground of “selfish genes” competing to outperform one another, modern biologists offer a new view of nature as a web of networked systems, dynamically optimizing at different levels of evolutionary selection. Ecosystems rely for their health on the tightly synchronized interaction of many different species. Trees in a forest have been discovered to communicate with each other in a complex network that maintains their collective health—sometimes referred to as the “wood wide web.” And regarding our intrinsic human nature, a new generation of scientists has pointed to our ability to cooperate, rather than compete, as our defining characteristic.

As distinguished biologist Lynn Margulis put it, “Life did not take over the world by combat but by networking.” In direct contrast to the “selfish gene” rationalization of laissez-faire capitalism, the recognition that cooperative networking is an essential part of sustainable ecosystems can inspire new ways to structure technology and social organization for human flourishing.

The ‘Nature as A Machine’ Delusion

Ever since the 17th-century scientific revolution, the view of nature as a complicated machine, first proffered by Hobbes and Descartes, has spread worldwide, leading people to lose sight of it as a metaphor and wrongly believe that nature actually is a machine.

Richard Dawkins has been responsible for popularizing an updated version of this Cartesian myth, writing famously that “life is just bytes and bytes and bytes of digital information,” adding: “That is not a metaphor, it is the plain truth. It couldn’t be any plainer if it were raining floppy discs.” Open any science magazine, and you’ll see genes described as programmers that “code” for certain traits, while the mind is discussed as “software” for the “hardware” of the body that is “wired” in certain ways. Thanks to Dawkins and his followers, this deluded view of nature as a machine has become ubiquitous, creating the moral sanction for corporations to treat the earth as a resource to plunder, beguiling techno-visionaries to seek immortality by downloading their minds, and inspiring technocrats to argue for solving climate change through geoengineering.

Biologists, however, identify principles intrinsic to life that categorically differentiate it from even the most complicated machine. Living organisms cannot be split, like a computer, between hardware and software. A neuron’s biophysical makeup is intrinsically linked to its computations: the information doesn’t exist separately from its material construction.

In recent decades, systems thinkers have transformed our understanding of life, showing it to be a self-organized, self-regenerating complex that extends like a fractal at ever-increasing scale, from a single cell to the global system of life on Earth. Everything in the natural world is dynamic rather than static, and biological phenomena can’t be predicted with precision.

This new conception of life leads us to recognize the intrinsic interdependency of all living systems, including humans. It offers us the underpinnings for a sustainable future where technology is used, not to ransack nature or re-engineer it, but to harmonize with it and thus make life more meaningful and enhance flourishing.

The Reductionist Myth and the False Choice It Offers Us

Richard Dawkins and his followers have been responsible for foisting a cruel myth on thinking people around the world: that if they reject the illusions of monotheism, their only serious alternative is to believe in a world that is harsh, selfish, and ultimately without meaning. Their ideas arise from a particular form of scientific thought known as reductionism, which holds that every aspect of our world, no matter how awe-inspiring, is “nothing but” the mechanical motion of particles acting predictably on each other.

In fact, recent findings in complexity theory and systems biology point the way to a new conception of a connected universe that is both scientifically rigorous and deeply meaningful. In this understanding, the connections between things are frequently more important than the things themselves. By emphasizing the underlying principles that apply to all living things, this understanding helps us realize our intrinsic interdependence with all of nature, and offers a philosophical basis for a future of sustainable flourishing. Rather than driven by selfish genes in an endless struggle, we are in fact part of a web of meaning linking humanity with the natural world.

The damage that Richard Dawkins has caused our global society goes far deeper than any hurtful comments he has made about Islam. As we face the gaping inequalities caused by uncontrolled capitalism, along with the looming threat of catastrophic climate change and other impending global crises, we must recognize the role that Dawkins’ ideas have played in forming the philosophical foundations of our unsustainable worldview.

Ultimately, the crucial issue is not about cancelling his appearance on a radio show but recognizing that, just as religion has caused millennia of suffering based on delusional ideas, Dawkins himself has created a new delusional framework offering a false rationale for an economic and technocratic system destroying human and natural flourishing. The choice is not between religion and science, as Dawkins and his followers suggest. The real choice is between a flawed worldview that leads inexorably to globally destructive behavior and one that recognizes life’s deep interconnectedness and humanity’s intrinsic responsibility within it.

 Ed. note: The reader reaction to Jeremy’s initial article led him to write a reponse, which he wished for Resilience.org to post with the original article.

Reflections on “The Dangerous Delusions of Richard Dawkins”

My article “The Dangerous Delusions of Richard Dawkins,” which appeared on AlterNet recently, has stirred up a veritable hornet’s nest of controversy. Within a few hours of publication, it has catalyzed over 350 comments, most of them antagonistic. To give a sense of the flavor and tone, here’s a typical entry:

Yep. This piece isn’t just fallacious, it is flagrantly intellectually dishonest. The only way for AlterNet to save face on this is to retract this tripe in its entirety.

I should have been prepared. In a recent article on Salon, Phil Torres writes how the New Atheist movement has degenerated into a tribal ethic of intolerance. His piece initiated its own torrent of comments, such as, “That’s the stupidest thing I’ve ever read.”

However, along with the vitriol, some arguments made in response to my article raise important issues worthy of a considered response. In the hope of catalyzing a more productive dialogue, I’ve attempted to distill what I see as the key criticisms and offer my feedback. I encourage a continuing discussion, in a civil and respectful tone, of what I see as vitally important topics regarding the underlying structures of thought that predominate in our civilization.

‘Attacking the “Selfish Gene” idea is a straw man tactic’

This is probably the most significant recurring critique of my article. I am accused of being disingenuous by attacking the “selfish gene” phrase, whereas Dawkins’ actual arguments are far more sophisticated and thoughtful than the book’s title would imply. Several readers refer to the 30th anniversary edition of The Selfish Gene, where in a new preface, Dawkins complains of simplistic attacks by “those philosophers who prefer to read a book by title only, omitting the rather extensive footnote which is the book itself.”

In fact, this was the very edition of The Selfish Gene I read many years ago, at the outset of the research project that generated my book The Patterning Instinct. I’m afraid that if you read the “extensive footnote” of the book, you will see that Dawkins expands with literary flourish on the broader implications of his “selfish” theme:

The argument of this book is that we, and all other animals, are machines created by our genes. Like successful Chicago gangsters, our genes have survived, in some cases for millions of years, in a highly competitive world. This entitles us to expect certain qualities in our genes. I shall argue that a predominant quality to be expected in a successful gene is ruthless selfishness. This gene selfishness will usually give rise to selfishness in individual behavior…. Much as we might wish to believe otherwise, universal love and the welfare of the species as a whole are concepts that simply do not make evolutionary sense.

While Dawkins has to some extent disavowed his book’s title, I haven’t seen him disavow his book’s core argument.

Dawkins does state clearly that his description of the gene’s selfishness in no way justifies a moral code of selfishness. “Be warned,” he writes, “that if you wish, as I do, to build a society towards a common good, you can expect little help from biological nature.” Rather, Dawkins sees humans as being in a state of constant battle with their own genetic makeup. “Our brains,” he suggests, “have evolved to the point where we are capable of rebelling against our selfish genes.”

Thus, Dawkins proffers the image of a human as a battleground between the “state of nature” (our selfish genes) and our moral conscience. As I describe in The Patterning Instinct, this split vision of a human being can be traced back to Plato’s original dualistic construction of reason fighting bodily impulses, which became a founding precept of Christianity, as manifested in Paul’s narrative of his soul engaged in a struggle to the death with his body. It is ironic that Dawkins, an outspoken critic of Christianity, should have inherited this split conception of the human being from the very tradition he so vehemently opposes.

This view of the human condition is so widely accepted in Western thought that it might strike many as self-evident. However, it’s a viewpoint unique to the European tradition. Other cultures have seen humanity’s propensity to cooperate as intrinsic to human nature, something that has been validated by recent findings in cognitive anthropology.

‘Only a metaphor’

A related criticism is that Dawkins didn’t mean genes are literally selfish (which of course is an absurdity), but was merely using it as a metaphor. Dawkins, once again, makes this argument himself in his preface to the 30th anniversary edition. However, metaphors have a deeply powerful influence in structuring how we think. The core metaphors of the cosmos held by various cultures have been instrumental in shaping the direction of history; they hide in plain sight within our cognition, becoming so entrenched in our thinking that we forget they are metaphors and begin to believe them as fact, along with the logical entailments that arise from them. In the words of cognitive linguist George Lakoff, “Metaphorical concepts… structure our present reality. New metaphors have the power to create a new reality.”

To see how this actually happens, we need look no further than the case of Enron, one of the grisliest examples of an unfettered capitalist ethos gone wild. Enron CEO Jeffrey Skilling famously based his managerial philosophy of Darwinian survival on The Selfish Gene, his favorite book. Dawkins has disavowed Skilling’s flawed interpretation of his work, but the fact remains that millions of people throughout the world continue to believe in this myth of the “selfish gene” as a harsh but inevitable truth of nature. The core metaphors we use to think about ourselves and the universe have profound implications.

‘Dawkins’ selfish gene argument is actually true’

In the words of one commenter, “Dawkins is a scientist, and would change his views if evidence were presented to really refute them. In respect of ‘The Selfish Gene’ no such evidence has been presented.”

As a cultural historian, not a scientist by training, I can only point to the work of countless biologists who have extended our understanding of evolution in recent decades to a far more sophisticated level than seeing the “gene” as the single unit of selection. New theories of multilevel selection and niche construction, studies of epigenetic inheritance, and the recognition that the word “gene” itself has no rigorous and consistent definition, all need to be fully incorporated into any systematic understanding of how nature and evolution actually work.

For those interested in pursuing this investigation further, I refer you to a sampling of my own research on this topic with some of the clearest expositions from recognized leaders in the field of evolutionary biology (see the footnote at the bottom of the page).

‘Dawkins doesn’t support neoliberal politics’

I appreciate that Richard Dawkins himself is no proponent of modern laissez-faire corporate capitalism. I believe Dawkins is a highly ethical man with good intentions, and my critique of his ideas should not be taken in any way as ad hominem. I agree with much of his criticism of monotheistic beliefs (a chapter of my book chronicles what I call the “scourge of monotheistic intolerance”), and I wholeheartedly support his defense of science against climate denialism.

The problem is that, regardless of his intentions, the two core metaphors he has been so successful in propagating—the “selfish gene” and “nature as a machine”—have been widely accepted as reality in our society, with devastating consequences on both human relations and the natural world. My intention in writing this article (and my book) has been to draw attention to the implicit assumptions underlying our worldview that encourage us to think and behave collectively in destructive ways. It is only by becoming conscious of our own preconceptions that we can shift our cognition toward patterns that can be more beneficial for ourselves and the world at large.

‘Systems science is soft-headed New Age thinking’

A number of comments are strangely vitriolic about my assessment of findings in systems sciences, such as complexity theory and systems biology that emphasize the importance of connectivity. There seems to be an underlying widely held belief that any non-reductionist view of reality must be woolly headed New Age nonsense. One commenter calls it a “hippy-dippy notion of an inter-cooperative cosmos” and another as “vacuous, feel-good New Age-y Kumbaya bullshit.”

These responses are sad and somewhat mystifying. There are countless peer-reviewed journals dedicated to disseminating findings in systems-related disciplines. Some of the greatest scientists and mathematicians of the modern age—Ilya Prigogine, Erwin Schrödinger, Edward Lorenz, and Benoit Mandelbrot, to name just a few—have devoted distinguished careers to developing a better understanding of how complex systems work. For anyone interested in learning more about this important alternative to the reductionist view of the universe, and its potential implications for future human flourishing, I refer you to this page on my website.

As I state in my article, I believe Dawkins and his followers are responsible for presenting a false choice to thinking people everywhere: that to reject monotheistic superstition they have to believe in reductionism. The recognition that there are underlying principles that apply to all living things, and that humans and nature are interdependent, offers a framework for making sense of humanity’s place in the universe that is intrinsically meaningful. I invite those who reflexively dismiss these ideas as “New Age nonsense” to study the rigorous science underlying them, and enter into a respectful, generative dialogue into their deep philosophical and social implications.

Jeremy Lent

Jeremy Lent is an author of two award-winning books, The Patterning Instinct: A Cultural History of Humanity’s Search for Meaning, and The Web of Meaning: Integrating Science and Traditional Wisdom to Find Our Place in the Universe.. He has written extensively about the vision of, and pathways toward, an ecological civilization and is founder of the Deep Transformation Network. More information... Read more.

Tags: scientific materialism, systems thinking