My response to “Did Darwin Kill God?” part 2

This is part 2 of my appraisal of the hour long BBC special Did Darwin Kill God ?. This part is mostly concerned with my disagreement over Cunningham’s definition of “Ultra Darwinism” and his critique of meme theory. Part 1 is here.

Before we get to the meat, let’s look at a couple of quips Cunningham makes regarding “Ultra Darwinism”. I’d like to pick him up for his unfounded and unexplained statement that this sort of Darwinism is “against God, and especially the Christian God”. I’d also like to draw attention to the way he muddies the waters at the 28:30 mark, implicating social Darwinism (that is, eugenics) purported (apparently) by Clarence Darrow was the reason that this trial was taken up by right wing Christian fundamentalists.  To the contrary, the Butler Act prohibiting teaching evolution in school had been in place for some time, and probably not with the defence lawyer in mind.

Cunningham is responsible for greater misappropriations. His interview with Francis Collins is more than a little bizarre. His introduction stating that “… and some of those who disagree [with atheism] are the best scientists in the world” is a little bit of misdirection. Yes, there are scientists who believe in God, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they’ll take their capacity for scientific appraisal to assess the likelihood of God’s existence (I doubt they would continue believing if they did). To use those “best scientists who believe in God” as a measuring stick for the legitimacy of God’s existence is kind of like stating “nutritionists at home generally prefer eating deep fried stilton” – they might be experts in their field but we can see that their actions may very well be up to personal preference, a preference that they may not use their expertise to analyze. In any case, scientists tend to be far more atheistic than the general population. An oft-quoted statistic shows that a meager 7% of members in the National Academy of Scientists are believers, and one may assume, however unfairly it seems, that most have used their skepticism to look at proofs of God’s existence.

Cunningham’s appraisal of the C-value enigma is also a bit weird. Briefly, the C-value enigma is the supposed mystery of why the number of genes in a given organism has no bearing on the “complexity” of the organism. Using Cunningham’s own example, rice contains more genes that a human. It’s odd that he brings up the C-value enigma, as it doesn’t really help his argument either way, or is really extrapolated upon. I suppose he uses it to show how knowledge of genetics is becoming more complicated than what was previously thought (indeed he goes into this immediately afterwards) but it stands to reason that there are enigmas and mysteries in science- it is science’s job to resolve them. Cunningham’s assertion that we can’t use the idea of a selfish gene due to this increased complexity is flat out wrong- the gene can still be selfish; it may just play out in a more complicated arena, battling a “genetic environment” as well as opposing genes.

My biggest gripe with the entire program was Cunningham’s treatment of meme theory. Again, briefly, meme theory is the idea that cultural information behaves like the selfish gene does. A song is a meme, a unit of cultural information, and it uses the human brain (as well as other media) to replicate, mutate and behave very much like organisms and genes do. Meme theory has been used to explain the behavior of religion throughout time- particularly successful “religious cultural units” such as the concept of an afterlife, a single deity, and divine retribution are more environmentally suited than multiple deities, capricious gods, and ending up as worm food. These religious meme organisms mutate and replicate much like any other cultural phenomena, such as clothing, morality, food, and dance. Cunningham sees these as an affront to personal identity. He reckons that “[meme theory] goes much further than saying there’s no God, it concludes there’s no you and me”. This is of course, rot. Memes are successful because they help us do what we want to do, if we choose not to adopt a meme, it dies. In one way, our choices and decisions are the environment in which memes need to thrive, and in order for them to do so, they’d better do what we want. Cunningham states that meme theory dictates everything of human history, but he clearly misses the obvious such as instinct, psychological urges, desires (shaped by memes, but not memes themselves), and our own environmental pressures. With his belief that memes are some sort of slavemasters, he attempts to attack meme theory to preserve his sense of self value.

Cunningham makes his grand sweep based on two notions. First, memes are unrelated to truth- they are concerned with survival and nothing else. Secondly, meme theory itself is a meme, and as a result can be disregarded because its meme-ness makes it unrelated to truth. By way of ameliorating this discrepancy, Cunningham simply suggests dismissing meme theory out of hand and presto!- our culture and religion can still be taken as “worthy”, science can still be regarded as truthful and meme theory alone is removed. This is nonsense. Cunningham is right to say that memes do not have to be based on truth to be successful; what he ignores is that some of them are. If you don’t believe me, look at the “meme” of Science. While it is fair to say that the origin and action of science is a cultural endeavour, that doesn’t for one minute stop it from making observations and manipulations of reality. Scientific principles have power confirmed by reality and as a result are not worthless as what Cunningham thinks meme theory makes it out to be.  The evidence is all around us. It is not the work of a non-truth based meme that produces insulin shots so that diabetics might live past thirty. Other “memes” also have truth gathering potential such as mathematics, architecture and other professions. It is not the random conflagration of untruth that creates skyscrapers hundreds of metres tall, nor does the infection of understanding prime numbers somehow discredits its ability to tell deep truths about the universe.

Meme theory gives us a spectacular insight into human consciousness and how we behave, but it is wrong to label them as our parasites, and us as their host in the way Cunningham has. Memes are more like desperate salesmen, trying to get us to hire them so that we might enjoy ourselves, get a job done, enhance our socialization, or communicate more effectively. We should use them to better understand our lives and emotions, but by appreciating what memes are, we can stop dangerous or unhelpful ones far more easily and of course make fascinating scientific insights via psychology.

The cat is out of the bag in the final scene of this program, where Cunningham talks to Simon Conway Morris FRS. Having just been through an attempt to put orthodoxy into Christianity, and evolution in its place, the two discuss the apparent similarity of music patterns between creatures of different species, including humans. The insinuation here is that God did it, and I found the entire discussion a confirmation of the thoughts I’ve had when Cunningham diverted into the C-value enigma, or social Darwinism, or stating “Ultra Darwinism” is against God, but really really against a Christian one. Cunningham is not trying to settle the debate between evolution and creationism; he is nudging in his own, religious based (and therefore unfounded) beliefs into the mix, muddying the waters of all tenets of evolution theory, and separating himself as best he can from the whackos of creationism. Take it as an attempt to reconcile “normal” faith without falling into fundamentalism.

~ by freeze43 on July 25, 2012.

6 Responses to “My response to “Did Darwin Kill God?” part 2”

  1. Memes are successful because they help us do what we want to do, if we choose not to adopt a meme, it dies.

    Rubbish. Some memes are successful because they help their hosts; others are neutral or harmful. Just as commensalism, mutualism and parasitism all exist as ways for organisms to interact, they exist as ways for memes to interact.

  2. Yes I agree, hence I referred to unhelpful and dangerous memes later on in the post. I thought it would be best not to confuse the “memes use us hence we don’t exist” versus “memes help us, screw with us, but our endeavours can be our own” point that I was making there.

    Just as a thought, I suppose one could define “what we want to do” that also incorporates neutral and harmful memes. I (that is, my brain) wants to repeat a catchy song in my head, I may also want to adopt dangerous memes to suit my own emotions, I may even want to adopt certain memes because they assist well entrenched memes that have changed my emotional stance.

    As a result, I “choose” to ignore a song that isn’t catchy enough, or prove infertile for memes that don’t help me and my previously entrenched memes.

  3. Well done old boy! I have not seen the broadcast, but, living as I do at the epicenter of American Creationism I enjoyed your take on it. I particularly enjoyed your use of the word “jejune”. One rarely comes across that lovely word these days and more is the pity for that.

    I have no idea what “Wilkox” is on about. I found your discussion of memes (and I dislike that word intensely) to be rather spot on.

    What fascinates me is how little distance we have come as an “intelligent” species in SPITE of Darwin. We remain the animal that creates its own reality. The only real question is “at what level of insanity does man function best?”

    All the best
    Mrs. N

  4. I am intrigued by the concept of meme theory , but it doesn’t explain satisfactorily to me how all sentient animals work together to help one another unselfishly. See the Santa Fe Institute and the work of Bowles, Gintis and others for more info.

    • I agree with you. Memetics is simply a way of looking at how culture works, not necessarily what it does. It may create culture that makes it easier for sentient animals to behave unselfishly, but it is not the reason for them doing so.

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