Richard Dawkins and "The Purpose of Purpose"

Oxford University’s previous Charles Simonyi Professor for Public Understanding of Science, Richard Dawkins, visited Michigan State University in East Lansing on March 2nd and 3rd. Prof. Dawkins gave a lecture on “The Purpose of Purpose” to a sold-out crowd at the Wharton Center on the evening of the 2nd, and held an hour-and-a-half question and answer session at the Fairchild Theater on campus in the morning of the 3rd.

(Original post at the Austringer)

Fred Dyer, head of MSU’s Zoology Department, introduced Prof. Dawkins to a sold-out crowd in the Wharton Center main theater. A part of the WorldViews Lecture Series, this event was the first to completely sell out the main seating area and balcony for a lecture rather than a performance at the Wharton Center. A comparison to a lecture by Stephen Jay Gould several years ago cannot be made, since the organizers for that one booked only a smaller room at the Wharton Center and were dismayed to have to turn away a large number of people seeking admission. That sort of organizational miscue was avoided for Prof. Dawkins’ appearance.

Prof. Dawkins titled his talk as “The Purpose of Purpose” and began with an anecdote of Peter Atkins being asked by one of the Royal Family, “But what about the ‘why’ questions?”, and Atkins replying, “That is a silly question.”

Dawkins noted that asking ‘why’ for inanimate objects like air or rocks is almost always considered inappropriate. But asking ‘why’ living organisms are seems to often have been done in the past. He noted a number of amusing instances, such as claims that domestic animals provide a means to keep their meat fresh until we have need to eat them, lice were a strong incentive to personal cleanliness, large predators allowed hunters to test their courage, and horseflies encouraged industry and the use of wits in combatting them.

This mindset persists to this day, said Dawkins, popping up the Ray Comfort “banana” video, which got an especially large dollop of audience laughter with Comfort’s assertion that the banana has just the right shape to fit in the human mouth. Dawkins noted that, unfortunately, the video was not simply a joke. Comfort apparently has offered to give Dawkins $10,000 to debate Comfort. Dawkins responded saying that he would take Comfort up on that only if Comfort donated $100K to Dawkins’ new foundation. Then Dawkins compared the modern, domesticated version of the banana to the fruit of the wild banana, showing that many of the properties that Comfort was ascribing to God’s design were actually choices made in artificial selection by humans. Some of the attitudes remain even in those who have abandoned a religious viewpoint, especially when it comes to seeing humans as part of the panoply of life and not separate from it, as when people ascribe the grave sin of murder to aborting a human fetus, while cheerfully eating a cow. The question to be asked is not whether something can reason, or talk, but rather whether it can suffer.

Dawkins went on to talk about artificial selection as a transition to natural selection. Corn, for example, has been selected in varieties that minimize and maximize the oil content, with dramatic increases in oil content seen in the one, and values of oil content close to zero in the other. Roses demonstrate the extent to which human artificial selection can take things. But it must be recognized that human selection of roses picks up where natural selection done by insects has left off. Flowers show the lengths that adaptation in plants can go to avoid the phenomena of self-fertilization. Wind pollination only goes so far. Many flowers now bribe pollinators to carry their pollen. A Madagascar orchid that was examined by both Darwin and Wallace illustrates this, as the “dangly thing” restricts pollination to a pollinator with a thin tongue of some 11 inches in length. Darwin and Wallace predicted this, and later Darwin’s Hawk Moth was discovered, an animal with the predicted long tongue.

Natural selection is non-random success, and represents another way to improve. All living things are “survival machines”, where every species preserves its genes in a different way. Humans do this by thinking. And so we can give a new view of purpose, where purpose for living organisms is to preserve and propagate their genes, to work hard and make copies of themselves.

As related by Dawkins, humans appear to be a major exception to this view of purpose. Naive Darwinism has no explanation for things like contraception and adoption. Adoption is a wonderful thing, it just isn’t very Darwinian.

Then Dawkins got to the essential framework of the rest of his talk, making a distinction within purpose between the purpose that comes about as adaptation via natural selection, which he called “archi-purpose”, and the purpose that comes about through the intent of a planning brain, which he called “neo-purpose”. Archi-purpose, then, resembles an intentional purpose, but is not such: the resemblance is an illusion. Neo-purpose, as Dawkins views it, is itself an evolved adaptation.

The brain viewed as an on-board computer sets up goals, or neo-purposes. Dawkins raised the question of whether man-made machines can, themselves, have neo-purposes? And he answered in the affirmative on that, noting that machines like guided missiles can seek goals. He did note that certain other inventions, like cannonballs, were destructive but did not have the goal-seeking or even goal-setting property that underlies neo-purpose.

Dawkins moved on to what goals could be seen in animal behavior, bringing up bat biosonar as an instance. He also considered the simple guidance system of maggots where they use a negative phototaxis to get to a food source as a low-level example. Dragonflies, he noted, seek out their prey much as a guided missile seeks out its target. One could note the similarities in orientation via sound between human-made submarines and whales.

So, what happens in the on-board computer? Dawkins thinks that a key component in developing neo-purposes is the ability to simulate, to predict future outcomes under conditions other than what currently apply, and to be able to imagine novel situations. This raises further questions. Are whales conscious of their purposes? Dawkins relates that it seems that one can doubt that very simple animals have that sort of consciousness, but that it seems very likely that whales do have it.

The sort of flexibility in determining behavior that a simulating, imaginative brain gives an animal, said Dawkins, makes for a double-edged sword. With flexibility comes the ability to subvert the adaptive archi-purpose underlying the brain’s functionality. Why do humans seek hedonistic pleasure? Why do humans not work more diligently at propagating their genes? It is the nature of brain flexibility that makes subversion of that archi-purpose possible, such that re-programming of the brain can happen.

But we know, said Dawkins, that there is both flexibility and inflexibility involved. The flexibility to set a new goal, a neo-purpose, can be coupled with the inflexible drive to pursue that goal that was originally part of the adaptive archi-purpose program. The new, neo-purpose, goal can be pursued over long periods, even a lifetime, in service of religious, military, or political ideas. There can be continued flexibility in setting up sub-goals, and sub-sub-goals, in service of the inflexibly held neo-purpose goal. It is important to understand this hierarchy of goal-seeking, and the capacity to set short-term goals in service of long-term goals. Humans provide the most obvious examples of subversion of goals. Humans bred sheepdogs for herding sheep, yet what one sees in the herding behavior is an altered or reprogrammed version of the stalking behavior of wolves. To take a fictional example, Dawkins used the movie, “The Bridge Over the River Kwai” and the character of Colonel Nicholson, whose obsession with proving the industry and ingenuity of the Western mindset subverted the goal of firmly opposing the war efforts of the enemy.

Dawkins named a number of archi-purposes that provided “subversion fodder”: hunger, sex, parental care, kinship, filial obedience, and others. We evolved under conditions where sugar and fat marked high-quality food sources, and poor food availability meant we tended to eat obsessively when food sources were available. But today for western culture, food is always available, and we do damage to our teeth and our health via over-indulgence. For the subversion of sex, Dawkins showed a photograph of a moose mounting a statue of a bison. Once the audience had gotten a laugh out of that, the next slide showed a scantily clad human female model, and Dawkins said, “At least the bison statue was in 3D.” Contraception forms a subversion of the archi-purpose of sex. Notes Steven Pinker’s quote, “My genes can go jump in the lake.” We adopt kittens and puppies.

Filial obedience is subverted as in “God the father”, and the elevation of other father-figures. Subversion of kinship occurs, too, we are keenly aware of our kin relations, and may be said to be obsessed with kinship. This subversion occurs via fictive kin, subverting kinship loyalty. In-group loyalty and out-group hostility utilize fictive kin to cement those new allegiances. Religion consistently uses fictive kin rhetoric. Entire nations can be viewed as using fictive kin relationships. This is especially dangerous when an implacable faith is involved, as the 9/11 terrorists demonstrated.

But there is a good side to the subversion of purpose. It can be exhilarating. Our species is likely young in its liberation from the strictures of archi-purposes. The steps from the invention of the wheel to that of airliners and space shuttles have proceeded rapidly. Cultural evolution is speedy, whether we pursue things beneficial or the sub-goals of war. But the flexibility we have gives us grounds for hope.

A question and answer session followed after the lecture. The questions were submitted by the audience and selected by Prof. Dyer.

The first question asked about Dawkins’ personal history of non-belief. He said he first started doubting religion at the age of nine, when he realized that there were lots of different religions. He completely lost faith at the age of fifteen, when he learned about Darwinian evolution and was able to attribute life and its history to something other than a designer.

How would you respond to those who compare you to the likes of Billy Graham; do you consider yourself an evangelical atheist? No, Dawkins said, he did not consider himself an evangelical atheist, for the reason that people like Billy Graham are absolutely sure that they are right, and he is not certain that he is right, and would be able to change his mind given sufficient evidence that he was wrong. Dawkins said that he was not dogmatic, therefore not an evangelical atheist. While the pattern of speech that he employs based on conviction may sound similar to that of Billy Graham, but he bases his conviction on evidence and should not be confused with conviction that proceeds from no evidence at all.

Could someone embrace a no-god view without learning for themselves what science says about the world? Dawkins thought it would be difficult. He presumes that he would have been religious if he had been born before 1859, as the appearance of design is convincing. But even without the later scientific knowledge, one cannot come to a conclusion of a designer with any good certainty, as was recognized by various thinkers before Darwin, notably David Hume. So it would have been possible, but it would have been difficult.

What about the tendency in our society to embrace medicine based on pseudoscience? Dawkins said he was not dogmatically opposed to “alternative medicine”, as if one could demonstrate that some “alternative” works, it ceases to be alternative and simply becomes mainstream. That said, it is difficult to imagine a test for something like homeopathy, where active ingredients supposedly become more powerful with dilution. Eventually, both your control and your test dose contain nothing of the supposed active ingredient, thus if you found a difference, you would also have found entirely new laws of physics, too. Of course, the placebo effect exists, and mainstream doctors don’t have time to spend with patients, but alternative medicine doctors do. That additional time may be effective, but that effectiveness needs to be separated from the effect of the process or medication that the alternative practitioners offer. If we go back far enough, we may see our preference for alternative medicine in the fact that at one time what mainstream doctors mostly did was kill you, and while the alternative medicine practitioners may not have made you better, they at least mostly did nothing at all.

What about the view that medicine extends life to many who would otherwise have died? Certainly modern medicine allows the human population to propagate many genes that contribute to genetic illness, but Dawkins does not see this as a bad thing.

What if instead of consider archi-purpose to be subverted that we view the ability to set neo-purposes as adaptive? Dawkins said that this was interesting and would go to his points about flexibility in brains as on-board computers.

Is there an archi-purpose for spiritual experience? Dawkins said that the capability for spiritual experience could have a biological purpose, but that we should be careful to note that this did not mean that gods existed. Delusion is commonplace, and the survival value of the predisposition to spiritual experience could lead to the worship of nonexistent entities. The most likely way this might manifest is in a biological predisposition to a psychological attitude.

Dawkins has said that he’d be honored to become a fossil. What does he see as the best thing that he will leave behind? Dawkins said that it would likely be The Selfish Gene, though more recently he has preferred The Ancestor’s Tale. While The Blind Watchmaker is extremely popular, he sees Climbing Mount Improbable as a better book addressing much the same topic.

What is your favorite novel? Dawkins said that he was devoted to P.G. Wodehouse, but loved the works of Evelyn Waugh.

(Photo by Wesley R. Elsberry.)