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The Dangerous Delusions Of Richard Dawkins

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The Dangerous Delusions Of Richard Dawkins

Richard Dawkins

Reprinted with permission from AlterNet.


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.

Jeremy Lent is the author of The Patterning Instinct: A Cultural History of Humanity’s Search for Meaning (Prometheus Books).
Header image source.




  1. Aaron_of_Portsmouth August 6, 2017

    There is an eerie and consistent pattern to the evolution of thought in Western Europe by those “Africans” who journeyed across tome and place out of Africa. That pattern is the insistence on seeing the world in strictly materialistic terms, and the gradual adoption of the view that the spiritual dimension of humanity is something to be dismissed. We can see this in the exorbitance in all things material—unfortunately, the British, the French and Portuguese, and Spaniards/Italians to a lesser degree, would export these trends in thinking to other parts of the world, from the Americas to Africa, and into Europe and Australasia.

    Dawkins, for example, is a prime example of the transfer of this materialism into the present Day and Age. I see Dawkins as a direct descendant of the likes of Francis Galton and his peers. As you recall, Galton was a cousin of Darwin, and would champion the concept of “Survival of The Fittest”. This competition-driven philosophy leaves little or no room for cooperation, except to further the survival of a population of species in certain cases. Packs of lions assisting in the kill will often be dominated by a particular “alpha” male lion in defining territory from other prides, and dividing the spoils and who eats first according to rank and gender. Those conquered by the early explorers out of Europe would fall in the face of this Darwinian “Survival of the Fittest” modality, and raison d’etre for colonialism. Dawkins is just a sophisticated colonialist dressed in clothing and possessing mannerism like that of the rest of us.
    (Bannon is another example of this mode of thinking; Trump is the Neanderthal version, but still dangerous in his own uniquely predatory manner).

    Dawkins and many of us in the West have adopted Darwin’s theory to the point of a Social Darwinism, which itself is driven by the artificially-induced “competition” of spiritual versus material. In humans—and this is where Galton, Darwin, and Dawkins missed the boat and strayed down the path of seeing humans merely as an extension of the animal. But as is clarified to a greater extent than ever before was permitted, Baha’u’llah has made it clear that although we share much in common with the animal, and at some stage in our evolution we appeared ape-like in stature, stance, and behavior—yet, humans are profoundly and qualitatively different than the animal by possessing spiritual susceptibilities, and we are aware of our Creator. Pr at least we can formulate views to that effect. Animals don’t share this quality. Also, animals are constrained to exist within physical boundaries of space and don’t possess the ability to change their condition to exceed those boundaries. Humans, on the other hand, are able to transcend their physical boundaries—the reality of space flight is an example of humans extending beyond the boundaries of fixed locations on earth; humans are able to discover and expand in radical ways to uncover the secrets of nature. Certain animals can invent tools, and modify their environment, but they do so under fixed laws without thought of building an “ever-advancing civilization”.

    And these distinctions were completely veiled from the minds of Darwin, Galton, Dawkins, the generations of racialists, and other mundane individuals who see themselves simple as a collection of chemicals and enzymes, and possessing a larger brain and mental capacity therein. Again, which is why Baha’u’llah was mandated to appear as a continuation of the universal paradigm called Progressive Revelation, in order to educate humanity of our higher nature—a nature that extends far beyond that of the lower kingdoms of existence.

    1. dbtheonly August 7, 2017

      Well done as always.

      I’d point out the early 20th Century as a time when “science” ran rampant. Without the moderating influence of religion, “science” gave us eugenics, euthanasia, and war as enabling a race. We also got some really bizarre definitions of race, but we can discuss that in another day.

  2. flafreethinker August 6, 2017

    This is a hoot! As a practical realist not needing myth and superstition in my life, Dawkins is the most brilliant scientist to openly antagonize the religions of the world. We need more like him to come forth and denounce faith. Once religion, ALL RELIGION is eradicated from this planet, then real progress can be made.

    1. Marilyn August 7, 2017

      Undoubtedly many atrocities have been committed in the name of religion, but everyday there are millions of acts of kindness, generosity, and courage that result from the faith of people of various religions all over the world. I don’t know why you have such hatred for billions of people that you don’t even know so that you would want to see them “eradicated from the planet,” How is this line of thinking any different from the religious blindness that led to the Inquisition?

      1. Greg Hilliard August 7, 2017

        Marilyn, flafreethinker is advocating for religions to be eradicated, not the religious themselves. I commit acts of kindness, generosity, and courage myself, and I’m an atheist. I would hardly wish for the religious to be eradicated; why, I would lose most of my family and friends!

        1. Marilyn August 7, 2017

          I realize that many non-religious people are ethical and kind. I see that all the time in several agnostic friends. Likewise some people who profess a religious affiliation are mean-spirited and hateful. However I don’t think religion can be eradicated without eradicating the people with those beliefs. When the believers are gone, then religion will be gone.

          1. Greg Hilliard August 7, 2017

            Many atheists, like me, were religious once, too. We were not “eradicated,” but we did get rid of superstitious beliefs that have no evidence to support them. I doubt we will ever rid ourselves of religions, but I hope we in the U.S. make more inroads against as has been done in much of Europe, where religion has far less influence on public policy and sentiment.

          2. Marilyn August 8, 2017

            I am all for the separation of church and state. In Europe, as you have noted, religion does not have so much influence on the government. That is true even in countries where there is a state sponsored religion in which case forcing people to pay taxes to finance the church does not foster any sort of church involvement as attendance in those countries is also very poor. I have concluded that separation of church and state is good for both the government and the church. The government can be more inclusive of all points of view and the church is supported only by those who sincerely want to be involved rather than being coerced into financial support.

  3. Aaron_of_Portsmouth August 6, 2017

    Dawkins’ unbelief in God is itself a “belief” system. A system where “Negation” is the “god”. As for his rejection of monotheism, is it to be inferred that Dawkins accepts polytheism, or some other form(s) of idolatry? Dawkins, like so many “Africans” particularly who journeyed into Europe, represents a peculiar track of social evolution where Religion began to gradually disappear with the advance of an overabundant attachment to material objects and a parallel synchronous expression of an excessive degree of carnal pursuits. (Sorry, but that was a mouth-full, I admit).

    I have always been mildly amused by his warped perception of his humanity, or rather his rejection of his being endowed with spiritual qualities not bequeathed to other forms of existence. Which is another way of extrapolating the metaphor that “God created man in His own image”. Dawkins parents and other ancestors of his intuitively understood this. But in some humans, particularly here in the West, our intellect along with materialism has caused us to detach ourselves from our inherently spiritual nature. One form of materialism is infatuation with one’s acquired knowledge resulting in hubris and a sense that our individual nature is independent of others and of God.

    Another form of materialism is “inordinate” focus on money and acquiring it, as we see with Donald, his Cabinet, with Putin and oligarchs in Russia, and many of our own GOP membership here in America. Witness their excessive appetites and energies spent to deregulate in order to appease their greed. Like drug addicts, Dawkins, Donald, many in the GOP, and so many others, are addicted to one form of materialism and the intellect, or another.

    1. Mooster75 August 7, 2017

      Thank you. The first sentence in your post led me to finally figuring out how to “ignore” someone on discus. Goodbye.

      1. threni August 7, 2017


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