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THE REALITY CLUB
Reactions to the Richard Dawkins Lecture


Stuart Hameroff, Reuben Hersh, Karl Sabbagh, Duncan Steel and Milford H. Wolpoff reply to Richard Dawkins


From: Stuart Hameroff
Date: 12-23-96

The place of consciousness in evolution is unknown, but the actual course of evolution itself may offer a clue. Fossil records indicate that animal species as we know them today-including conscious humans-all arose from a burst of evolutionary activity some 540 million years ago (the "Cambrian explosion"). It is suggested here that:

1) Occurrence of consciousness was likely to have accelerated the course of evolution.
 

2) Small worms, urchins and comparable creatures reached critical biological complexity for emergence of primitive consciousness at the early Cambrian period 540 million years ago.

3) Cooperative dynamics of microtubules, cilia, centrioles and axonemes were the critical biological factors for consciousness.

4) Cytoskeletal complexity available in early Cambrian animals closely matches criteria for the Penrose-Hameroff Orch OR model of consciousness.

5) Orch OR caused the Cambrian explosion.


From: Reuben Hersh
Date: 12-23-96

Dawkins' talk is rich with his eloquence and learning. From my perch, I would say also that he is on the side of the angels.

With his main shtick, "science is wonderful," I of course can but assent.

Therefore, I turn to my two bones to pick.

Bone number 1 is his amazing and absurd discovery that we are but devices created by our genes for their own survival. In an era when reductionism is generally being discredited and rejected, this is a piece of reductionism carried to fantastic new heights.

Dawkins evidently admires Charles Darwin. Would he say that Darwin developed his theory of evolution for the sake of propagating his genes?

No doubt the same for Newton, Tolstoy, or Beethoven. We should think of them and their work in terms of genetics, not in terms of human consciousness.

Fifty years ago some eminent physicists liked to say that we are nothing but molecules, or nothing but atoms, or nothing but protons, electrons, and neutrons (this was before quarks.) That has gone out of style. Genetic or biological reductionism is just as foolish.

My second bone has to do with the talk as a whole. If I agree with his main point, that is no surprise, I am somewhat of a mathematician.

There is something called "preaching to the choir." It's a satisfying thing to do. You tell it like it is and your audience agrees with you. But when you're done, nothing much has changed. If Dawkins was preaching to the unconverted, I'm not sure how far he got with them. If he was preaching to the converted-great! What fun!

Reuben Hersh


From: Karl Sabbagh
Date: 12-23-96

I saw Dawkins' lecture on TV and thought it was first class-and probably entirely ineffective at changing the views of those he targets. Even Bernard Levin, if he bothered to watch the lecture or read the text, would delight in ignoring or parodying Richard's style as yet another example of the arrogance of scientists and those who support the scientific method. And we are arrogant, if arrogance means not tolerating loose and ignorant thinking. And ignorance can operate in the most intelligent brain, if it has never bothered to understand what the scientific method is and that it should be applied to a far wider range of situations than the profession of scientific research. We need the Dawkins approach, but we also need to find new ways of shaming the people who really need to be brought down to earth-to the realities of science.

best karl


From: Duncan Steel
Date: 12-23-96

I thought it inspirational and effective-but then to me, it would be, wouldn't it? In fact I saw RD deliver the lecture on TV a few weeks back, whilst I was in London. It came over very well. I'd note that it was not transmitted in prime time, but what can one expect...? Of course, this is part of the problem that RD addressed.

That paragraph was meant to deliver some well-deserved praise before I make two criticisms. The first is to point out an error; the second is (perhaps) a matter of opinion.

RD wrote:

"Perhaps it has something to do with the millennium-in which case it's depressing to realise that the millennium is still three years away. "
Oh, dear, RD has fallen victim to the popular delusion that the next century/millennium begins on 1st January 2000. In fact it is still four years (and a bit) until the start of the next millennium. No year zero, and all that stuff.

He also wrote:

"Certainly those unborn ghosts include greater poets than Donne, greater scientists than Newton, greater composers than Beethoven. "
 

There are three bases to my objection to that sentence. The first is the simple value-judgment side of things: who is to say who was greater in any sphere?

The second stems from a query about what might disqualify anyone from consideration: should Newton be disqualified on the basis of his alchemic (and other) beliefs? Let me give an extreme example, to show the point: should Hitler be considered a great humanitarian because he was responsible for the introduction of the VW Beetle, still a workhorse in the 1st and 3rd Worlds?

The third comes from a recognition that none of these men came out of a vacuum; as the saying goes, "Cometh the hour, cometh the man" (or woman). The conditions were right, the time was right, for what they did. [Before someone says, "Yes, of course, Newton himself wrote that `If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants'" I'll point out that in fact IN wrote those words to a hunch-backed dwarf, Robert Hooke]. In the context of RD's comment, then, I'd point out that almost certainly there have been many DNA combinations which have occurred in homo sapiens which-potentially-could have produced "greater" poets/scientists/whatever than Donne or Newton, but the conditions were never right for them to blossom. There are likely several around now, living in China, India, or the Bronx.

I left out Beethoven there since I have to admit that my reason for taking the time to write the above-and for halting in my reading of RD's lecture at the "offending" paragraph-was the mention of that indisputably great MAN. It is in my psychological makeup (I worded that so as to avoid writing "in my nature", as one usually would) to object to any statement which might hint even the merest inflection against Beethoven. Here, for example, it could be construed that RD's statement reduces Beethoven's greatness to the mere product of his chance combination of genes. That would be to ignore his psychological makeup, and how his character was shaped by the environment in which he existed, and his reaction to it. How could anyone who has read the Heiligenstadt Testament believe that Beethoven was a product solely of his genetic makeup?

Finally, since we are comparing (to some extent) scientific and artistic (in the broadest sense) creativity, let me make a statement to which some might take umbrage. In media interviews, I am often asked questions along the lines of whether scientists view themselves as similarly creative as artists. My answer is that they might well do, but that belief is (in my opinion) misfounded: because artists create something new (Beethoven's 7th did not exist before it entered his head), whereas "all" that scientists do is to reveal the secrets of the universe. Like solving a crossword puzzle, whether you believe that some deity constructed that puzzle (and put in some damned difficult clues) or not. It is a different pursuit, needing a form of imagination and creativity; but I don't think that it is the same type of creativity as that displayed by an "artist."

Having written that, I note that the pursuit of the Third Culture does not represent in itself, but the pursuit has a foot on the "other side": there is no intrinsically higher value to a piece of creative writing about art or life compared to one about science.

My thanks to Richard Dawkins for his fine lecture.

Kind regards,

Duncan Steel


From: Milford H. Wolpoff
Date: 12-23-96

I really think if we could give Aristotle a tutorial he would ring up the loony bin to get us committed-too much difference in world view and basic assumptions for him to every understand what we were talking about or why. Actually, Rachel Caspari and I talk quite a bit about this in Race and Human Evolution, and I hope you get a chance to read it. Happy Holidays.



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