Natural Selection – The Game of Life


Fate waved his hand again.  The playing pieces appeared and started to move around the board as if they had a life of their own, which was of course the case.

Terry Pratchett  Interesting Times

Charles Darwin’s original theory of evolution by natural selection was a nightmare scenario reminiscent of Thomas Hobbes (1586-1679) state of nature – the war of all against all.  It transformed earth to a world of dog eat dog and every man for himself. It metamorphosized  all of nature and not just a part to “nature red in tooth and claw.” A world from which we could only be saved by the power of civilisation.

It was the world that Jack London wrote about in “Call of the Wild.”  The world where his dog hero Buck once in Alaska threw off the veneer of civilisation and fought to the death: the death of other dogs and later wolves.

o-PICTURE-OF-PIT-BULL-WITH-BIRD-570Jack London’s understanding that the willingness of some dogs to fight to the death was a product of natural selection, and an escape from the weakening values of civilisation was the wrong way round.  It takes artificial selection to produce dogs willing to do this.

In the wild winning is not everything.  A dog who wins but is even slightly injured has a much greater risk of dying than the dog who hasn’t fought at all.

In nature the rule really is:

For to him that is joined to all the living there is hope: for a living dog is better than a dead lion.

Ecclesiastes Chapter 9 Verse 4

In a natural world where dogs really did fight to the death, the dog most likely to reproduce would be he who managed to avoid fighting.  That is patient / sneaky male strategy would be the most effective.  The natural world is not really as red in tooth and claw as Jack London imagined.

The way that Jack London and many others have interpreted the survival of the fittest is somewhat akin to what was described in the 2012 Dr Who Christmas Special as, “Victorian values meet carnivorous snow”.

Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection has been transformed by  a synthesis with Mendelian genetics, so that we now understand, “survival of the fittest,” to refer not to organisms but to genes.  It is not the organisms that are in competition for survival but genes,

Of course any such competition needs to be understood in a strictly metaphorical way.  Genes being without consciousness are incapable of forming or understanding goals, and are therefore incapable of literal competition or having any literal purposes.

Science historian, Peter Bowler has pointed out that the nastiness inherent in Darwin’s theory of evolution was hard to reconcile with a benevolent God. (Peter J. Bowler Evolution the History of an Idea Revised edition 1988)

The extreme nastiness of the original concept does not exist in the new synthesis.

The first chemical replicators/genes may well have made the primeval slime a war zone.  But if so, this archaic war of all against all vanished with that slime.  The descendants of those primeval genes have long since, and metaphorically speaking, as they have no intelligence of their own, discovered the value of a Hobbesian social contract, and collaborate to form organisms – the avatars in which they survive.

Success in the game of life goes to those who are able to successfully co-operate.

We avatars are not caught up in a war of all against all, but are individuals with a genetic stake in others of our species.

Generosity and self-sacrifice within limits are not an anomaly or an example of the power of civilisation to save us from our evil nature, they are a consequence of human nature.

This truth about human nature had been noted long before evolutionary biologist J.B.S. Haldane (1892-1964) joked that he would die for two brothers or eight cousins.

Greater love hath no man than this that a man lay down his life for his friends.

John  Chapter  15 verse 13.

Just because something is written in an ancient text does not make it false anymore than it guarantees its truth.

There is currently a fashion among some to argue that the purpose of science is to overcome religious superstition, and that evolution theory proves there is no need for God, so therefore he doesn’t exist.

This is jumping the gun.  Just because we can think of a way to explain order in nature without need to refer to a superintending Creator, does not prove that He does not exist.  It just means that order in nature does not give us sufficient reason to believe.  Then as the philosopher David Hume pointed out it never did.

No reason to believe, is not a positive reason to disbelieve. The agnostic position is the most rational  – suspend judgement until you have sufficient evidence.

For Richard Dawkins this is unsatisfactory and in “The God Delusion” he argues that he can go one better than no reason to disbelieve, by proving that God is so improbable that believing in him is unreasonable.

English: Atheist Bus Campaign creator Ariane S...

English: Atheist Bus Campaign creator Ariane Sherine and Richard Dawkins at its launch in London. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Given that what exists beyond this world may be infinite this is just funny. Any probability estimations that potentially include ∞, the symbol for infinity, should be interpreted with extreme caution, and Dr Dawkins notably fails to do so.

Richard Dawkins is a very intelligent man and should know better. The fact that he doesn’t really does require an explanation.

An Explanation

Richard Dawkins failure, to see that arguing that God is improbable is not an improvement on arguing there is no reason to believe, is peculiar.  There is no reason to believe that he has fairies at the bottom of his garden, and it is therefore rational to assign a probability of zero to his finding them there. Why does he think that assigning a probability of greater  than zero to God’s existence is better than sticking with a claim that  no reason to believe is a good reason not to believe?

Just as strange is his failure to note that probability arguments really don’t work when you are dealing with the possibly infinite.

Richard Dawkins is a long way from being the only intelligent and generally rational person to fail to see flaws in Selfish Genearguments which support their deeply held beliefs. That people are so easily self-deluded by arguments that support their beliefs requires an explanation.  One place to look is to the gene.

The original introduction to “The Selfish Gene,” Richard Dawkins 1976 book, was written by Robert Trivers. In it he introduced the notion of genes which had been selected for because they caused the organism to self delude and so gain social advantage.

Strong social bonds increase an individuals chance of successfully reproducing and raising children, who go on to do likewise.  Communally held beliefs are one way that we form these bonds.

It should be no surprise to find that people who are generally capable of high levels of rationality, have difficulty seeing flaws in arguments which support their social identifier beliefs.

There are many kinds of social identifier beliefs, for example political, religious and sporting. There is no reason to expect the problem of irrationality to be limited only to religious beliefs. Any social identifier, including atheism, is a potential trigger for self-deception responses.

That he has triggered off an instinctive self-delusion response provides an explanation for Richard Dawkins rather dubious probability of God argument.  His rationality has been subverted by a Selfish Gene.



“The human brain is a complex organ with the wonderful power of enabling man to find reasons for continuing to believe whatever it is that he wants to believe.”



The Three Faces of Cave Hill

Two of the faces of Cave Hill

Cave Hill

Cave Hill looms over Belfast and its surrounding area like the naturally occurring idol  to an ancient three headed, Celtic god.The rocky outcrop known as Napoleon's nose.

Three distinct faces can be seen in Cave Hill. This rocky outcrop, frequently referred to as Napoleon’s Nose, is a distinctive feature of each of them, but in only one does it form the nose.

In the top picture it is possible to see two of the faces. In the first the outcrop forms the nose, in the second it forms the hair of a high browed man seen in profile.  It is this second face that was probably the inspiration for Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver. (See below for another view of Gulliver.)

A naturally occurriing optical illusion.


The third face of Cave Hill is formed by exactly the same rock formations that cause the Gulliver optical illusion, when looked at from the other direction. In this illusion the rocky outcrop forms, not the hair, but the ridged eyebrow of a rather baboonish looking face.

The third face of Cave Hill

The Yahoo – the third face of Cave Hill

This face matches the description of the Yahoo, the enslaved, degraded and brutalised human beings, which Gulliver encounters in the last part of his travels, on the island of Houyhnhnmland.  Here is how Jonathan Swift records Gulliver as describing one of the Yahoos:

My horror and astonishment are not to be described, when I observed in this abominable animal a perfect human figure: the face of it indeed was flat and broad, the nose depressed, the lips large, and the mouth wide….

Jonathan Swift Gulliver’s Travels 1726

If you can see the face at all, and as it exists only as an optical illusion, it is possible that you do not, you will note that the third  image does indeed have the depressed nose and large lips that Gulliver is recorded as having observed.  The fact that Gulliver and the Houyhnhnm – the intelligent horse overlords of Houyhnhnmland –  find themselves surprised by the similarities between Gulliver and the Yahoo and have to check to see that he and they are the same species, matches my experience with the second and third faces of Cave Hill.  I have travelled many times between Belfast and Carrickfergus, and seen the face of Gulliver morph into the Yahoo, and yet the apparent differences between the two faces are such that I still  find it difficult to believe that both illusions are caused by the same rock formations.  The young Jonathan Swift was rector of St Colman’s Kilroot, just outside Carrickfergus, from 1695 to 1696, and would have been able to experience this disorientating optical illusion at that time.

Jonathan Swift objected to the notion that humans exist as essentially rational beings, and his comparison between Gulliver and the Yahoos is frequently understood to demonstrate Swift’s idea of the difference between what we think we are – rational and enlightened, and what we really are – lust driven beasts. This is a mistake. All of the faces of Cave Hill are illusions. The face of Gulliver is an optical illusion, a trick of the mind, but so is the face of the Yahoo.  Both Gulliver’s opinion of his own nature, but also his opinion of the nature of the Yahoo are delusions. The comparison illustrates rather a point that Swift had already made more than twenty years before the publishing of Gulliver’s Travels.

  “partial judges that we are of our own excellencies and other men’s defaults.”

Jonathan Swift Meditations on a Broomstick 1703

What Swift is satirizing is our human capacity for seeing the good in ourselves and the evil in the other. With  the Yahoo representing the ultimate other, those seen only through the eyes of prejudice and judgementalism.

From the time he first sees the Yahoos right until the end of the book, Gulliver constantly uses only the language of disgust to describe them. He expresses nothing but admiration for the horse persons of Houyhnhnmland – the Houyhnhnm.  The Houyhnhnm, understand themselves as being rational beings and  have no word for evil, but yahoo.  Gulliver accepts this at face value, as evidence that no evil exists in the Houyhnhnm.  The Houyhnhnm have no word for lying, which makes sense because the Yahoos, who are the embodiment of evil, have no language and are therefore incapable of lying.  Gulliver  accepts this as evidence that everything that the Houyhnhnm say is true. He identifies himself so completely with the Houyhnhnm that he believes that he has taken on their perfect nature, at least to a degree.

The Houyhnhnm account for the presence of the Yahoo on their island by the following story.  Two Yahoos by a method unknown once appeared on a mountain. They reproduced and their numbers grew so quickly that the Houyhnhnm found it necessary to take action to destroy the evil infestation.  They hunted down the adult Yahoos and killed them, and they separated the young and reared them in kennels, so that they could be used as beasts of burden.

There are elements in this account which could explain why the Humans/Yahoos of Houyhnhnmland are without language, but none that justify the assertion that the evil lies only in the Yahoos.

Jonathan Swift understood himself as a champion of liberty, and he stood up for the rights of the poor and downtrodden.  Did he also understand that those who abused the rights of others, or supported those who did were frequently, like Gulliver,  or indeed the Houyhnhnms, “good!” persons:  good persons who were the victims of self-deception, able to see the evil only in the other? And hence able to their own satisfaction, to rationally justify anything, because they were the good guys.

Did he believe that this self-deception acts as an evil necromancer, causing the self-deceived to behave in ways that they would not otherwise have done, all the while believing that their actions were dictated by rational necessity? Did he see this innate deceiver as the ultimate destroyer of human liberty?

Jonathan Swift


‘Here is laid the body of
Jonathan Swift, Doctor of Divinity,
Dean of this cathedral Church,
Where fierce indignation can no longer
Rend his heart.
Go, traveller, and imitate if you can
This earnest and dedicated
Champion of Liberty’
Jonathan Swifts epitaph to himself translated from the original Latin.
The original can be seen in St Patrick’s Cathedral, Dublin.