The Father of Lies

Swan Lake

 Ye are of your father the devil, and the lusts of your father ye will do.

We are biological machines built according to instructions carried from generation to generation on molecules of DNA.

Richard Dawkins in The Selfish Gene (1976) compared these instructions (genes) to Chicago gangsters, and argued that the predominate quality to be expected in a successful gene is ruthless selfishness. These are strangely pejorative terms for ‘beings’ that have been working collaboratively to construct successful survival machines for millions of years. The  stunning level of complexity that our genes are able to achieve by working together, deserves a more accurate, and morally neutral anthropomorphism. My preferred simile is  that of ballet dancers working collaboratively, under the choreography of natural selection.

Our existence is ephemeral, like a piece of performance art; or as the old hymn has it, like a dream, fading at the break of day. The dancers (genes) that bring us into being, exist in many others also, and while they are not immortal, have the capacity to be very old indeed. They are successful because they have managed to produce, and/or survive in  successions of disposable bodies, that have transported them through time.

We should expect natural selection to produce, not selfish organisms, but altruists, serving on average the needs of their genes.  This will not necessarily translate into altruism towards other organisms, but it can.

One of the problems with Darwin’s original theory of evolution by natural selection, was that it threw individual organisms into a war of all against all.  The existence of naturally occurring altruism caused problems for this theory; problems that vanish if you consider the gene rather than the organism as the unit of selection.

Richard Dawkins, by his own account, developed his deeply held views about religion, as a consequence of his understanding of evolutionary theory. He shows in his more recent work, e.g. “The God Delusion,” an understanding that natural selection can produce  individuals that behave altruistically,  and even argues that it can give us a basis for morality.

This is not something that he believed when he wrote “The Selfish Gene.”  Then he was very much a nature red in tooth and claw man.  This book contains some very entertaining examples of confirmation bias, as he shares his conviction about the nastiness of it all; and by conflating two very different modes of being, that of the gene and the organism demonstrates to his own satisfaction, that what appears to be altruism, e.g. parental care, or  the willingness to lay down ones life for the good of others, is in fact really selfishness.

But don’t be misled into thinking that the young Richard Dawkins was a misanthrope.  He was very far from it, believing, like 18th century enlightenment man, that human rationality rises us above all the rest of nature; and frees us to pursue disinterested altruism. You will also see from the following quote, that he has failed to realize  that it is our genes that have long-term natural “interests”, not us.

The point I am making now is that even if we look on the dark side and assume that individual man is fundamentally selfish, our conscious foresight – our capacity to simulate the future in imagination – could save us from the worst  selfish excesses of the blind replicators. We have at least the mental equipment to foster our long-term selfish interests rather than merely our short-term selfish interests.

Richard Dawkins  The Selfish Gene 1976

He also failed to note that the replicators he maligned as Chicago gangsters, have without an ounce of foresight between them, managed for some millions of years, to cooperate towards a common goal, the creation of disposable, and biodegradable survival machines. The following quote is taken from  close to the beginning of the book, shortly after his comparison of genes to Chicago gangsters..

Be warned that if you wish , as I do , to build a society in which individuals cooperate generously and unselfishly towards a common good, you can expect little help from biological nature.  Let us try to teach generosity and altruism, because we are born selfish.  Let us understand what our own selfish genes are up to, because we may then at least have the chance to upset their designs, something which no other species has ever aspired to. Richard Dawkins  The Selfish Gene 1976

Our bodies provide evidence, that biological nature has enabled genes to cooperate, towards a common good, and they have done it without any need for either altruism or generosity. Richard Dawkins’, nature red in tooth and claw school of evolutionism, is not based on empirical evidence, and appears as an attempt to import the sheer nastiness of Darwin’s original theory, which saw individual organisms as engaged in the war of all against all, in a bitter battle for survival, into new synthesis biology.

The sheer nastiness of the mechanism understood  to be driving evolution in Darwin’s original theory caused a problem for theism, as it was a mechanism that was hard to reconcile, with the notion of a good God. It is of course not good science, to allow your religious beliefs to interfere with how you interpret scientific evidence,  and I believe Richard Dawkins  to be too honourable a man to be doing this deliberately.  He is the victim of  something  that appears to be instinctive, and therefore coded for in his DNA – confirmation bias.

Ironically Richard Dawkins’ unconscious  bias, his conflation of the gene with the organism, actually hides from view something truly nasty at the core of the modern synthesis.  In Darwin’s original theory all adaptations including instincts were understood to work for the good of the organism.  This is not true for the modern synthesis, where it is the gene, not the organism that is the beneficiary of natural selection.

And the interests  of  the gene and the organism are not identical.  Genes do not have all their eggs (or sperms), in one basket and are therefore able, metaphorically, to play the odds. For instance a gene that caused human beings to play Russian roulette, would result on average in total loss of reproductive fitness for 5 out of 6 of the players. If the pay off for winning increased the  average reproductive fitness of the winner by even marginally over 6 times, then the roulette  gene would increase in the gene pool.

The interests of the  hypothetical, unconscious  roulette gene are obviously not identical with the interests of the majority of the conscious beings whose behaviour would, if it existed, be influenced by this functionally selfish gene. It is a potentially a very dangerous error to assume that following our instincts will  on average lead to good consequences for individual humans, even if the conditions under which we now live, were identical with the conditions under which the instincts evolved.

Risk taking behaviour is fairly obviously not in the average best interests of the organisms engaged in the pursuit. Confirmation bias is not so clear cut a case.  It is possible that it in most cases, at least in the distant past, it increased the survival and reproductive chances of the programmed organism We are social creatures who bond on shared ideas. Stable social groups, allow for the successful raising of offspring which go on and do likewise.  Genes for overruling our rationality, when to continue with a particular line of thought is likely to call into question a core belief/dogma of our society, are likely to increase the average reproductive fitness of those holding them.

Not all of these beliefs are to do with religion. Robert Trivers, the biologist who wrote the original preface to Richard Dawkin’s – The Selfish Gene, holds  Darwin’s original  theory of natural selection, as his dogma.This can be demonstrated in this attack on Stephen Gould, where he accuses him of attempted heresy, over his development of the theory of punctuated equilibrium.

But Steve wanted to turn this into something grander, a justification for replacing natural selection (favoring individual reproductive success) with something called species selection.

Robert Trivers The Mismeasure of Stephen Jay Gould Psychology Today October 2012

Robert Trivers identifies the organism as the individual at the centre of Darwinian selection, and therefore regards confirmation bias as an example of an organism deceiving itself, for its own advantage; rather than an organism being deceived in a way that historically increased the frequency of the programming gene in the gene pool.   Just how bizarre this is can be seen in the central attack he makes in the same  article on the morality of Stephen Gould.

Stephen Gould accused 19th century scientist Samuel George Morton of unconscious bias in measuring the size of human skulls. Morton was trying to ascertain whether or not humans were all members of one species, an activity which Gould believed to be inherently racist. It turned out that it was Gould’s statistics that were biased, not Morton’s measurements. Here is Robert Trivers’ take on how the statistics were arrived at.

Where are the unconscious processes at work here? Is Steve flying upside-down on auto-pilot, unconsciously looking for the actions (substitute Nordic for Tropical, delete all samples smaller than four) that will invite the results he wants (while hiding his bias)? Is the conscious organism really completely in the dark while all of this is going on? Hard to imagine—but at the end the organism appears to be in full self-deception mode—a blow-hard fraudulently imputing fraud, with righteous indignation, coupled with magnanimous forgiveness for the frailties of self-deception in others.

Robert Trivers The Mismeasure of Stephen Jay Gould Psychology Today October 2012

That Stephen Gould made this error is almost unbelievable, but the evidence is that he did.  This mistake would have done  Professor Gould’s reputation no good, had it been caught on in his lifetime, and it has done it harm posthumously.  It has also been used as evidence that racism is scientifically valid, something that would have appalled him, given that he was an ardent campaigner against racism. The disadvantage of doing what he did far outweighs any benefit.  The most likely explanation is that he was unaware of his own bias.

Robert Trivers accepts that the mistake could be consequence of unconscious processes. But by using the term self-deception to describe two very different set of events:one where the organism has no conscious awareness of what is going on, and another where the organism is aware of what is happening and is deliberately manipulating data; he is able to rain down judgement on the heretic.

I suspect there was rather more than loyalty to his dogma going on in the mind of Robert Trivers when he wrote this piece, but I am willing to accept that his unconscious mind was hiding the truth from his conscious mind.

Robert Trivers and Stephen Gould both show evidence of having had their rationality overruled by instinctive confirmation bias.

What happens in confirmation bias reminds me very much of what happens in stage hypnosis, when the hypnotist convinces his subject that there is no other person on the stage. Even when the other person moves objects round the victim is unable to see them, and is convinced that the objects are moving independently.

When intelligent peoples’ attempts to find the truth are subverted by confirmation bias, it is frequently possible to see the metaphorical invisible man – the meme that does not co-ordinate with the socially held belief..This little warning from Richard Dawkins is a case in point:

Be warned that if you wish , as I do , to build a society in which individuals cooperate generously and unselfishly towards a common good, you can expect little help from biological nature.

Given that he was writing about genes as the creators of survival machines, it should have been obvious that natural selection is quite capable of building a society where individuals cooperate towards a common good.  His categorization of genes as selfish, and his use of the  adverbs generously and unselfishly as necessary characteristics of the actions of  cooperating individuals, have been sufficient to hide this reality from him.

Note that I am not suggesting that the process being followed by the young Richard  Dawkins was in any way rational, or deliberately planned, rather that it was the product of a gene working in ways that caused its numbers to increase in the gene pool in times past.  Nor would a discovery that natural selection was capable of producing cooperation have undermined his atheism.  The part of the unconscious programmed for confirmation bias had  however no way of accessing that data.

Richard Dawkins is not the only anti-theist in whose writings the invisible man .can be found. The following quote from Bertrand Russell argues that it is dogma that is the cause of religious persecution, and that communism is a religion because it to has dogma.

Cruel persecutions have been commoner in Christendom than anywhere else. What appears to justify persecution is dogmatic belief. Kindliness and tolerance only prevail in proportion as dogmatic belief decays. In our day, a new dogmatic religion, namely, communism, has arisen. To this, as to other systems of dogma, the agnostic is opposed.

Bertrand Russell What is an Agnostic 1953

The first line of this quote is the invisible man.  Cruel persecutions were common in Christendom, but that is not what the quote says. This passage arguing that dogma is a feature of religious belief, includes a piece of anti-religious dogma, which Russell treats as though it were a fact. Would you like to bet that cruel persecutions were more common in Christendom than they were in Nazi Germany, or Japanese Prisoner-of-war camps, or that Bertrand Russell had the figures to back up this claim?

This  following passage and conclusion taken from his “Is there a God,” essay show that his social commitment was as he claimed to agnosticism, at least at one level.  But he identified with two social groups, philosophers where agnosticism was the respectable view, but also with atheists.

I will say further that, if there be a purpose and if this purpose is that of an Omnipotent Creator, then that Creator, so far from being loving and kind, as we are told, must be of a degree of wickedness scarcely conceivable. A man who commits a murder is considered to be a bad man. An Omnipotent Deity, if there be one, murders everybody. A man who willingly afflicted another with cancer would be considered a fiend. But the Creator, if He exists, afflicts many thousands every year with this dreadful disease. A man who, having the knowledge and power required to make his children good, chose instead to make them bad, would be viewed with execration. But God, if He exists, makes this choice in the case of very many of His children. …………..My conclusion is that there is no reason to believe any of the dogmas of traditional theology and, further, that there is no reason to wish that they were true.

Bertrand Russell Is there a God? Commissioned, but not published by Illustrated Magazine in 1952

  • If you define good in the normal way, and not as some theists, including I think St  Anselm, the originator of the ontological argument, do – as might is right,
  • And if you define omnipotence as Bertrand Russell did, as being able to achieve anything without need of process or plan,
  • Then an omnipotent god could achieve all he wanted without allowing suffering.  And as suffering exists therefore any God who exists is not both good in the normal sense of the word, and omnipotent in the way that Bertrand Russell defines the word.
  • And Bertrand Russell has proved that there is good reason not to believe in one of the dogmas of traditional theology, and not the much weaker conclusion he gave at the end of the essay – the dogma of the agnostic, there is no reason to believe.

Bertrand Russell having proved that it was impossible for a god to be, as he defined the words, omnipotent and good, then dismissed the idea of a God who is not omnipotent, with two dogmatic assertions. First he claimed that the idea that God was not omnipotent was modern to Christianity.Then that there was no positive reason in its favour.

That all Christian’s have always believed up until recently that God could achieve his aims without process is a very big claim; and being logically possible is a positive, though not sufficient  reason in favour of a belief.

The strong case against an omnipotent god, and his dogmatic claims on views that he classifies as non-traditional, do not coordinate with Bertrand Russell’s view of himself as a rational agnostic  But the way his argument  is developed demonstrates  that Russell was socially committed to agnosticism. He valued his perceived rationality, more than his atheism.

It seems that Russell agrees on at least one point with William James, that it was certainty that led to the cruel persecutions of the inquisition. His segue into the Celestial Teapot argument comes between his successful argument against the existence of  an omnipotent and good god, and a dismissal of any other view of a god as non-traditional, and a conclusion, to the essay that does not follow from the arguments made.

The Celestial teapot functions here for Russell, as the words generously and unselfishly did for Richard Dawkins.  It serves as a distraction. By using this illustration of the tiny orbiting teapot as an analogy for religious dogma, Russell is able to convince himself that, he really is a rational agnostic; and that the evil certainty that leads to persecution lies elsewhere, in the religious dogmatist. And so he concludes with the defining dogma of the agnostic – there is no reason to believe . This despite the fact that there is every reason to believe that the god, that he defines as the God of traditional theology does not exist externally to the human mind.

The god that Bertrand Russell proved to be non-existent, is based on the the god of Anselm’s ontological argument. The god that Anselm defined as, that than which nothing greater can be conceived to exist, and from this definition proved to his own satisfaction, and that of a surprising number of other philosophers, including for a brief time the young Bertrand Russell, to be a necessary being. Reading  through the Proslogion, where Anselm puts forth his argument, you will find reference to the Godless fool, and Anselm’s acknowledgement that his  own understanding  of that than which no greater can be conceived, is equivalent  to the understanding of the fool.

Hence, even the fool is convinced that something exists in the understanding, at least, than which nothing greater can be conceived. For, when he hears of this, he understands it. And whatever is understood, exists in the understanding. And assuredly that, than which nothing greater can be conceived, cannot exist in the understanding alone. For, suppose it exists in the understanding alone: then it can be conceived to exist in reality; which is greater.

The Proslogion  Anselm 1077-1078

Rather than recognizing the folly of limiting  the greatness of a Creator to that which a fool might imagine to be great, Anselm’s attention turns to the stupidity of the Godless fool of Psalm 14, and concentrates on the area where  he and the alleged fool differ, whether or not the god of their imagining actually exists.  Deciding that it was the fool’s dullness, that prevented him from realizing that his imaginings must coincide with reality..

And so Anselm was able to transform the imaginings of a fool, into not just an angel of light, but the god of heaven.

Confirmation bias is the instinct that likes to say yes.  It may in a less crowded world have been useful in holding social groups together, but in our world it is extremely dangerous.  It leaves us unable to understand the viewpoint of others,  whether, because we or they are blinded by confirmation bias, or more likely both. Intelligence is no help, because a person who is blinded by confirmation bias, has their intelligence subverted to hiding the truth from them.

Confirmation bias, appears to be the work of a functionally selfish Dawkinsian gene, that is common in the human gene pool.  The behaviour that it programs for is capable of inducing intolerance, anger; and cruel persecutions.  It is the enemy, not flesh and blood.

Before we can resist the devil and all his works we must first recognize him.

Related Articles

  1. John S. Michael Stephen Jay Gould and Samuel George Morton: A Personal Commentary
  2. Lewis et al The Mismeasure of Science: Stephen Jay Gould versus Samuel George Morton on Skulls and Bias  PLoS Biol. Jun 2011

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