Saturday, May 18, 2013

River Out of Eden by Richard Dawkins.

River Out of Eden is a series of meditations on Natural Selection by an author who has a fascinatingly original scientific mind. In a world that is filled with unreason and superstition, it is a pleasure to sit back and read the rational ideas of such an author on a subject that has been so thoroughly tested by the scientific community.

Unfortunately, Dawkins begins with a terribly written first chapter. “The Digital River” of the chapter title is a river of DNA code that we can follow to reveal descent. Fair enough, but the metaphor is flogged continuously, and additional metaphors are introduced haphazardly. For example, there is an unnecessary discussion of nerve cells, likened to a mixture of analog and digital technology, complete with a lengthy explanation of the differences between the two technologies. This digression could have been erased from the chapter without disturbing the main point. Science doesn’t need to read like bad Dada poetry. “The Digital River” could have been written far more economically by presenting the empirical evidence and moving on. Instead, it is the dead fish in the River Out of Eden.

Chapter two, “All Africa and Her Progenies,” represents a vast improvement. It starts with a refutation of cultural relativism and exhibits how irrational, untestable ideas do not belong on the same shelf with evidence-based ones. The author continues with an excellent discussion of Lynn Margulis’ research on mitochondria, and how this former bacterium can be used to trace descent matrilineally. Dawkins succeeds in presenting a theory of “African Eve” which is far more compelling than the myth of Eve in Eden.

“Do Good by Stealth” is the next offering. It answers (alright, beats to death) a creationist argument on the adaptation of an orchid which permits pollination by a male wasp. Dawkins is feisty and animated as he presents overwhelming physical evidence to refute the claim that this floral architecture had to be created perfectly the first time in order to succeed. By the end of this discussion, the only “Intelligent Design” left standing is the structure of the author’s refutation.

“God’s Utility and Function” is the continuation of a discussion established in Dawkins’ The Selfish Gene. This essay elaborates on the human propensity to label activities as either good or evil and to look for purpose in life, often expressed through religion. Dawkins counters that the function of organisms is simply to put their genetic material into the next generation. He concludes:

“In a universe of blind physical forces and genetic replication, some people are going to get hurt, other people are going to get lucky, and you won’t find any rhyme or reason in it, nor any justice. The universe we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at the bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil and no good, nothing but blind, pitiless indifference” (Dawkins, p. 133).

Here the hard realities of science trump any Pollyanna religious or purpose-driven notions.

But as usual, the reality is far more thrilling than any myth. Dawkins final chapter “The Replication Bomb,” shows how our DNA structure, coupled with Natural Selection, allows us an infinite range of variation. Since humans are now sending radio waves into the universe, “an expanding shell of information-rich radio waves is advancing outward from the planet at the speed of light” (Dawkins, pp. 144-5). These radio waves, because they are produced by an animal with an infinite range of variation, have an infinite range of expression. One closes the book with a sense of our possibilities that is more promising, and a greater testament to humanity, than any faith could offer, because it is based on observations of the decidedly real.

Dawkins, Richard. River Out of Eden. New York: Basic Books, 1995.

For a review of another book on human evolution, see:

For a review of  a book on the history of science vs religion, see: