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Sunday, 29 January 2012





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Origins and evolution:

Richard Dawkins’ session

On Friday January 20, Richard Dawkins appeared for one hour at the Galle Literary festival. His talk was the first event for which all tickets had sold out online, in Colombo and in Galle a week before. There were people queueing outside the hall an hour before his session. Once the doors opened, the crowd’s attitude was one of focused determination, to secure the best seats in the house. People scrambled desperately towards the front seats, only to realise with dismay that the entire row had already been claimed. This had been achieved by strategically placing orange peel and other bits of fruit across the chairs adjacent to those already seated. Within a few short minutes, every place in the house had been taken. Right up until the moment that the session started, people were still piling through the door.

Richard Dawkins

Finally, there seemed to be almost as many people standing as sitting, such was the eagerness to hear Professor Dawkins. In fact, many attendees had come especially for a couple of hours on the Friday, simply to attend this session.

Popularity of Richard Dawkins

We may well ask ourselves “Why is Professor Dawkins so popular? Why do so many people want not only to read his work but also want to see and hear him ‘in the flesh’?”. One explanation is undoubtedly that his reputation goes before him.

He is often described as “The evolutionary biologist who says that your genes care about themselves, not about you. You're just a vehicle to pass on genes down through the generations”. He is also described, more often than not, by the adherent’s of the monotheistic religions as a “strident, shrill atheist”. I don’t believe that this assertion is entirely fair. In every interview or debate that I have seen (and the Galle Literary Festival is no exception), Professor Dawkins always answers both politely and in a measured, respectful way.

Admittedly, he does strongly assert that he thinks it is “wicked” to indoctrinate children with any belief system or label them as belonging to any religious group. He asserts that there is no such thing as a “Catholic” or “Muslim” child but rather that there are children of Catholic or Muslim parents. This is not only sensible, but also consistent with his belief that all life can be explained scientifically with no reference to a deity.

Consequently, it is obviously wrong and totally pointless to indoctrinate anyone or threaten them with hellfire and eternal damnation. It could be argued that, while Professor Dawkins is a brilliant evolutionary biologist, he is not a philosopher nor a theologian. Yet he never actually asserts that there is “definitely no God”. His London bus campaign slogan was, after all that “There is probably no God.... now stop worrying and enjoy your life”.

Moral standards

However, the idea that there may well be no God throws up another problem. How can we, as a collection of societies, either recognise or make moral standards for ourselves? If there is no deity, and no holy book to dictate the morals that we should live by, what is to stop society from total moral decline? This is subject beyond the scope of this column and one which I will return to in a subsequent article. The other consideration that deserves an in- depth study is how it is possible and / or probable that the universe actually came into existence without a creator. This is the ultimate question of origins and it is essentially the final frontier for those seeking a thorough, plausible explanation for life, without recourse to a creator.

There is also another possible reason for Professor Dawkins’ popularity. In modern societies, where science and rational thought reign supreme, people are perhaps seeking liberation from the fears and constraints of religion.

They recognise that religion has often been used as a means of social control and that man is now capable of having decent moral standards of behaviour without religion.

However, the difficulty with this is that, having written God out of the equation, many feel as though they have moved from under a security blanket, into a chill wind.

Without God, some feel alone in an indifferent universe. Everything seems meaningless....and objectively speaking, from this standpoint, it is! Yet life does have great subjective meaning for each of us and I shall return to this in a later column.

The Magic of Reality

Professor Dawkins began his session by reading from his most recent book “The Magic of Reality: How we know what is really true”. The topics within the book were firstly, the difference between Supernatural Magic, Stage Magic and Poetic Magic. Supernatural Magic comprises myths and fairy tales and Stage Magic includes conjuring shows and tricks. Poetic Magic describes beautiful music, starry skies and stunning sunsets, to name but a few.

Bus campaign

The evolution of life on earth is included in this category of Poetic Magic. Professor Dawkins pointed out that although mythical narratives and make-believe tales are a fun part of growing up, reality, with its fundamental capacity for beauty, is much more magical than anything impossible.

The Fairy Godmother from Cinderella cannot magically turn a pumpkin into a carriage outside the bounds of fiction, the reason being that such objects as pumpkins and carriages in reality possess internal organisation that is fundamentally complex.

A large pumpkin randomly reassembled at the most minute level would be much more likely to result in a featureless pile of ash or sludge than a complex and intricately organised carriage.

Aliens and the Drake Equation

The other part of the book that Professor Dawkins read from was Chapter 9, which includes contemporary alien abduction mythology.

He then spoke about the likelihood of the existence of life on other planets. He briefly mentioned the Drake Equation, which is a mathematical formula used to calculate the probability of there being some life form on other planets.

The Drake equation states that:-


N = the number of civilizations in our galaxy with which communication might be possible;


R* = the average rate of star formation per year in our galaxy

fp = the fraction of those stars that have planets

ne = the average number of planets that can potentially support life per star that has planets

f? = the fraction of the above that actually go on to develop life at some point

fi = the fraction of the above that actually go on to develop intelligent life

fc = the fraction of civilizations that develop a technology that releases detectable signs of their existence into space

L = the length of time for which such civilisations release detectable signals into space.

However, this is the most simplistic expression of the Drake Equation. There are many other factors to be taken into consideration, all of which I will not include here. However, one of the most significant of these factors is the Reappearance Number.

Or how many times an intelligent civilization may occur on planets where it has happened once. Even if an intelligent civilization reaches the end of its lifetime after, for example, 10,000 years, life may still prevail on the planet for billions of years, permitting the next civilisation to evolve.

Gilese Siza

Thus, several civilisations may come and go during the lifespan of one and the same planet. Thus, if nr is the average number of times a new civilisation reappears on the same planet where a previous civilisation once has appeared and ended, then the total number of civilisations on such a planet would be (1+nr), which is the actual reappearance factor added to the equation.

The factor depends on what generally is the cause of civilisation extinction. If it is generally temporarily uninhabitable, (for example a nuclear winter), then nr may be relatively high. On the other hand, if it is generally permanently uninhabitable, such as stellar evolution, then nr may be almost zero. In the case of total life extinction, a similar factor may be applicable for f?, that is, how many times life may appear on a planet where it has appeared once.

Habitability and the Goldilocks Zone

During the course of his talk, Professor Dawkins did mention that the planets which are able to sustain life will typically be found very far apart from one another. He didn’t go into detail about why this should be, but I think his hearers would agree that it is because of the need for something known as “The Goldilocks Zone”.

Also called the habitable zone or life zone, the Goldilocks Zone is an area of space in which a planet is just the right distance from its home star so that its surface is neither too hot nor too cold. That means that the planet could possibly host liquid water.

Few planets have been found in the Goldilocks Zone to date, but in April 2007, European astronomers announced the discovery of one. It was also, at that point, that the most Earth-like planet ever was discovered. The planet, named Gilese 581c, is 12,000 miles in diameter, or not much larger than Earth (8,000-mile diameter). It orbits a massive red star called Gilese 581, located in the Libra constellation, 20.5 light years from Earth.

Gilese 581c orbits its star very closely, completing an orbit in just 13 Earth-days. This short orbit would make a planet too hot for life, except that Gilese 581's surface temperature is 1/50th that of our sun. Since it lies in the Goldilocks Zone, Gilese 581c's surface temperature ranges from an estimated 32 degrees Fahrenheit to 102 degrees Fahrenheit. The research team that discovered it believes it has a developed atmosphere. The planet might not only have water; it might be entirely covered by oceans.

Gilese 581c does have some things working against it. Its gravity is about twice as strong as Earth's, and it receives significant doses of radiation from its star. Both could inhibit life from developing. Even so, Gilese 581c is exciting not only for its Earth-like conditions, but also because of its relative proximity to Earth and its location in the elusive Goldilocks Zone. The ideal discovery would be a planet similar in composition to Earth that lies within the Goldilocks Zone and orbits a stable star (which is something that Professor Dawkins did mention).Yet it's important to keep in mind that popular depictions of extraterrestrial life are most likely to be incorrect.

Some life forms may be no more advanced than bacteria. Others may be highly advanced but unrecognisable. Professor Dawkins suggests that since these outposts of life are bound to be separated by such huge distances, they are as unlikely to have the technology to visit us bodily, as we are to visit them. If we are contacted, it is most probable that this would occur through radio signals. Professor Dawkins believes that we should put our money into equipment which sends out these radio signals, which could be detected across large distances.

The Last Common Ancestor

During his session at the Galle Literary Festival, the other topic which Professor Dawkins touched on was what is known as our relationship to “The Last Common Ancestor”. This is what links mankind to all other species on the planet. He took the audience on a long imaginary journey back through time to the point where the ancestor that we have in common with other species is a fish. He did this by asking us to imagine a long line of species going back millions of years.

Each creature looks no different to its mother or its offspring, which stand side by side in this imaginary line. However, at one end stands a human, at another distant point, a fish. Further still is the last common ancestor. In fact in his book “The Ancestors Tale”, we first meet the “co-ancestor” which we share with the species that are our closest relatives, the chimpanzee and bonobo. Professor Dawkins estimates this to have occurred between 5 and 7 million years ago.

Another way of looking at this is to say that our (approximately) 50,000-great-grandparent was a creature from which all humans, chimpanzees and bonobos are directly descended. Further on in Dawkins' imaginary journey, we meet the co-ancestor we share with the Gorilla, our next nearest relative, then the Orangutan, and so on, until we finally meet the co-ancestor of all living organisms, known as the last universal ancestor (which is obviously not the same thing as the earliest ancestor).

Question time

When Professor Dawkins’ session moved all too quickly to conclusion, one of the questions asked by the audience was (to paraphrase) “if religion is unnecessary and cannot dictate moral standards to us, what does science have to say to us about our sexual conduct”? Mr Dawkins’ diplomatic response was (to paraphrase) “I don’t believe that it is the place of a scientist to dictate to people about their sexual conduct.

However, it is obvious that by using contraceptives, sexuality has become emancipated from it’s original purpose. Another example is that the practise of homosexuality is not going to be successful from a Darwinian point of view, but it is what some people like”.

The other question which Professor Dawkins answered diplomatically was (to paraphrase) “You have spoken against indoctrination by monotheistic religions but what have you to say about Buddhism?”. The reply to this question was (again to paraphrase) “I feel at rather a disadvantage being in Sri Lanka and knowing very little about Buddhism. From what I understand, there are many different types of Buddhism and the majority of them, rather than being religions are ways of life....And I think this could be rather good. But do admit to knowing only a little about it”.


It is interesting that the key issues raised by the audience had to do with both religion and sexuality. This is perhaps because there is a historic link between the two subjects. Throughout the ages, religions has sought to control human passions and desires.

To take the Torah as an example, it is a holy book upon which the monotheistic religions are predicated. Throughout the Torah's texts, sexual desire figures fairly regularly as the cause of problems for key individuals. (The predicaments of Samson with Delilah and King David with Bathsheba are obvious examples). However, I digress again into another subject - of how we can reconcile the evolutionist’s view of origins with ethics and morality.

This is a question which I shall revisit in greater detail in subsequent columns. Professor Dawkins’ purely scientific worldview does allow for a personal integrity which encourages mutual cooperation. This often leads to goods social cohesion (which also benefits the individuals within that society).

Ultimately, these effects tend to encourage a nurturing, supportive environment within which to raise successful offspring. This brings us once again to a goal which is essentially Darwinian.



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