I went with our friend Mike down to Bloomington to visit our friend Joe and to see Richard Dawkins speak at the IU auditorium last night. He was there to read from and discuss his newest book The Greatest Show on Earth: The Evidence for Evolution.
I don’t have the book and haven’t read it, but the lecture was interesting enough that I’ll pick it up. Dawkins is a compelling speaker and like anyone who regularly engages in scientific inquiry, he rigorously examines his own ideas and lays out premise and conclusions well (unlike, say ME). An excerpt from chapter 2 the book:
We can turn to the example of dogs for some important lessons about natural selection. All breeds of dogs are domesticated wolves: not jackals, not coyotes and not foxes. But I need to qualify this in the light of a fascinating theory of the evolution of the dog, which has been most clearly articulated by the American zoologist Raymond Coppinger. The idea is that the evolution of the dog was not just a matter of artificial selection. It was at least as much a case of wolves adapting to the ways of Man by natural selection. Much of the initial domestication of the dog was selfdomestication, mediated by natural, not artificial, selection. Long before we got our hands on the chisels in the artificial selection toolbox, natural selection had already sculpted wolves into self-domesticated “village dogs” without any human intervention.
Only later did humans adopt these village dogs and transmogrify them, separately and comprehensively, into the rainbow spectrum of breeds that today grace (if grace is the word) Crufts and similar pageants of canine achievement and beauty (if beauty is the word).
Coppinger points out that when domestic animals break free and go feral for many generations, they usually revert to something close to their wild ancestor. We might expect feral dogs, therefore, to become rather wolf-like. But this doesn’t happen. Instead, dogs left to go feral seem to become the ubiquitous “village dogs” — “pye-dogs” — that hang around human settlements all over the Third World. This encourages Coppinger’s belief that the dogs on which human breeders finally went to work were wolves no longer. They had already changed themselves into dogs: village dogs, pye-dogs, perhaps dingos.
I’ve had a copy of The God Delusion since I saw Dawkins speak on the Bill Maher show in 2006, but haven’t read more than the first few chapters. I have to admit I put it down a few weeks ago because as I was reading it, I became depressed about the fact that there is no afterlife and that this life is all there is. Terrifying to me. And terrifying that the idea of an afterlife is so strongly comforting to me that I was willing to put down a book and turn away from critical examination of an important subject out of fear. The childhood indoctrination of religious belief has a powerful effect on rational thought.
I’ve written critically about organized religion on this blog, and particularly on the religion of my family – Roman Catholicism. All of that writing has been reactionary in nature (like almost everything I write, I admit) in response to news stories and I haven’t explored the topic of religion in any depth – in truth because I haven’t done that for myself outside of the context of blog writing.
I guess there’s no time like the present, is there? (Especially if this is all the time we have.) I’ll pick The God Delusion back up and complete it, and do the same for Dawkins’s new book as well. And hopefully I’ll have something intelligent to say about them after.
A few thoughts on visiting the IU campus – wow, college students are young, given the questions they asked Dawkins after the lecture. Many of them gushed to him and about him because he’s famous, and it seemed to me that few of them had read his books or even had a clear as picture of what they were about. It’s odd that they’re on a college campus surrounded by the tools of learning and yet they’re so full of not-fully-formed thoughts. And yet they get to have Urban Outfitters on campus, and trucks that do “to your door” cookie delivery. How unfair.