Religious Tolerance logo

An essay donated by Donald Stark

Richard Dawkins, witness to Eden

Sponsored link.


"Climbing Mount Impossible," by the Oxford Darwinian and best selling author Richard Dawkins, begins with Dawkins having been irked by a "stock-in-trade" literary lecture in which the speaker suggested that the fruit in the Garden of Eden with which Eve tempted Adam was a fig. "The speaker obviously knew that there never was a Garden of Eden, never a tree of knowledge of good and evil." 1 Of such stuff he says in "The Selfish Gene:"

"We no longer have to resort to superstition when faced with the deep problems: Is there a meaning to life? What are we for? What is man? After posing the last of these questions, the eminent zoologist G. G. Simpson put it thus: 'The point I want to make now is that all attempts to answer that question before 1859 [The year Darwin published Origin of Species] are worthless and that we will be better off if we ignore them completely. 2
Darwinian evolution -- which, according to Dawkins, should replace all previous explanations of what man is -- says that through some twist of nature a simple form of life emerged from primeval slime and from that life we humans eventually evolved. Were we to explain life as full blown, according to Dawkins, its complexities would make an explanation for the universe simple. So to explain life we must begin from the simple and proceed to the complex. 3

Simple to complex is a reasonable way to explain most things, but not life. There is no simple life now, no fossil record of its having ever been simple,
16 and no model of how it could ever be simple. Reduced to a single cell, life is still complex. "All living matter is made up of cells, and all cells come from previously existing cells." 4 Within each cell are its genes, and as Simon Conway Morris of Cambridge illustrates, the gene has its own complexities: It is "without meaning unless it is put into the context of what it is coding for (his italics), not least an extremely sophisticated biochemistry." 5

Dawkins' "simple life" breaks down thus: it is as complex as a cell, and the cell as complex as its genes and the gene as complex as the DNA it houses, and the DNA as complex as its method of transferring information. Franklin M. Harold, Professor Emeritus of biochemistry, Colorado State University says, "Organized complexity is one of the essential characteristics of life." 6 Until Dawkins can find or create one simple life he can only be taken on faith, the very thing he condemns in Christians, Jews and Muslims who take Eden seriously.

Life, a lazy Explanation:

Despite Erwin Schrödinger's long-standing challenge to science to define life, no one knows what it is. 7 To discover life on another planet or in a lab would not explain what it is, it would only demonstrate that given favorable conditions life might emerge. Although Dawkins does not know what life is, he says in the Blind Watchmaker that to claim that God created life "You have to say something like, 'God was always there,' and if you allow yourself that kind of lazy way out, you might as well just say, 'life was always there' and be done with it." 8 But Dawkins must take the same lazy way out if he is to account for existence at all, life included. He can either affirm that the universe came from nothing or affirm that it, or something, always existed and from it all other things came to be. His way, however, has an additional complication: If he is to avoid the absurd conclusion that something came from nothing he must go where science cannot go -- beyond the big bang -- and claim that the universe came from "something" that existed prior to the big bang. What Plato asserted by logic and Jews, Christians and Muslims assert by inspiration -- that the universe is not eternal -- the discovery of the big bang makes scientifically emphatic.

If the beginning of the universe is hard to explain, the beginning of life is harder, says Dawkins, then goes on to explain it as so simple "there is no mystery about [it]. It had to happen by definition." 9 How it happened he cannot say specifically, but suggests several possibilities. Of the likelihood of any of them having actually occurred, he says, "We have at our disposal ... odds of 1 in 100 billion billion as an upper limit." 10 Obviously, odds of one-millionth this number are not reasonable, so how does he convince any one? He intimidates. Reject his unreasonable odds and he'll make a fool of you. Well, since I'm a fool anyway who never owned a new car, I'm used to high-pressure sales tactics. I read on, but now with a more critical eye than before, and find no reasonable odds for his theory.

Living? Who cares?:

In his demonstration of the primeval soup model, as how life got started, Dawkins explains that if you had sampled the soup at two different times, "the later sample would have contained higher proportions of varieties with high longevity/fecundity/copying-fidelity." This, he says, is what biologists mean by evolution. He then asks, "Should we then call the original replicator molecules 'living'?" And answers, "Who cares?" 11

A Jew in the Auschwitz extermination camp, 1943, cares. "Living" means more to her than something that rearranges itself and replicates itself. It means being a conscious human: judging good from evil, appraising beauty, loving, living in the present and expecting the future.

Dawkins cares too. He knows that we are more than our chemicals account for, otherwise he would not warn us about unintended consequences of his theory should we injudiciously adhere to what it implies. According to the theory, we humans are machines created by our genes. "A predominant quality to be expected in a gene is ruthless selfishness. This gene selfishness will usually give rise to selfishness in individual behavior?. Much as we might wish to believe otherwise, universal love and the welfare of the species as a whole are concepts that simply do not make evolutionary sense." And the warning: "I am not advocating a morality based on evolution. I am saying how things have evolved. I am not saying how we humans morally ought to behave." 12

His point is well taken, he is no less moral than I am. However, we are not arguing with his morality but with his theory about how he came to know what morality is. He goes on: "There are special circumstances in which a gene can achieve its own selfish goals best by fostering a limited form of altruism at the level of individual animals." Dawkins won't be fooled, however. He knows what is truly good and how it differs from the evil that his genes would have him believe is good. "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 that no other species has ever aspired to." 13 Of course not, no other species has a knowledge of good and evil. By asserting that altruism is good and selfishness bad, Dawkins verifies that he knows good from evil, something his genes, he says, never taught him. As parable or history, this is the essence of Eden and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.

The story of Eden illustrates that it is of man's very humanness to know that there is a good and an evil. He can't escape knowing it anymore than he can escape knowing that one plus one equals two. Although one may be a Jew, Christian or Muslim whether he believes Eden as history or myth ("myth" as a conveyor of truth), he cannot be any of these unless he believes that as a human he has knowledge of good and evil. That atheists share that knowledge emphasizes that these religions are about more than morality.

Sponsored link

Eden, A Mythmaker'?s View:

If you will, momentarily think of Eden as a myth that the Jews have included in their history, as Greek mythology is included in Greek history but is not meant to be a literal history of the Greeks. A difference is that absent Greek mythology a history of the powerful Greece would still persist. Absent the story of creation and the fall -- Eden -- there would hardly be a history of the Jews. Because of this myth and its context Jewish history has become the focal point of Western history.

By whatever means we came to be, as mythmakers, what are we? Intellect sets us apart from other animals. Should a chimpanzee evolve to attain the intellectual capacity of a human, he might look around and ask why there is something rather than nothing; why things seem twisted as if out of some more reasonable picture -- why so much suffering in so much beauty? He is still an animal, but now responsible, as humans are responsible, for the intellect which is at once his loss of innocence and his discovery of the knowledge of good and evil, justice, love, logic and mathematics, none of which are material, and a knowledge of which he never had when he was simply an animal. In fact the terms "animal", or "primate" no longer define him. They are but minor physical characteristics of his new being, and his new being is defined best by what he knows, not by what he physically is. And what he knows defines him as less material than non-material -- spiritual if you will.

An easy example of his non-materiality is his discovery and utilization of mathematics. Even though we may express it in conventional terms and apply it to material phenomena, mathematics is not material nor is it a convention. It adheres to strict laws that we can only discover and use but not disagree with. Mathematics exists outside time and space, in a real world but not a material world, a world that measures our world but remains immeasurable to us.
As a means of handling his perplexity at how he acquired such knowledge, he composes his myth. The first prerequisite for myth is that the mythmaker has a language. Language, like mathematics, describes the material world but is not itself material. The voice and the pen are material but these are only tools the intellect uses to convey thought, and thought itself, though representative of the physical universe, is not physical. The mythmaker must draw analogies between himself and other things in nature, and he must relate things he sees to concepts that he cannot see, such as love and justice, and himself as both an artist and a work of art.

His myth is like the story in Genesis of our first parents who were caretakers in a garden where among all the other trees grew the tree of life and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. They were free to eat of the tree of life but forbidden to eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. They exercised freewill and ate of the forbidden tree and the creator banished them from the garden and from the tree of life. Dawkins is disingenuous not to acknowledge that the story of Eden is an accurate allegory of humans as being more than simply primates who obey their selfish genes. Their defining characteristic is the knowledge of good and evil and their freewill to choose between them. This knowledge morally obligates them to undermine the selfishness of their selfish genes.

Eden's explanation of why our world is less than perfect, a world in which we must suffer and die because someone else sinned, shall always be a point of debate. But it is not debatable that the story of Eden and the fall would not be possible unless the mythmaker knew something about what he cannot have experienced. One cannot possibly conceive of less than perfect -- which is allegorized by the fall and which we know ourselves to be -- unless he has some innate sense of perfect -- which he could never have been, even in the garden.

Eden, The View from Auschwitz:

Were Origin of Species accurate down to the last detail it would not tell us what man is. It would only tell us what a primate is and then tell us that we are only primates. If we believe what science tells us about DNA we know this. Our DNA matches almost exactly that of a chimpanzee. The most obvious thing about this match is that our DNA describes us as primates but not as humans. Because Origin of Species attempts to explain what we are as primates it is at most a biology book. It fails to explain what we are as humans.

A tenet of the Abraham religions is that as humans we know good from evil. A second tenet, predicated on our knowing good and evil, is that justice exists. A third tenet is that justice will prevail: good will be rewarded and evil punished. There is debate among members of these groups as to what constitutes good and evil and reward and punishment, but none that justice will prevail. A leading tenet of of all of them, however, is that punishment can be averted by mercy, mercy that comes only by true repentance. For atheism, if an individual reaps his just rewards he must do so while he is alive, for the justice of his evil deeds cannot reach beyond death. Jews, Christians and Muslims believe that death cannot prevent it.

Dawkins says in The God Delusion that altruism, such as adopting a child out of compassion, is a "misfiring" of a genetic urge that is not altruistic but selfish. "I must rush to add," he explains, "that 'misfiring' is intended only in a Darwinian sense. It carries no pejorative sense." 14 He is admonishing us to go outside Darwinism to find a good solution for an evil problem evolution has caused. That is tantamount to saying that as humans we are more than the primates Darwinian evolution has made of us, which is exactly what Eden tells us. According to the Eden story altruism is not a misfiring of our genes. As humans we have a knowledge of good and evil innate. Believers may disagree with an atheist about what is a good or evil deed, but he may just as well agree with the atheist and take issue with another believer, just as an atheist may agree with a Jew, Christians or Muslim and take issue with another atheist. Without a common frame of reference as to what constitutes good and evil, debate about what made particular deeds good or evil would be impossible. This is at the heart of what the tree of knowledge of good and evil is, as history or myth.

Dawkins says that what is good for our genes "had to wait for the twentieth century to reach a cognitive level, and even now full understanding is confined to a minority of scientific specialists." 15 But scientific specialists of the twentieth century dreamed up the Auschwitz death camp on their opinion of what was good for their genes, rather than on what was morally good. If they were mistaken as to what was "good," they were not mistaken on Darwinian grounds. As Dawkins points out, Darwinian natural selection is antithetical to good and evil.
Atheists condemn Hitler as sincerely as Jews, Christians and Muslims do and from the same knowledge of good and evil and of justice that is predicated on that knowledge. But they cannot condemn him on the basis of Darwinian evolution. For justice they have to go outside Darwinism. If Hitler is only a primate he goes free by putting a bullet in his brain. To the extent that Dawkins proves that we have knowledge of good and evil that genetics -- his main tool for evolution -- is antithetical to, to that extent he proves the essential message of Eden and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.

But suppose Dawkins is right. We are products of evolution but manage after ten thousand years to defeat the selfishness of our genes and our species comes to deplore the death it wreaked in the past on its own kind. This brave new world can make no difference to the young woman in Auschwitz. She dissolved in a shower ten thousand years ago. It would be overly dramatic to say that a last shower awaits us all were the truth of it not beyond all drama. An alternative to Dawkins is that justice will prevail. For Jews, Christians and Muslims, and for the young woman in Auschwitz, that hope is only possible if there is a resurrection.

References used:

  1. Richard Dawkins, "Climbing Mount Impossible," W. W. Norton and Company, (1996), Page 3.
  2. Richard Dawkins, "The Selfish Gene," Oxford University Press, (1989), Page 1.
  3. Ibid, Page 12
  4.  Harold J. Morowitz, "The Emergence of Everything," Oxford University Press, (2002), Page 3.
  5. Simon Conway Morris, "Life's Solution: inevitable humans in a lonely universe," Cambridge University Press, (2003), Page 4.
  6. Franklin M. Harold, "The Way of the Cell," Oxford Press, (2001), Page 31.
  7. Ibid, Page 218
  8. Richard Dawkins, "The Blind Watchmaker," W. W. Norton & Company, (1996), Page 141.
  9. "The Selfish Gene," Page 13.
  10. "The Blind Watchmaker, Page 146.
  11. "The Selfish Gene," Page 18.
  12. Ibid, Pages 2 & 3.
  13. Ibid, Page 3.
  14. Richard Dawkins, "The God Delusion," Houghton Mifflin Company, (2006), Pages 220 & 221.
  15. Ibid, Page 220.
  16. It may be worth noting that very early, simple, life forms lacked the body structures necessary to be converted into a fossil.

Originally posted: 2009-AUG-05
Latest update: 2009-AUG-05
Author: Donald Stark

line.gif (538 bytes)
Sponsored link

Go to the previous page, or to the "Visitors' essays" menu, or choose:


Go to home page  We would really appreciate your help

E-mail us about errors, etc.  Purchase a CD of this web site

FreeFind search, lists of new essays...  Having problems printing our essays?

Twitter link

Facebook icon

GooglePage Translator:

This page translator works on Firefox,
Opera, Chrome, and Safari browsers only

After translating, click on the "show
original" button at the top of this
page to restore page to English.