Dawkins, Darwinism, Reductionism, Emergent Properties and Causality

A friend of mine sent me an article today to read. It is an excellent article by Richard Dawkins – well worth reading. It is called What Good Is Religion and you will find it here:

If the possible intersection of Dawkins, Darwinism, Reductionism, Emergent Properties and Causality intrigues you, then I encourage you to follow the arrow link, above, now and read Dawkins’ piece. It’s not too long – about four pages worth. Then come back here and press on with the rest of this post because this is a commentary on his article.


An excellent and interesting read. Dawkins has certainly become a foremost spokesperson for what one might term ‘hard-Darwinism’. His explanation of why religion survives – that it goes along for the ride when nature selects children who automatically believe the wisdom of their elders, makes a lot of sense. Or, in other words – it sounds good. But, let’s be cautious here because there is also a deep truth around that for any given set of facts or observations, there can be many equally plausible sounding explanations.

But, in general, I liked the article. If I had quibbles, they would be two:

At one point, Dawkins quotes Steven Pinker to buttress a point he’s trying to make:

…it only raises the question of why a mind would evolve to find comfort in beliefs it can plainly see are false. A freezing person finds no comfort in believing he is warm; a person face-to-face with a lion is not put at ease by the conviction that it is a rabbit.

This is a bogus example, to me, because it only works so long as you stay within the domain it provides for you. But that domain is unrealistic. Our experiences are made of of both the concrete and the abstract whereas his example involves just concrete observables. And our minds are certainly capable of evolving to find comforts in abstractions which we are unlikely to be able to prove false. The very question of God’s existence is, I believe, not provable one way or the other so it is an abstraction and an unprovable one. Now if people prove fitter, as they complete to survive, because they’ve chosen to embrace this abstraction, then surely the tendency to embrace it will be conserved in their progeny.

My second quibble is that Dawkins seems to be an unrepentant reductionist. In the last 20 years, science has changed from being utterly dominated by reductionist thinking to a having a new and general perception that reductionism and complexity/emergent properties are just two equally valid and alternative ways of looking at the world around us. Whereas one studies how to take it apart, the other looks into how it assembles together.

To wit, when Dawkins goes on about chicken pecking orders, he disparages stable groupings of chickens as good Darwinian subjects because they are a group-level phenomenon. But, isn’t a stable group of chickens, as he describes them, an emergent property and aren’t emergent properties conserved? If the individual tendencies of chickens to respect stronger chickens and to dominate weaker chickens aggregates into an emergent property that we call a Stable Group of Chickens and that stable group yields more eggs and thus contributes more genes to the pool, then why should we discriminate against it? He wants to reduce everything down to Darwinian minimums but emergent properties all up and down the scale of biological complexity are conserved.

Why should this tendency towards a reductionist Darwinism have been conserved in Dawkins’ brain?

Well, perhaps the problem with run-away reductionism is that it wants to reduce nature’s causality to the kind of causality we humans can understand easily which is basically sequential logic like if A then B. But, nature has no such limits or notions. Its causality flows freely – be it down sequentially logical chains of cause and effect or up through emergent properties and everywhere in between through every form of parallelism or sequentiality. This natural ‘everything is happening at once and affecting most everything else as it does’ way of being, which nature manifests, is extremely difficult for humans to comprehend, describe or quantify so we are constantly coming up with tremendous oversimplifications and then reifying them into pictures of how things work that we feel are good – because we can understand them. Dawkins would like it to be simple – with one explanation to dominate them all. But nature doesn’t care what Dawkins wants and goes where it will. As difficult as it may be, we need explanations that model nature – rather than reflect our shortcomings.

– research thanks to Alan T.

One Response to “Dawkins, Darwinism, Reductionism, Emergent Properties and Causality”

  1. awt says:

    “Why should this tendency towards a reductionist Darwinism have been conserved in Dawkins’ brain?”

    What a fun turnaround and good job of critical analysis. I think Dawkins would agree that concerved traits such as reductionist thinking either have survival value or they are benign, altered legacies of earlier, vanished traits. Wasn’t that his conclusion for why religion exists? Sounds good to me.