Something New Under the Sun:
Adapting to Change in the 21st Century


AnthroHealth News

September 2006

Volume 5, Issue 9


It is September, a month that has become associated in the United States with memorials. We haven’t had another Katrina yet this year, but the devastation from last year lingers long after it should have been repaired. And we have now passed another tragic landmark. Osama bin Laden, the purported mastermind behind 9/11, has yet to be captured. But the number of Americans killed in the fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq has now surpassed the number killed in 9/11. How healthy can we be as individuals when our society is so ill?


Book Club: This month we will discuss Part 3 of A Devil’s Chaplain by Richard Dawkins. This will also conclude our discussion of the book. There are three more parts to the book, but as summer ends, it is time to move on. The last three sections do not lend themselves as well to discussion since they consist of eulogies (Part 4), critiques of various of Stephen J. Gould’s writings (Part 5), and a paean to Africa (Part 5). Nevertheless, all three sections are well worth reading, so readers should not quit the book just because the discussion ends with Part 3.

Part 3, The Infected Mind: 3.1 Chinese Junk and Chinese Whispers.

K. I. Interestingly, a lot of the DNA in humans and other species is junk. That is, it doesn’t code for a protein any more. Somewhere in evolutionary history, it did code for a protein, but most of our DNA is not functionally important.

The “whispers” part refers to the game we call “telephone” in which a message gets changed if people line up in a line and whisper it to each other. There are mistakes both good and bad introduced along the way, so with each passing along, just as with genetic material, some alterations are introduced.

This also reminds us that the change is a very gradual process. If each whisper is a generation, it can take many generations to introduce a change. Unnecessary junk tends to perpetuate itself. DNA is selfish. It doesn’t care about its owner, it doesn’t care whether it is important or not, it cares only about its own propagation. Beliefs are like genes! This is an important realization leading into the AMAZING and long, section 2: not every idea is worth believing! No matter that it is endorsed by the vast majority of people.

K. F. I especially liked Dawkins’ description of creating origami models of Chinese junks. [pp. 122-123] This method of “reproduction” differs from the whispers/telephone method because each child in the sequence teaches the next child how to fold the paper. Although mistakes can be made, such as imprecise folds at the corners, they are generally obvious and can be easily corrected by the next child in line. Unlike “telephone”, each child in line has an actual model to which she can refer. The result is a process that reproduces with high-fidelity and is self-correcting, similar to what occurs with the double helix of DNA. Dawkins calls these cultural ideas that are passed on to future generations memes.

“Memes, like genes, are selected against the background of other memes in the meme pool. The result is gangs of mutually compatible memes—coadapted meme complexes or memeplexes—are found cohabiting in individual brains…By analogy with coadapted gene complexes, memes, selected against the background of each other, ‘cooperate’ in mutually supportive memeplexes—supportive within the memeplex but hostile to rival memeplexes. Religions may be the most convincing examples of memeplexes, but they are by no means the only ones.” [p. 126]

3.2 Viruses of the mind.

K. I. Certain beliefs tend to propagate themselves in certain subcultures. Religions are mentioned as subcultures, but other belief systems might be included. Namely, political belief systems (such as patriotism—my country is better than everyone’s because it’s mine), partisanism-- favoring a certain party (those of true believers in Democratic or Republican party ideals), professional belief tendencies (such as those inculcated by medical school to physicians or those impressed upon soldiers by their training in the military), and many social beliefs not necessarily linked to one religion (racism, creationism, the immortality of the soul, the permanence of marriage) might be included.

The observation that humans are born gullible, teachable, indoctrinate-able, and influence-able, is nothing new but was articulated by philosophers such as Plato in the Republic and David Hume who said the mind is like tabula rasa, a blank slate. In the 20th century, Dr. Albert Ellis, the originator of Rational Emotive Therapy, said that humans are born with a natural tendency to absorb many “toxic” or irrational ideas and behaviors that are socially reinforced, then condition themselves to use to make themselves unhappy. For example, any idea that things “should” be a certain way is culturally reinforced by the media and the actions of others.

The remedy for these ideas is to question them, on paper with self-analysis if necessary. But how many people are deep enough thinkers to question them? Lots of people are “sheeple,” accept what they are told, and are ideologically led around like sheep.

The way in which the beliefs of the mind are passed from person to person and generation to generation are likened to: 1) the replication of computer programs, and 2) the copying apparatus of DNA. Both have their own parasitic or viral attackers that take advantage of two qualities (p. 135). The first is a readiness to replicate information accurately, and the second is a readiness to obey instructions encoded in that information. Dawkins does mention (p. 136) that the mind is a slightly less perfect replicator of information than either cells or computers. Also, the mind is somewhat less obedient to coded instructions than these 2 systems are. Successful viruses are subtle enough to be hard to detect, as with computers where they may make just a few changes to a spreadsheet.

Viruses both reinforce themselves AND undermine opposition to themselves.

Reinforcement: I can think of examples of the self-spreading tendencies of religious ideology. Religion can spread by having proselytizing as a duty of the believer, hence wherever you live, Jehovah’s Witnesses may show up at the door. Or, religions may encourage their adherents to have a lot of children, as Mormon and Catholic faiths do.

Undermining opposition: Part of the human condition is the tendency to believe things with very little evidence. The less evidence, the more virtuous the belief and the stronger the belief is. If people can be made to believe something with zero evidence, then they can also be persuaded of things that are not just impossible but merely improbable. Religion is given as the main example here.

But: This could be broadened from religion to politics. The idea that Saddam Hussein had a role in the 9/11 attacks was used as a reason for going to war with Iraq. President Bush even said, in the 2004 debates, “The enemy attacked us!”: a pretty blatant fallacy. The probability that Saddam had something to do with 9/11 is quite low. It cannot be proven that he didn’t, since the absence of proof does not mean proof of absence. But getting enough people to believe it was sufficient to persuade enough people that the USA needed to go to war. Undeniably, without 9/11 having happened, it is very unlikely that we would be at war in Iraq. The “science” in this case was also the finding of weapons inspector Hans Blix that Iraq had no weapons of mass destruction. The weapons inspectors worked in an objective fact-finding way, but myth and rumor took precedence over the facts. Abraham Lincoln said you can fool some of the people some of the time. It’s happening.

The concluding paragraphs say that science is not a virus, and can overcome some of the damage done by mental viruses.

K. F. Science and religion view mysteries quite differently. Scientists are like Sherlock Holmes or Miss Marple, studying the clues to solve the mystery. But for religion, “Mysteries are not meant to be solved, they are meant to strike awe…the belief that ’mystery is a virtue’…moves the believer to perpetuate the mystery.” (p.139) Since mysteries are perceived as virtues, those who seek to solve mysteries, e.g. scientists, are reviled by the true believers because “…the method of scientific reason …could function rather like a piece of antiviral software.” (p.141)

3.3 The Great Convergence.

K. I. This follows upon the conclusion of the last chapter, that science is not a mental virus. It has been said that “Man is a religious animal.” Why do we have religion? I guess at some point in evolution, religious belief may have conferred a selective advantage to humans, probably by binding tribes together in common purpose, resulting in a survival advantage. And it probably still confers a survival advantage to most people in the world, especially less modernized people.

It has been trendy among intellectuals in recent decades to assert that science and religion are capable of converging. In 1996, even the Pope acknowledged the truth of evolutionary theory. This came many years after the theory was propounded. The tendency of liberal, secular thinkers to try to accommodate religious thinkers is flawed. The assertion of true believers that many of the beliefs (such as existence of God or supernatural) can’t be DISproved doesn’t make them worthy of belief. Dawkins goes on to say that humans are all agnostic about most of the gods that people have believed in: Thor, Wotan, Poseidon, Apollo, etc. “Some of us just go one god further.”

I am aware of only one church that tries to reconcile modern science with spiritual beliefs and that is my own, Unitarian-Universalism. It is part of the written goals of this non-creed obeying church that it encourages no beliefs to be propounded that contradict science. In fact, for those in the U-U church that are scientists, many grew up in other faiths and it was the contradiction with science that led them to question the religion they were born into and decide that they belonged elsewhere. But, it could be argued that the efforts of U-U ism to remain congruent with science actually confer an “anti-survival” DISadvantage, and weaken its influence over its members. For example, UU’s don’t feel the “obligation” to go to church every Sunday that other religious believers do. UU’s don’t proselytize at all or try to draw “converts.” UU’s, unlike Catholics, don’t run any private schools for their children, though there is “Sunday school.” UU’s are not encouraged to have large families; also, homosexuals feel welcome in the UU church, cutting down on the “yield” of children. Finally, just looking at dollars donated by UU’s shows that the percentage of their incomes they give is notoriously low, below the percentage of almost all other, less scientifically compatible faiths!

So, religion as practiced by most people in the world is by its very nature, contradictory to science, and derives its strength from being at odds with the scientific method.

K. F. In this section, Dawkins takes on Gould’s assertion that religion and science are co-equal magesteria. In his objections to this, Dawkins points out that the concept of miracles intrudes into the domain/magesterium of science. “Every one of these miracles amounts to a scientific claim, a violation of the normal running of the natural world. Theologians, if they want to remain honest, should make a choice. You can claim your own magisterium, separate from science’s but still deserving of respect. But in that case you have to renounce miracles. Or you can keep …your miracles…[b]ut then you must kiss goodbye to separate magisteria and your high-minded aspiration to converge on science.” (p. 150) Unlike Gould, Dawkins clearly does not think that “separate but equal” is possible in this case.

3.4 Dolly and the Cloth Heads

K. I. This chapter is about the cloned sheep Dolly, and what cloning means for humans. Is cloning unethical? Cloning is an important technique, done by my own laboratory to create a vector against prostate cancer. But certain kinds of cloning are considered taboo by many religions. Perhaps cloning should be embraced for its potential even where humans are involved. This brings up the issue of stem cell research. One of the legacies of modern politics will be the president’s first veto in 6 years and the use of it to prevent stem cell research, which is bound to be perceived by future generations as an aberration.

K. F. Once again, fundamentalist religious views trump reason. In this particular essay, Dawkins describes his experience as a member of several panels discussing cloning. His training as a scientist leads him to expect well-reasoned arguments supported by extensive knowledge of the topic at hand. However, he finds himself confronted with various types of religious leaders who have only their beliefs, untainted by actual knowledge of what cloning is, guiding their pronouncements. And instead of everyone being appalled by this, these leaders are given a respectful hearing. “Why has our society so meekly acquiesced in the convenient fiction that religious views have some sort of right to be respected automatically and without question?…How, moreover, do you decide which of many mutually contradictory religions should be granted this unquestioned respect: this unearned influence…It is the same unquestioned respect for religions that causes society to beat a path to their leaders’ doors whenever an issue like cloning is in the air. Perhaps, instead, we should listen to those whose words themselves justify our heeding them.” (pp. 154-155)

3.5 Time to Stand Up

K. F. In the concluding essay of Part 3, Dawkins bluntly states that we can no longer ignore the fact that religious belief can create dangerous situations for everyone. It is fairly obvious to everyone that fundamentalist religion, of whatever stripe, is at the root of sectarian violence. Dawkins, however, goes further by saying that those with moderate religious beliefs are also at fault because they feel that a person’s religious beliefs, regardless of what they are, must be respected. “It is time for people of intellect, as opposed to people of faith, to stand up and say ‘Enough!’ Let our tribute to the September dead be a new resolve: to respect people for what they individually think, rather than respect groups for what they were collectively brought up to believe.” [p. 157]

“The human psyche has two great sicknesses: the urge to carry vendetta across generations, and the tendency to fasten group labels on people rather than see them as individuals.” (pp. 160-161) This is an extremely important point. Until we can see and interact with each person as the individual they are, racism, sexism, sectarianism, speciesism, and all the other countless -isms will continue to plague us and work to undermine and destroy our societies.


And thus concludes our Book Club discussion of Richard Dawkins’ thought-provoking collection of essays: A Devil’s Chaplain. Many thanks to Dr. Kenneth Iczkowski for his insightful commentaries on the essays. It has been a most stimulating discourse.

Whether or not you agree with Dawkins on some, most, or none of his points, I do hope that this book club discussion has led you to give the points careful consideration. We seem to be at a crossroads where we can move full-speed into the 21st century, or where we will retreat into the 12th century. Given the rise and dominance of fundamentalist views in many spheres of our lives, including government, I do not think I am being unduly alarmist.

Some may feel that with this book discussion I have strayed from the focus of AnthroHealth. But I have not. The key tenet of AnthroHealth is that we humans are a part of nature and to be optimally healthy, we need to thoroughly understand that connection. A key tenet of many religions is that humanity is apart from nature. Science deals directly with nature. Religion does not. If religious views are allowed sway over science, then we have retreated to the 12th century. This bodes ill for all of us no matter what our stand on religion may be.


AnthroHealth Tip of the Month: Make an effort to get to know someone as an individual who you’ve labeled as being a member of the “other”, whatever that other group may be. When you make a connection, you may find you have common ground for further interactions. Getting to know someone as an individual expands your “in” group and reduces the “otherness” of the “out” group. A successful, healthy population is one that includes a great deal of diversity. In times of change, a richly-diverse population is more likely to have individuals who will be able to adapt to the changes than will a more homogenous population. So, expand your possibilities for a better, brighter future.

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Copyright © 2001-2009 Kathleen E. Fuller, PhD. All rights reserved.