evolutionary science = ‘the new classics’ – A proposal by Richard Dawkins


I first heard Richard talk about this two years ago. At the time, I listened, watched the slides and thought, “Nice Talk”, but did not really get it. Well, I’ve changed my mind, there is an article by Carole Jahme in yesterday’s Guardian that clearly explains it all, and so now I think I’m beginning to get it. The author of the Guardian article, Carole, not only has a master’s degree in evolutionary psychology, in 2004  she also won the Wellcome Trust’s Award for Communication of Science to the Public … and reading the article I can see why, because she quite clearly gets it and has effectively communicated the idea.

The context is that Richard was presented an Award for Distinguished Services to Humanism at the weekend, and so it was during his acceptance speech that he once again outlined the concept of evolution being the new classics … Carole writes…

…classicists have traditionally been assumed to be the scholars most able to branch into any area of research, today – with advances in evolutionary study – it will be those with scholarship in evolutionary science who will supersede classicists in depth, breadth and usefulness.

He [Richard] predicted that those who took his new degree course would achieve a “polymathic status”. He said the course “places evolution at the centre but brings in lots and lots of other subjects such as economics, social science, philosophy, engineering, medicine, agriculture, linguistics, physics, cosmology and history of science.”

Dawkins went into some detail to justify this statement, explaining the relevance of the various disciplines, starting with behavioural economics: “Everything has to be paid for, there is no such thing as a free lunch. You have to pay for whatever you do now in the form of lost opportunities to do other things in the future.

He claimed that in the areas of sexual selection, parent–offspring relationships and sex ratio theory, economic thinking was “rife” within evolutionary research.

What are the evolutionary origins for empathy, for sympathy, for our tendency to feel sorrow when we feel distress? Our tendency to want to help other people – other sentient beings indeed.

Dawkins argued that the same design-optimising principles that are “central to evolutionary theory”, are used by engineers and economists. He also explained that modern molecular genetics had become a branch of IT, “really it is digital information technology, something Darwin would have rejoiced at as it helps to solve some of the major riddles Darwin was faced with.

Reminding the audience that for centuries humans have artificially selected for highly productive animals and plants, he said this process will now be supplemented by genetic engineering, which he referred to as, “the manipulation of the mutation side of the Darwinian equation“.

Dawkins wants all doctors of medicine to be Darwinists, referring to the “wonderful book” Why We Get Sick by Randolph Nesse and George Williams, and recommending we all buy a copy for our GPs.

If doctors had been wise to natural selection we wouldn’t have the problem we now have with antibiotic resistance evolving by natural selection by bacteria.

He gave doctors some other evolutionary tips: “Is a temperature a Darwinian adaptation by the body to make life difficult for the pathogen? If so, giving someone a drug to bring the temperature down is the very last thing a doctor should be doing. Lower back pain is likely because we are ancestrally quadrapedal animals turned into bipeds and this is giving us problems.”

But he criticised cosmologists who talk about the “evolution” of the universe, stating that the universe’s development is analogous to embryology not evolution. However, “there is a connection, also a theological connection, in that cosmology and evolution are in the business of explaining origins, explaining where we come from, in the case of biology, where life comes from, in cosmology, where the universe comes from. I would think my course in evolution would include cosmological theories on the origins of everything.

Dawkins reminded his audience that Patrick Matthew was theorising about natural selection more than quarter of a century before Darwin, in an attempt to address age-old questions. “Questions that children always ask – “Where do I come from?”, “What is the meaning of life?” – these questions have been given wrong answers by theology for centuries. The right answers to these questions now come from evolutionary science. That is my pitch, my educationist pitch, for evolution as the new classics.

… and so now I finally get it.

As an aside, here are two other random snippits of very interesting information that I gleaned from the Guardian article …

  • Dawkins will lecture on evolutionary biology and science literacy at the New College of the Humanities which he helped to found – I’d love to be a student on his course.
  • And a Dawkins quote I really liked … “God knows my subject of evolution is no stranger to controversy. We are closer cousins to amoebas than amoebas are to bacteria, we are very close cousins to amoebas and this puts us in our place

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