DNA: A Parasite that Builds Its Own Host?

Dawkins, the mechanistic world, and the "war on the beautiful"

Who can look at images from the Hubble telescope and not feel overwhelming awe for our universe? But do we know what we are looking at in these photographs? Much of what impresses us in these photos is the brilliant colors, the varied hues of the cosmos. And yet, according to the official Hubble web site, “Color in Hubble images is used to highlight interesting features of the celestial object being studied. It is added to the separate black-and-white exposures that are combined to make the final image. Creating color images out of the original black-and-white exposures is equal parts art and science.”

Not only are these images part art, they depend upon the history of art for their powerful effect. To a degree, we learned how to recognize the tinted beauties of the Hubble photographs by looking at nineteenth-century landscape painting like J. M. W. Turner’s study of light “Slave-ship.” The spectral but completely artificial tinting of the photos helps to create a similarly powerful feeling.

This is a dramatic example of science borrowing from art. But some scientists do not limit themselves to borrowing from the paint box; they want to argue that, so far as beauty is concerned, they have entirely displaced the arts.

For example, in his book The God Delusion, Richard Dawkins tells of a talk he once had with Jim Watson, “founding genius of the Human Genome Project.”

In my interview with Watson at [Cambridge], I conscientiously put it to him that, unlike him and [Francis] Crick, some people see no conflict between science and religion, because they claim science is about how things work and religion is about what it is all for. Watson retorted, “Well, I don’t think we are for anything. We’re just products of evolution. You can say, ‘Gee, your life must be pretty bleak if you don’t think there’s a purpose.’ But I’m having a good lunch.” We did have a good lunch, too.

My question is, “What’s a good lunch?” and why would a “product” be interested in it? What’s the difference between a good lunch and a bad lunch? Is this something science can tell us about? Is it just a way of talking about competition for scarce food resources (I eat squab, you eat pressed ham)? Or is it the case that in order to know the difference between a good lunch and a bad lunch you have to be something more than a scientist and certainly something more than a product? It would seem so. Don’t you have to know about something called “cuisine”? But what’s cuisine? And in just what way is it outside of science?

Watson and Dawkins are indulging in a familiar sort of self-satisfied gloating over the simpleminded anxieties of the religious. What they don’t seem aware of is the possibility that this moment of gloating and self-satisfaction is also a moment of thoughtlessness. What exactly are they saying? Are they saying, “Seize the good lunch for tomorrow we die our purposeless deaths”? A mid-day carpe diem? Is that the ethical imperative that follows from the theory of evolution and all of science’s “bleak” discoveries about the destiny of the universe?

To a degree, I’m kidding, but Dawkins is guilty of the same sort of thoughtlessness in more serious ways. He writes:

Natural selection . . . has lifted life from primeval simplicity to the dizzy heights of complexity, beauty and apparent design that dazzle us today.

Ordinarily, we pass over this sort of frothy enthusiasm in science writing, especially when it is looking at the cosmos. But isn’t it a failure of nerve? If science writers were to be consistent, wouldn’t it make more sense for them say something more like, “That? That’s the Eagle Nebula. It’s nothing special. There are billions of nebulae. Some of them make stars, like we need more stars. We can barely see the ones we’ve got. Dazzling? I don’t know what you mean. It’s a nebula.”

Wouldn’t that be more consistent with their assumption that everything is just a product? Even if we were to take Dawkins’s enthusiasm seriously, shouldn’t we at least ask, what do you mean by “lifted”? Is it that you think it’s better to be human than a primordially simple trilobite or dinosaur? Why? Why is “complexity” a good thing? You say, “Evolution is not just true, it’s beautiful,” but what do you mean by “beauty”?

For authors of popular science books, feeling dazzled is a consistent response to the grandeurs of the universe. For example, Stephen Hawking writes at the end of his recent The Grand Design, “. . . the true miracle is that abstract considerations of logic lead to a unique theory that predicts and describes a vast universe full of the amazing variety that we see.” Perhaps he’s using the word “miracle” loosely, but what about “amazement”? What is it to be amazed? What is amazement’s relationship to the M-theory that Hawking claims explains the origin of our universe and many more like it?

None of these terms — dazzle, amazement — has anything to do with the practice of science. There is no sense in which this passage is related to the scientific method. Hawking uses an aesthetic terminology without feeling any need to provide an actual aesthetic. In short, there is an unacknowledged system of extra-scientific value at work that science refuses to take responsibility for, either because it is unaware of the presence of the system or because it doesn’t wish to disturb its own dogmatic slumber.

Dawkins writes critically of paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould’s attempt to provide some explanation for these extra-scientific values. In Gould’s book Rocks of Ages, he suggests that science and religion are “non-overlapping magisteria,” each with its own province: science is for how things work, religion is for ultimate meaning.

But, as Gould makes clear, these are not the only magisteria. There is also art. “These two magisteria do not overlap, nor do they encompass all inquiry (consider, for example, the magisterium of art and the meaning of beauty).” Dawkins, of course, sees no need for religion, but Gould’s suggestion that art and beauty are a part of human knowledge passes before him without comment, as if it were something that couldn’t be seen.

My point is that Dawkins refuses to consider “beauty” even while happily invoking its reassuring aura. If you suggested to him that his own position, that a human is just a “product” of evolution, provides no explanation at all for why this product should be dazzled or amazed by anything, I think he would be indignant. And he would not be alone.

Remember the wide-eyed and emotional performance of Carl Sagan on his PBS masterwork Cosmos? Dawkins even quotes one of Sagan’s gushier moments: “When you’re in love, you want to tell the world. This book [The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark] is a personal statement, reflecting my lifelong love affair with science.”

Wasn’t half of Sagan’s purpose to teach us about the proper aesthetic or even spiritual relationship with the cosmos? Wasn’t the universe something more than a terse given, a product, for Sagan? Without this aesthetic education, might we not say, with Hegel, “The stars, hmmm, a gleaming leprosy in the sky”?

Well, what’s all this gushing amazement about then? Aloof in the disdain of a victor, Dawkins doesn’t want to be bothered with such questions. We win, he says. We scientists win. We’ll gush all bedazzled and amazed when we feel like it and without any requirement to explain what that’s all about. The only thing that’s important is this: if you deny our truth, you are a member of that large and contemptible demographic, the stupid.

As for cosmic awe, “Well, you know what I mean.” The weakest version of this perspective is delivered by Simon Singh in his book Big Bang: “Beauty,” he confides, “in any context is hard to define, but we all know it when we see it,” from which one might conclude that it had something to do with pornography.

The legendary Richard Feynman takes a shot at the problem in a footnote in his book Six Easy Pieces:

Poets say science takes away from the beauty of the stars — mere globs of gas atoms. Nothing is “mere.” I too can see the stars on a desert night, and feel them. But do I see less or more? The vastness of the heavens stretches my imagination — stuck on this carousel my little eye can catch one-million-year-old light. . . . For far more marvelous is the truth than any artists of the past imagined!

Well, to be generous, Feynman does not give me a lot of confidence that he actually knows much about what the artists of the past imagined. And it’s rather unfair to blame the “past” for not knowing what scientists didn’t know until very recently: what the stars were made of and how they burn.

But that aside, what does he mean by “feel,” “imagination,” and “marvelous”? He clearly thinks he knows, and he thinks his readers know, but my suspicion is that what he means is both trite and unexamined. To “feel” in this sense comes out of Rousseau and Romanticism, but it is opposed to scientific rationality. Feynman is very assertive, but he doesn’t know what he’s talking about.

As the Romanticist Morse Peckham observed of the use of terms like “marvelous”:

They make the members of the cultural group who use them have the affective experience of meaning without forcing them to go to the trouble of finding out whether they have understood anything or not. These words are the totems of in-groups at the higher cultural levels. They are the equivalent of the insignia of the Masonic Shriners.

I suggest to you that this is a failure to take evidence, all the evidence, seriously. Scientists — Dawkins included — do get weepy-eyed over their discoveries. I get weepy-eyed over their discoveries. What I do blame Dawkins and science for is their lack of curiosity about what this feeling of awe means. They claim the feeling, and claim its popular appeal, without thinking that it needs to be “substantiated statistically,” as everything else they consider is required to be. Amazement-before-the-cosmos cannot be tested or proved by observation, and it is not predictive of anything other than itself. In the hands of science, beauty is just a tautology, or a dogma. The dogma is this: “When you are presented with the discoveries of science, you will marvel at their beauty.”

Isn’t this part of what every kindergarten trip to the planetarium teaches? This is the solar system, and this is the proper emotional and aesthetic response to the solar system. You may ask questions about the planets, but you may not fail to be amazed. And if you do fail to see the universe as beautiful, you will be frowned upon by adults.

In short, science operates within a matrix of familiar aesthetic values that while not necessarily religious are entirely extra-scientific. And it seems to be entirely blind to the fact. Worse yet, the education it offers young and old is this: you will defer to your betters, those who know, the scientists. If they say the cosmos is beautiful, it’s beautiful.

You might think that this would be the place where a little philosophical inquiry could help out, you know, some aesthetics, but you would be wrong. For science, the only thing deader than God is philosophy. As Stephen Hawking puts it in The Grand Design:

Traditionally these are questions for philosophy, but philosophy is dead. Philosophy has not kept up with modern developments in science, particularly physics. Scientists have become the bearers of the torch of discovery in our quest for knowledge.

Amazingly, while the news media rose in scandal over the possibility that Hawking denied God, his claim for the death of philosophy passed nearly without comment. It was as if the world said, “Yes, well, of course that’s dead.” I suppose that’s what philosophers get for not “keeping up,” as if they were the slow kids at school.

Hawking sounds sweetly reasonable in comparison to Lawrence Krauss and Alex Rosenberg’s scorched-earth versions of Philosophy is Dead. In an interview with Ross Anderson of the Atlantic, Krauss repeated his earlier claim that “philosophy hasn’t progressed in 2,000 years.” He added:

Philosophy is a field that, unfortunately, reminds me of that old Woody Allen joke, “those that can’t do, teach, and those that can’t teach, teach gym.” And the worst part of philosophy is the philosophy of science; the only people, as far as I can tell, that read work by philosophers of science are other philosophers of science. . . . And so it’s really hard to understand what justifies it. And so I’d say that this tension occurs because people in philosophy feel threatened, and they have every right to feel threatened, because science progresses and philosophy doesn’t.

When science flatters itself that it is the last man standing — philosophy dead, imagination dead, and art for entertainment only — it becomes its own enemy. It then puts on the mask of power, grim as the face of Saint Robert Bellarmine explaining to Galileo the particulars of his predicament while sitting in a room with instruments of torture. It is because of these concerns that Peckham and Jacob Bronowski insist that science must come to see itself in the artist, and the two should together make common cause against dogma and social regimentation.

Without this collaboration with art in the name of the random (or the dynamic), science is doomed to moral sterility, or to a nihilism that asserts that there are no values (this is Alex Rosenberg’s position), or to groundless values such as “the only value, the only morality, is that which enhances biological homeostasis or the survival of the species genome.” In other words, the only value is whatever lends itself to the survival of a scrap of germ plasm. To which one should object, “Well, what’s the good of surviving, then? Must I think of myself as the moral equivalent of a virus?” In this view of things, DNA is merely a sort of parasite that builds its own host.

In the second installment of Adam Curtis’s powerful BBC documentary “All Watched Over By Machines of Loving Grace” (2010) he concludes, “This is the story of how our modern scientific idea of nature, the self-regulating ecosystem, is actually a machine fantasy. It has little to do with the real complexity of nature. It is based on cybernetic ideas that were projected on to nature in the 1950s by ambitious scientists. A static machine theory of order that sees humans, and everything else on the planet, as components — cogs — in a system.”

A documentary like Curtis’s tries to unsay the instructions of scientism. Unlike books by writers like Jonah Lehrer (the author of Imagine: How Creativity Works) or Sebastian Seung (author of Connectome: How the Brain’s Wiring Makes Us Who We Are), the film does not merely repeat what the culture finds convenient to believe. Therefore, it is most unlikely that it will be echoed by the media in the way Lehrer’s book or the works of popular science routinely are. The mass media recognizes in someone like Lehrer what it already thinks it thinks. Unfortunately for them, in Lehrer’s instance it recognized a liar, which may be closer to the general truth than they know (i.e. what they think they think is also a lie).

But for Adam Curtis, in spite of his relationship with the BBC, he can hope for little more than cult status, especially in the United States. It is as if Curtis calls to our culture from across a street; if the culture echos his call, it risks undoing itself. In the end, the only possible response for American culture is strategic deafness and blindness: we don’t see you, we don’t hear you.

But the worst possibility, never expressed openly, is that science’s truest value is whatever assures its own continued social privilege, whatever protects its grants and its fellowships at Cambridge or Harvard, its easy access to what C. P. Snow called the “corridors of power,” and, last but not least, that “good lunch.”

Perhaps this is what the “two cultures” divide has always really been about: not curriculum, as C. P. Snow claimed, but class. From its inception, science has been comfortably situated within and dependent upon the oligarchs. Its early heroes, beginning with Tycho Brahe, were members of the nobility or the landed gentry or had aristocratic patronage, a necessary condition when scientists had to build their own equipment or when to be a professor at Trinity College meant accepting the truth of the Trinity.

Dogma interfered with the work of science, no doubt, but that interference was finally overcome because what science offered commerce and the military was so critical to the future fortunes of the oligarchy. Lip service was paid to the church, but the scientists got money. They still do.

This is not left-wing whining; it is standard history of science fare. As John Gribbin writes in Science: A History:

It is probably not entirely a coincidence that the Industrial Revolution took place first in England . . . one of the factors was that the Newtonian mechanistic world view became firmly established most quickly, naturally enough, in Newton’s homeland. Once the Industrial Revolution got under way, it gave a huge boost to science, both by stimulating interest in topics such as heat, and thermodynamics (of great practical and commercial importance in the steam age), and in providing new tools for scientists to use in the investigations of the world.

The Romantic objection to dogma was much more personal. Their unhappiness with the British caste system, with “who I’m supposed to be and what I’m supposed to do,” led them to what Marx would later call a “ruthless critique of everything existing.” Much to the poet’s disappointment, the scientist made his home with the status quo. To the scientist’s chagrin, that home time and again led to collaboration in the grotesque horrors of war, environmental destruction, and political repression (as when surveillance technology is used not on criminals but on dissidents). The evils of this collaboration are so obvious now that examples are not even called for.

Opposed to all this, the Romantic sense of value was given its ultimate expression by Nietzsche when he said that our “ought” was not to be whatever servile thing the world has in mind for us, but to become what we are. We are not slaves to work and the dogmas of class, and we are not what the neuroscientists and biologists currently claim: a chemical tautology that seeks only its own meaningless replication.

Rather, we are the thing that knows that through language/consciousness we bring everything else into being. We bring not only the eternal things like the cosmos into being, and the world of nature into being, but we bear the future as well. We are not fixed by biology. Through the symbolic we become labile, a shape-shifting god like Proteus who can take on any natural (or unnatural) form. For an artist, entropy is not a problem of mechanics, it is an invitation to play, to join with the universe’s love affair with the random.

When science tells us that we are mere products, or “code,” or that our minds are like computer networks, and when we are then provided with lives best fit for machines, some of us despair in large part because the scientific worldview has come to feel repressive, to feel like part of the cause of our despair. We then seek our truth elsewhere, in countercultures of one kind or another, especially the counterculture of the arts, that utopia-in-motion of misfit geniuses, poets, dropouts, bohemians, dandies, and other dissident roles that Romanticism invented specifically for the purpose of giving those who despair someplace to go.

The conviction that this “life in the random,” this freedom, is who we are leads us to seek not only relief from the restricting (and usually stupid, that is, self-evidently fraudulent) narratives of statesmen, economists, bishops, and, yes, scientists, but freedom to be what we are: the universe’s symbolic dynamos, makers of worlds, and hot as any star.