"Begin at the beginning,and go on till you come to the end: then stop." (Lewis Carroll, 1832-1896)

Alice came to a fork in the road. "Which road do I take?" she asked."Where do you want to go?" responded the Cheshire cat."I don't know," Alice answered."Then," said the cat, "it doesn't matter."

"So long as I get somewhere," Alice added as an explanation. "Oh, you're sure to do that," said the Cat, "if you only walk long enough."

"All right," said the Cat; and this time it vanished quite slowly, beginning with the end of the tail, and ending with the grin, which remained some time after the rest of it had gone. "Well! I've often seen a cat without a grin," thought Alice; "but a grin without a cat! It's the most curious thing I ever saw in my life!"

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Location: Australia

I am diagonally parked in a parallel universe. Like Arthur Dent from "Hitchhiker's Guide To The Galaxy", if you do not have a Babel Fish in your ear this blog will be completely unintelligible to you and will read something like this: "boggle, google, snoggle, slurp, slurp, dingleberry to the power of 10". Fortunately, those who have had the Babel Fish inserted in their ear, will understood this blog perfectly. If you are familiar with this technology, you will know that the Babel Fish lives on brainwave radiation. It excretes energy in the form of exactly the correct brainwaves needed by its host to understand what was just said; or in this case, what was read. The Babel Fish, thanks to scientific research, reverses the problem defined by its namesake in the Tower of Babel, where a deity was supposedly inspired to confuse the human race by making them unable to understand each other.


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Sunday, December 03, 2006

Richard Dawkins - The Big Question: Why Are We Here?

Transcript of The Big Question: Why Are We Here?

The human race is one of the wonders of the universe. We may be unique. And of all our remarkable properties one stands out. It is that we are restlessly drawn to ask questions like: "Why are we here?" and "What is the purpose of life?"

The great civilizations and cultures of the past, came up with various answers, all unsatisfying because they were made up, rather than being properly investigated. So, can science come up with something better? I think so. It may sound presumptuous, but I believe that science CAN tell us why we are here. It can tell us the purpose of human existence.

The answer is an optimistic and an inspiring one. Why are we here? For most of the 500,000 years of human existence, we have been unable to answer the question of why we are here. It was only 150 years ago that science first tried to find an answer.

In 1859, Charles Darwin published a book which changed the world. When Darwin first got up the courage to publish the book, "Origin of Species", it shook the spiritual foundations of his age. Victorians had to come to grips with an entirely new set of unwelcome relations. We are over it now. Most of us are happy to teach our children that we are desccended from apes. We ARE apes. But I believe that Darwin has another message for us which could be frightening if we let ourselves be intimidated. But it's exciting and uplifting, if we have the courage to face it.

Not only did Darwin find the answer to the question of how did we come to exist, I believe his theory provides us with the answer we are probably only likely to get to the ultimate question - Why we exist - What is the purpose of life.

There are some 10 million species on earth. The displays here at the Natural History Museum at Oxford, represent only a tiny fraction of them. But before Darwin, no one knew how animals came to be so varied, so complex. Every last detail of every last creature's body and behaviour, seems exquisitely tailored to its environment. The platypus' webbed feet are built for efficient paddling and its duck bill is a radar electrically sensing its prey in the mud. As for the cheetah, its sleek and nimble body is a formidable machine for catching prey.

For centuries people tried to understand why animals were so perfectly equipped for their tasks. They assumed that there was only one explanation, the natural world was designed and that designer was god. The Reverand William Paley, writing half a century before Darwin, put the case with his famous "Watchmaker Argument."

Imagine, Paley said, taking a walk on the heath. If you came across a rock, you wouldn't be surprised. The rock could have lain there forever. It doesn't need explaining. But a watch on the heath would demand an explanation. It's existence and complexity would require a big explanation. The intricate precision of the cogs, the accuracy of which it keeps time, these are evidence that the watch must have had a designer. A watchmaker. Surely, Paley went on, no less is required to explain the even greater complexities of nature. There must be a divine watchmaker.

If I had read Paley in 1802, I might have agreed with him. But now things are very different. Charles Darwin has given us a much neater, more self-sufficient and therefore more satisfying explanation. Darwin argued that there was no designer. And at first sight this seemed like a ridiculous idea. Like Paley's watch, plants and animals appear to be staggeringly improbable combinations of their component parts all working towards one end. Take the nuts, cogs, bolts and springs of a watch and recombine them at random as many times as you like, only one arrangement tells the time. As the astronomer Fred Hoyle put it, the possibility that the parts of a living organism would spontaneously come together by sheer luck, is about as likely as a hurricane blowing through a scrap heap and spontaneously assembling a boeing 747.

So, how does nature do it? Even a fly is arguably more complex than a 747. If there is no designer, how did the complexity and variety of life come about? There's a clue as to how the process works in many people's back gardens.

There aren't many times when the pigeon has played a starring role in science, but it was this common place bird, that started Darwin on his journey of discovery. Darwin noticed that pigeon fanciers were able to breed new varieties. By carefully selecting mates, they had turned the ordinary pigeon into dozens of weird looking birds with weird sounding names. There were fantails, jacobins, short-faced tumblers and a horde of other varieties. Darwin knew that these all originated from one bird, the rock dove. And the pigeon breeder, Pat Pratt, can demonstrate that Darwin was right.

Pat Pratt - "If the fancy pigeons are allowed to breed as they like without any intervention at all from us, then at no time at all, they all revert to this wild type. Usually the first and second crosses from our fancy pigeons will show some type of return tothe drab blue colouring of the rock dove."

The effort to create different types is called artificial selection. And perhaps, Darwin reasoned, a similar process could occur in the wild. But how could selection occur in nature without a divine pigeon breeder to do the work?

The work of natural selection is classically illustrated by the finches that Darwin found on the Galapagos Islands. There are some 13 species all with different beaks. Yet, these varieties all evolved from one successful species which arrived from the mainland with one type of beak. One now behaves like a woodpecker, using a cactus spine to hunt for grubs. Another, now feeds on ticks living on giant tortoises while a third, the vampire finch, feeds on the blood of seabirds. These are all activities requiring different types of beak. Natural selection is about survival. The beaks changed, because the changes helped the finches to survive. And there wasn't a designer in sight.

When Darwin first explained evolution by natural selection, many people either couldn't, or wouldn't grasp it. I, myself, flatly refused to believe it when I first heard it as a child. For Darwin's theory to succeed, it had to explain both the wonderful variety of nature, and its astonishing conplexity. It does both with the utmost elegance.

My colleague, George Mc Gavin, has devised an experiment to show how natural selection works in practice. It explains how insects acquire their camoflage. They do it tiny bit by tiny bit.

George Mc Gavin - "What we have here is an artificial woodland floor on which I have placed a variety of insects. Some of the insects are very easy to see. Some of the insects are not so easy to see, and a few of them are extremely hard to see. Ok (to children), what we are going to pretend is that we are in a woodland and you are hungry birds out looking for insects. So, if you see something that you might want to eat. Say, I can see an insect. Who can see an insect? Me! Me! How many can you see? 3? 2? I can't see any.. "

The children play the role of predators. They show that even a little camoflage gives an insect some protection. So long as its predators don't get too close. If you are obvious, your chances of being eaten are really high. And therefore over time, small changes would make you not so obvious would be slected and passed on and so at the end of thousands of years of evolution, the end result will be an insect which is extremely well hidden in its background. The success of those hidden insects shows how natural selection rewards even tiny changes. The process of natural selection explains how simple structures over millions of years eventually evolved into complex, astonishing creatures, like the dinosaurs. Or us.

But natural selection is not some kind of awards ceremony, where nature applauds interesting new genetic mutations. It's not nature's fashion show. It's a competition to the death. Each individual within every species competes in the bloodthirsty and harsh real world for access to resources and for opportunities to reproduce. Natural selection is all about living long enough to pass on your genes.

Darwin realised that wild animals compete to survive and that more are born than the food supply can sustain. Inevitably, many die young, or they fail to reproduce. Amidst this wildspread slaughter, every animal fights a relentless battle for survival. In the natural struggle for existence, some variants were better at surviving than others. And they, passed their good qualities onto the future. Natural selection explains how we got to where we are now.

Does it also suggest to you a dark and troubling answer to the question - Why we are here? Natural selection suggests that we, like all other animals are survival machines. We are here only long enough to compete to pass on our genes. This seems to be the purpose of our lives and the reason we are here. But can this really be the only purpose of human existence? I don't think so. Darwin's remarkable theory offers a second meaning to our purpose. It's an inspiring one, which accords more fully with out own view of our better selves.

It stems from the curious observation that we humans seem to be breaking Darwin's rules. Human behaviour in the 21st century, seems to have nothing to do with what we call natural selection. Evolution may explain how humans came into the world, but it doesn't shed much light on the way we lead our lives today. Most of our energy goes into projects which seem to have nothing to do with the goals of survival or reproduction. We neither feel nor act as if we were driven by evolutionary complusion.

We seem to have freed ourselves from the need to spend all our time propogating our selfish genes. We have many other goals which take our time and energy. We explore the world around us. We create objects for their aesthetic beauty. We pursue hobbies for the sake of fun. And when we have sex, we defy our genes with contraception. If only they could think, our genes would be aghast at all this.

I, personally, am delighted that our big brains gave us the freedom to defy our selfish genes. The unrefined world of natural selection, is not the kind of world I want to live in. The beauty and purposeful elegance of cheetahs and gazelles is wrought at huge cost in the blood and suffering of countless ancestors on both sides. But IF the ultimate purpose of our existence is the narrow Darwinian one of propagating our genes, how can we defy them?

Ironically enough, the things that freed us from our genes, were also the result of natural selection. And it all began, millions of years ago, in Africa. At the time, humans were still prey. Surrounded by predators, we evolved survival tools. And the most important of these was the brain. Natural selection drove the development of the human brain. It did so with no more purpose than it drove the development of the tail of the peacock, or the speed of the cheetah.

The genetic advantage was rewarded and our brains got bigger. They didn't just be bigger, they became different. We evolved the ability to do something no other animal could do. Set goals. Find a new waterhole, plan a hunt, set aside food for the winter and we learn to adapt and change our thoughts. What natural selection built into us in Africa, was the capacity to seek, to strive, to set up short term goals in the service of long term goals and eventually, the capacity for foresight. Bigger brains allowed our individual ancestors to compete more effectively, and then, something unprescedented happened.

A brain arose that was able to look around the world, and ask, perhaps for the very first time, the question, WHY? Why are we here? We were no longer content to do what nature told us. We began to think about other goals that suited us. And we had a tool to express those goals - language. Speech let's us share goals. And a creature able to communicate its goals begins to think purposefully. Act purposefully. Create purposefully. And even more amazing, through language our goals can take on a purpose beyond the life of any one individual. One inventor can produce the wheel. Using language, generations of inventors share in the goal of fast cars and produce the modern one. Technology is human goal seeking writ large. And once human beings set themselves to a goal, they force the pace of evolution themselves.

This is an entirely new kind of evolution, non-genetic evolution. Advancing at the speed at maybe a million times faster than the genetic evolution which it resembles. We see its products everywhere in the technology of the modern world. We have created a technological world that enables us to move far beyond the dictates of nature. And it allows us to do astonishing things. We alleviate hunger with new strains of crops. Predict the weather with high speed computers and cure diseases with pharmecuticals. Through technology, we have filled the world with purposeful creations.

But technology does something else. It breeds an odd habit of thought. An animal who invents, will look at the world in a different way than any other animal. We see the world through "purpose coloured spectacles" . Because WE create things for a purpose, in the past we assumed that there was purposeful design in nature too. There wasn't as it happens. It took Darwin to realize this. He looked deep into the heart of nature and discovered a beautiful mechanism which blindly simulates the illusion of purpose. For the first time, an evolved creature had seen beneath nature's veil and worked out what nature was really up to.

And it is this spirit of enquiry that drove Darwin that gives our life meaning. It still drives us today. Powered by our technical capacity, our flexible behaviour and our rapid communication of new ideas; we've burst out beyong the confines of our atmosphere, to explore new worlds. And our minds have voyaged even further. We have looked across the deserted vacuum of space to the distant galaxies. Which means we have looked backwards in time, to the very birth of the universe and of time itself. At the other extreme, we have looked deep into the atom, at the strangeness of subatomic particles and most amazing of all, we have disected the living cell, finally unravelling the digital codes of the genes themselves. And still, we are not satisfied. We reach out in our search for meaning until we realize that it is we, who actually provide the purpose in a universe which otherwise would have none. Nothing else can do it. At least nothing we know of.

In a small, otherwise unimportant corner of the universe, a birth is celebrated. The birth of deliberate purpose. Planning, design, foresight. For all we know, it may be an unprecedented event. We have no evidence that it has ever occurred anywhere else, and after we are gone, it may never happen anywhere ever again. We can leave behind the ruthlessness, the waste, the callousness of natural selection. Our brains, our language, our technology, make us capable of forward planning. We can set up new purposes of our own. And among these new goals can be the complete understanding of the universe in which we live. A new kind of purpose is involved in the universe, it resides in us.

When I hear somebody sigh, "Life is hard," I am always tempted to ask, "Compared to what? - Sydney Harris

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Monty Python - The Meaning of Life - The Galaxy Song



Anonymous Anonymous said...

Why are we here? Only humans are stupid enough to ask and demand an answer to that absurd question. Other living things sensibly get on with their lives, procreate like crazy, then die.

There is no reason why we or anything else is here. We are just an accident, a mistake. To think otherwise is either wishful thinking or a terrible conceit!


3/12/06 8:37 pm  
Blogger beepbeepitsme said...

RE: daniel

I don't consider life to be an accident or a mistake. It is based on probabilities.

It is “chance” based on probabilities, (not randomness in the sense that anything is possible), that means I am here today.

I am based on the probabilities associated with the fertilization of my mother’s egg with my father’s sperm.

So, I am here typing away because of the probabilities associated with my conception.

Millions of sperm died which were unsuccessful. One was susccessful and I am the result of that biological success.

Hundreds of my mother’s eggs were not fertilized. I am the result of the successful egg. (This is what I mean when I suggest we are here by proabability.)

I am here, as are thousands of other mammals here due to the same biological process.

I value my own existence, so I realise that potentially, others also value their existence.

It is mutually beneficial for me to value the existence of others in the same way that I value my own existence, as I can increase my own chances of survival by being cognizant of the value that other people also attach to their lives.

3/12/06 10:45 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

we may be an accident or a mistake, or it may be a law of nature that has a natural tendency to produce consciousness. one day we might know.

in any case, i think it's valuable to ascertain what type of meaning is deeply satisfying to us. we have to put this question of deities behind us and create our own worth.

3/12/06 11:42 pm  
Anonymous ted said...

Re Beep:

It is mutually beneficial for me to value the existence of others in the same way that I value my own existence, as I can increase my own chances of survival by being cognizant of the value that other people also attach to their lives.

That's a very good point. Personally, the fact that I'm alive provides me with all the "purpose" I need to live. Does that make sense?

4/12/06 8:18 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The quest for purpose is a red herring.

I can't believe that anyone buys into this, and I'm quite surprised that Dawkins has.

I don't wonder about my purpose, and I'm sure as heck others don't either.

Why do people continue to fall for this? It's the one stupid generalisation that continues to baffle me - that we all supposedly wonder about the so-called meaning of life.

Repeat after me - No, I do not wonder why I'm here. I wonder where the doughnuts are kept.

4/12/06 9:54 pm  
Blogger beepbeepitsme said...

RE dikki:

I think that dawkins is suggesting that the purpose of our lives has been biologically driven. The engine of this biological process has been natural selection. Natural selection, and the resultant survival mechnaism of intelligence, has enabled human beings to enquire about meaning.

We enquire about meaning because biologically we are purpose driven. A delightful irony, I think.

5/12/06 12:32 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi Beep. You wrote:

"We enquire about meaning because biologically we are purpose driven."

Dawkins is right about our biological origins. Not sure about the "purpose driven bit."

But what I don't believe is the oft-quoted mantra, usually by a theist, that we all wonder why we're here.

Additionally, I don't believe that anyone ponders this question unless they're prompted - and it's usually theists in full prosetelysation mode who do the prompting.

It's the old "answer to a question that no one asked" routine and we're playing into the hands of theists by even giving it consideration.

Until someone provides me with some concrete stats regarding whether it's normal for people to consider this question, I'll continue to dismiss this claim.

Daniel wrote:

"Only humans are stupid enough to ask and demand an answer to that absurd [meaning-of-life] question."

I continue to disbelieve that humans are naturally that stupid.

5/12/06 9:27 am  
Blogger beepbeepitsme said...

RE dikki:

I agree that theists seem to ask / demand an asnwer to that question more than any other group. But I am not convinced that the majority of them are truly satisfied with with the answer they SAY they believe in.

5/12/06 10:20 am  
Blogger fizzlesticks said...

You forgot another important question: When is lunch?

5/12/06 11:52 pm  
Blogger Bacon Eating Atheist Jew said...

The ironic thing about this is that Atheists know why we are here, while theists don't, and they spend much of their spare time trying to figure it out and/or trying to appease some made up concept so that one day this made up concept will tell them the answers.

6/12/06 1:19 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

wow an amazing post!
i recently lost my religion and are searching for answers.. still not even close to, what to believe.
truely that is a million dollar question for me. "why am i here" what is the purpose?

6/12/06 9:02 pm  
Blogger SINCRONIA said...

... friends (wait, let me take my tears off, I'm too sentimental)...

I think Dawkins is absolutely right, and I don't think is not logical for an atheist to wonder about Why and for what are we here? Nihilism is ok for who likes it, but curiosity and know-hunger is kind of a natural consequence of evolution itself, so it may be important just for that reason... is also, a natural thing hapening in our brains quemistry.
Theist have their own answers and purposes... they may be right or wrong. But what I think, is that you need more courage to look your answers and purposes since science and atheist perspective... but when you pass throught that level where emptiness is so hard and cruel... you find out a greater sensation about your amazing, priceless, unique -gene-career- existance.
I love you Beep. Thanks.

7/12/06 4:00 am  
Blogger SINCRONIA said...

Thanks to you... btw
What shall we atheist going to celebrate this christmas? How do you do this?

9/12/06 3:44 am  
Blogger beepbeepitsme said...

RE sincronia

I celebrate the national holiday the way I have always done. Some family and friends to lunch. We wish each other happiness, peace and good will, and we try to escape the heat of the day.

I have always found christmas to be a strange tradition in the southern hemisphere as it originates in the northern hemisphere where it is winter and of course it is summer here at the same time.

It makes for a strange tradition when the tradition of another culture, originating in a totally different place, is translocated to the other side of the world.

Many australians persist in christmas traditions which are all about snow, cold weather, and santa red, furry jump suits while they are boiling and sweating in shorts and T shirts.

It has always been an anarchronism to me. Kind of like trying to celebrate a beach party in the arctic.

But, of course, I wish those who believe in a religious christmas a merry christmas, and those who don't, a happy holiday. :)

9/12/06 10:50 am  
Blogger SINCRONIA said...

All right. Happy Holiday Beep and and everyone!

10/12/06 5:46 am  
Blogger TRaNSoN said...

I fucking LOVE you!!!

I was transcripting this video in order to translate it to Spanish and have it subbed to extend it across the Net, but suddenly I found your transcription!!! Your web is the only one that gives me the result in all Google, I'm tremendously lucky!!!

Well, I'll keep transcripting it by ear in order to improve my English, but now I will be able to correct my mistakes! :D

I owe you one, whoever you are. Now this piece of delicious atheism will get much further, with subs in many more languages. Charles Darwin would be proud.


7/8/07 1:01 pm  

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