Freely Chosen Dogmatism
Richard Dawkins in Scientific American

by Darel Rex Finley, August 25, 1997

The November 1995 Scientific American contained an article by Oxford Zoologist Richard Dawkins titled "God's Utility Function."

The article's namesake is the idea that natural selection (not God) designs the components of living systems for the best overall survival potential. Dawkins draws on an analogy to Model T cars that had a part which Henry Ford deemed "too good" because it outlasted all the other parts. Ford saw that scarce resources were being wasted on that part, and ordered its quality reduced. So, Dawkins would have us believe, natural selection performs the same sort of resource management on the structures of living organisms.

The Model T analogy is an interesting one, but it does little to resolve the fundamental question of "naturalistic evolution" versus "intelligent design." Presumably, an intelligent designer (like Ford) might have deliberately avoided wasting resources. Dawkins addresses the question in other ways, and here the fallacies begin.

Dawkins opens his article by drawing on an especially crude variant of the argument from imperfection. The argument from imperfection (well-covered by Behe on pp. 222-225 of Darwin's Black Box) says that if we can detect design imperfections in living systems, then an intelligent designer is ruled out, and evolution by natural selection must therefore be true. Dawkins employs an even less reasonable logic: The argument from cruelty. Since in Dawkins's judgment it is heartlessly cruel for a female wasp to lay her eggs in the body of a living caterpillar, evolution must be true, for an intelligent designer would never have done such a thing.

As a proponent of intelligent design, I find it extremely frustrating how often my arguments are dismissed as "rhetoric" or "philosophy" when I should be practicing "science," only to see prominent evolutionary scientists like Dawkins employ tactics like the argument from cruelty! The double standard is hard to expose, because most people have been convinced that evolution equals science, and doubting evolution equals philosophy or rhetoric.

Things go from bad to worse when Dawkins attempts to positively assert the truth of evolution:

The true process that has endowed wings, eyes, beaks, nesting instincts and everything else about life with the strong illusion of purposeful design is now well understood. It is Darwinian natural selection. Darwin realized that the organisms alive today exist because their ancestors had traits allowing them and their progeny to flourish, whereas less fit individuals perished with few or no offspring. [Emphasis added.]

This excerpt is extremely convincing until one begins wondering what "had traits" means. Where did these traits come from? Dawkins doesn't say, but the heavy implication is that natural selection can build them up a tiny bit at a time. Charles Darwin had plenty of reason to believe it, but I find it very hard to swallow that in November of 1995 Richard Dawkins knew of no problems with that thesis!

Lest any readers consider voicing doubts, Dawkins demonstrates the condescension and ridicule that await them. The "majority of the world's population" who think life may have been made for a purpose are "scientifically illiterate." Ruminations on purpose are "simply inappropriate, however heartfelt their framing."

Soon Dawkins takes up the argument from imperfection. Why, he wonders, would God make the survival of cheetahs and the survival of gazelles mutually opposed goals?

It is as though cheetahs were designed by one deity, gazelles by a rival deity. Alternatively, if there is one Creator who made the tiger and the lamb, the cheetah and the gazelle, what is He playing at? Is He a sadist who enjoys spectator blood sports? Is He trying to avoid overpopulation in the mammals of Africa? Is He maneuvering to boost David Attenborough's television ratings?

Dawkins seems to have a very selective imagination when evolution is at stake. Isn't it possible that humans have souls and animals do not? If the subject under discussion is changed to that of human suffering, then isn't it possible that this life is but a tiny test of character, dwarfed by what lies beyond? Just as a playing child often views bedtime as a cruel oppression, so the sufferings of this world might later be revealed to be both necessary in their purpose, and trivial in their discomfort.

After seeing Dawkins speculate on the sadism of God, I have to ask: Is this the kind of science we can expect from Scientific American? It seems highly unlikely that articles of this character would find publication there, if they were on any subject other than evolution. Apparently, the theory of evolution needs a special exemption from the usual standards of scientific study, and the editors of Scientific American are all too willing to grant that exemption.

Dawkins turns to the subject of sexual selection, one of Darwin's favorites, and makes an error that is gross even under evolutionary presumptions:

Presumably, lekking male black grouse, with their puffed-up dances accompanied by cork-popping noises, do not seem strange to the females of their own species, and this is all that matters.
Nightingale songs, pheasant tails, firefly flashes and the rainbow scales of tropical reef fish are all maximizing aesthetic beauty, but it is not, or is only incidentally, beauty for human delectation. If we enjoy the spectacle, it is a bonus, a by-product. Genes that make males attractive to females automatically find themselves passed down to subsequent generations.
[N]othing can stop the spread of DNA that has no beneficial effect other than making males beautiful to females.

According to evolution itself, the spread of such DNA can be easily stopped. A female who is attracted to wastefully decorated males may pass on those males' useless features, but not as efficiently as will a female who is attracted to useful features — her descendants will be better able to survive the rigors of the environment. The genes for wasteful decoration and posturing should be weeded out. Dawkins's argument makes sense only when one takes the female's tastes as a given — but the theory of evolution says they should be mutable.

So why aren't they weeded out? Likely because Dawkins is unwittingly correct — the female's tastes are not easily mutable — the issue of irreducible complexity comes to bear. A mutation can damage the female's sexual preference code, but probably at the cost of rendering her unwilling to mate with any available male. Such mutations are quickly eliminated.

Dawkins's explanation of wasteful sexual posturing/decoration is valid, but rather than bolstering the idea of evolution (as he no doubt intended it to), it provides a damaging example of Behe's irreducible complexity — highlighting the fact that natural selection can't change DNA in the manner evolution requires.

The single largest weakness in the whole article is what it does not contain. Nowhere does Dawkins mention — much less refute — any of the empirical dilemmas from Johnson's Darwin On Trial, a book published four years before "God's Utility Function." Nor does he address the empirical challenges brought up in Denton's Evolution: A Theory In Crisis, published nine years before this article. Dawkins simply starts with the dogmatic presumption that evolution is unchallengable, and extrapolates from there.

When an article ends like this:

In a universe of electrons and selfish genes, blind physical forces and genetic replication, some people are going to get hurt, other people are going to get lucky, and you won't find any rhyme or reason in it, nor any justice. The universe that we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil and no good, nothing but pitiless indifference. As that unhappy poet A. E. Housman put it:
For nature, heartless, witless nature
Will neither care nor know

DNA neither cares nor knows. DNA just is. And we dance to its music.

It is very tempting to dismiss the entire article as the meaningless, purposeless product of dancing DNA in Richard Dawkins's body. But let's not descend to that level. Dawkins deserves full credit — or in this case blame — for freely choosing to adopt the dogmatic position, when the empirical world forced him to choose between empirical science and dogmatic naturalism.