Professor Dawkins Visits the Twin Cities

Published by MNA on

By Ryan Sutter

Headshot of Ryan.

On Wednesday, March 4th, Richard Dawkins delivered a lecture at the Northrup Auditorium in Minneapolis. The title of his lecture was The Purpose of Purpose. The main questions he addressed were:

– Why Darwinian natural selection would create a mind that sees purpose and goals everywhere, and

– What it is about our minds that cause us to subvert our basic biological gene-survival purpose?

The concepts are actually pretty deep if you think about it. If we exist because evolution has shaped us to be this way, and evolution only truly rewards the survival of genes, what possible explanation could there be for using birth control, for example. The answer was interesting. His illustration was a goalseeking missile. A selfguided missile flexibly adapts its behavior in pursuit of the goal of striking a moving target. This ability to flexibly adapt to goals is a strength that allows it to do its job. However, flexibility and adaptation is a double-edged sword. If the missile falls into the wrong hands, it can be given a new goal and, its strengths intact, be used to attack the one who made it in the first place.

Now, our minds are not created artifacts in quite the same way that the missile is, but they have been shaped by million of years of evolution to be flexible in the pursuit of goals, altering course intelligently, creating sub-goals, etc. Those are the very strengths that allowed us to survive and pass on our genes. However, the invention of advanced language and civilization changes our environment allowing other people (and sometimes ourselves) to subvert those evolved goals for other reasons that are actually contrary to our evolved goals.

Sex gets subverted, filial devotion gets subverted, tribal and family allegiances get subverted. We take a perfectly valid genetic goal and redirect it into religions, raising pets, all sorts of things that make no sense in light of the evolutionary imperative to propagate our own genes. Our very power and flexibility make us susceptible to goal subversion quite unlike that which happens in nature.

Dawkins concluded with a Q&A period during which he handily responded to inquiries both interesting and bizarre.

Photo of full audience at Northrop Theater.
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