In 1991, world-renowned evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins gave a landmark series of 5 lectures on evolution at the prestigious Royal Institution; the fifth lecture can now be seen on YouTube, in high quality video.
This lecture is all about brains. What is a brain for? What does it mean to have a brain like ours?
Many animals have brains. Digger wasps, for example. Richard Dawkins uses them to talk about an intriguing experiment by his mentor, Nobel Prize winner Niko Tinbergen, an experiment that was first done by the French entomologist Jean-Henri Fabre, a contemporary of Charles Darwin, the originator of the theory of evolution and without whom this series of lectures would have looked quite differently. With the digger wasp experiment, Tinbergen demonstrated the limitations of the digger wasp brain.
When a brain perceives something, it does not directly perceive reality through its sensory organs. Rather, it constructs a virtual reality model of the world and uses that model to think about it. This may shock some people but, as always, Richard Dawkins has the evidence to back it up.
First, he demonstrates virtual reality as it is used in computers to explain what it is. He then uses optical illusions to convincingly demonstrate and explain a number of flaws in the way our human brains misinterpret the world, misinterpretations that can only satisfactorily be explained by the virtual reality model.
Humans have an enormous brain in comparison to their bodies. It was not always like this and Richard Dawkins nicely demonstrates that using two computer animations. Starting at Australopithecus and ending at modern Homo sapiens, he shows that the human brain has really ballooned over the past three million years or so. He tries to explain this by self-feeding co-evolution, a concept he explains by comparing it to an arms race.
A hawk is very good at catching ducks, and ducks are very good at getting away from hawks. When the ducks became better at escaping, the hawks had to become better at catching them. In turn, the ducks had to become better still at escaping. Therefore, the very reason that ducks are good at escaping, is that they are good at escaping. Their own improvement causes further improvement via improvement of the hawks.
Self-feeding co-evolution of the brain must have been started by something. We do not know what did it, but Richard Dawkins gives three possible causes: language, imagination and technology.
Unfortunately, our brain does not only have advantages, it is vulnerable to delusion. Most people have seen monstrous faces staring at them, simply caused by lighting on a curtains. There is no face, but our brain so much wants to see one, that it does. The Charlie Chaplin illusion shown during the lecture, illustrates that very nicely.
Richard Dawkins uses this to warn us that when we hear from people that they have experienced a vision, have seen an archangel or heard voices in their heads, we should be immediately suspicious.
Language is a double-edged sword as well. Thanks to language, valuable information can spread rapidly, it sort of networks brains together. However, anything less valuable can spread just as rapidly. Richard Dawkins illustrates this with the rather harmless and trivial reverse baseball cap, which he calls a mind epidemic and he thinks or hopes that it will go the way of the virtually defunct Ninja Turtles.
Dawkins then goes on talking about more sinister ideas that do actively hold back progress towards our understanding of the universe. In 1633, the Holy Inquisition condemned Galileo Galilei to life imprisonment for publishing a book in which he argued, quite correctly, that the earth moves around the sun.
This was a while ago, but it happens even in our time. An entire religious sect was ordered to murder a novelist because he wrote a book that was seen a threatening to verbally handed down beliefs of that sect. Although he does not mention it, he is –of course- talking about Islam and Salman Rushdie who wrote the book “The Satanic Verses.” He then shows an image of Adolph Hitler as well.
Richard Dawkins then talks about the possible harm that can be done to children. Children of a certain age, he explains, will believe anything they are told. Father Christmas and tooth fairies are harmless enough, but a mind that is capable of believing in fairies is also vulnerable to believe other things, and he brings back a slide of the first lecture where he showed how absurd science would look if belief in different theories of the extinction of the dinosaur would be depending on where the believer lives.
Dawkins now asks us to look at our own beliefs about life and the universe. Do we believe them because we have a reason to believe them or do we believe them simply because of where we were born? Would these beliefs fit comfortably on a world map? If so, intense suspicion of these beliefs is in order, if only because the facts of the universe can hardly be different in different countries of the world.
Our sense of purpose, something that only recently arose, in combination with our ability to co-operate is able to achieve magnificent things. Once an American president announced that humans would go to the moon, it was achieved in less than a decade. At the time of the lecture, the human genome project had just been decided. Richard Dawkins predicts that it will be achieved. Sure enough, we now know he was right. It has been achieved, and it has been achieved to such a degree that sequencing genomes has become all but trivial.
Richard Dawkins closes the lectures by talking about the construction of a model of the universe; a model that will be shared among our brains and bits of it will be in books, libraries, pictures and computer databases. As we grow up further, the model will be refined and become a more accurate reflection of reality. At the same time, the shared model will become less superstitious, less small-minded and less parochial.
The model will lose the remaining hobgoblins, spirits and ghosts and it will be continuously updated with information coming in from the real world. It will be a powerful model and it will be able to make accurate predictions of what will happen to us and our world: “We, perhaps alone in the universe, are finally capable of growing up.”
This was the last lecture of this series. I can only encourage you to watch the lectures, but you are the one who must decide to do it. I believe that Richard Dawkins makes a powerful and convincing plea for science. Science is not a mere hobby like collecting matchboxes or watching people beat each other silly in boxing contests. Science is the study of the real world and our efforts to understand it.
We do not need superstition to understand the world, nor do we need it to bring beauty and wonder into it. Science studies reality and reality is far more beautiful, wondrous and mysterious than any mystic has ever been able to dream up. As Richard Dawkins wrote nearly two decades later: science is the poetry of reality. Watch these lectures. You will not be sorry.