Wednesday 22 April 2009

Richard Dawkins: The Purpose of Purpose

The Edinburgh International Science Festival is an excellent annual event with a series of lectures and activities. If I lived in Edinburgh I’d attend many of them. As an occasional visitor I’ve only managed a few and this year I attended just one lecture, as most of the festival took place while I was living in igloos in the Rockies. But this lecture was well worth the journey south just two days after returning from Wyoming as it was by Richard Dawkins. Over the years I’ve read and been impressed by many of Richard Dawkins’ books and seen his TV programmes but I’d never heard him give a talk before.

As a speaker Dawkins is both authoritative and accessible. The brilliant intellect is clearly there but without a sense of superiority or arrogance. The talk, entitled The Purpose of Purpose, was packed with information and ideas – I’ve thought about it every day since – but there was also some humour to lighten the tone, including a short video of a creationist explaining that a banana had been designed to fit the human hand and mouth. Dawkins pointed out that the modern cultivated banana is actually a very different shape to the wild original and that it has come about due to artificial selection by humans.

Humans are obsessed with purpose and like to ask "why" even if it's an irrelevant or meaningless question. What, Dawkins asked, is the purpose of this desire to find purpose?

Artificial selection, said Dawkins, with references to the cultivation of corn and roses, continues from natural selection. Using pollination as an example he showed how plants range from those reliant on the vagaries of the wind to spread their pollen to a plant whose pollen only one species of moth with a very long thin tongue can reach. This adaptation by natural selection has the purpose of ensuring the genes of the organism survive and continue. Dawkins calls this archi-purpose. There is no plan or design involved, just natural selection.

Much that people do does not have an obvious or clear archi-purpose however. Several examples were given to illustrate this, including adoption, which doesn’t help the survival of the genes of the adoptive parents in any way. Purpose here is intentional and planned and comes from our ability to think, which in turn comes from the evolution of our big brains. Dawkins calls this neo-purpose. Neo-purpose isn’t exclusive to people either. Machines can have it too, which Dawkins illustrated with a video of a guided missile. Such a missile, he said, seeks a target, unlike, say a cannonball, which has no built-in goal.

Neo-purpose can be positive or negative. In one of the most interesting sections of his talk Dawkins discussed the flexibility we have in directing and changing our behaviour. This flexibility means we can change our aims away from archi-purpose, though once we have a neo-purpose a degree of inflexibility is then needed to achieve it. This could be in the service of rigid religious or political beliefs. Inside this inflexibility flexible short-term goals could be set that might subvert the original aim. To show this Dawkins referred to the film The Bridge Over The River Kwai in which a character subverts his main aim of opposing the enemy by wanting to build as good a bridge for the enemy as possible, justifying this by claiming it will show superiority.

Next came the idea of fictive kinship, in which non-kin relationships subvert real kinship and replace it. This can lead to blind obedience to religious or political “kins”. Escaping from archi-purpose can be positive too, though, with cultural evolution having led quickly from the invention of the wheel to the space shuttle. This has enabled humanity to progress rapidly. At the finish Dawkins said that his take-home message was that neo-purpose was itself an evolutionary adaptation.

After the talk Richard Dawkins answered questions from the audience. I thought he was especially impressive here as he revealed the depth of his knowledge and his desire to explain clearly his ideas.

Three of us had attended the lecture, two of us familiar with Dawkins books and ideas, though we were still given much to think about. The third member of the party, a 20 year old art student, had never read any of his books. However she was so impressed by the talk that afterwards she was excitedly asking which ones she should read first. That’s how good it was.


  1. Hey Chris,

    It's David Knight from the Yellowstone trip. Looks like you had another great igloo trip- I'm catching up on the blog posts. I hope to join you and Ed again next year.

    I too am a big Dawkins fan. I saw his Purpose of Purpose talk a month or so ago in Minnesota. He spoke at the University to a sold out crowd. Very inspiring and thought provoking talk.

    Thanks for jotting down your thoughts! Hope to see you next year.

    -David Knight

  2. Hi David,

    Good to hear from you. It was a great igloo trip. I think Ed is planning one in the Colorado Rockies with some summit igloos next year. I hope to see you there.

    The Dawkins talk in Edinburgh was sold out. We were lucky and bought tickets early.

  3. Chris

    Have you read any books by Mary Midgley? She is the most convincing scourge of Dawkins, though she too is an atheist, and I find alot of her criticisms of him quite convincing.

  4. Paul, I have read articles and letters by Mary Midgley and followed her debate with Dawkins. I found her arrogant and condescending and clearly ignorant of biology and evolution. Extremely unconvincing in fact.

  5. I went to a Dawkins lecture some years ago — one of the best I've ever been to. A great mind and a great communicator. Must say I wish I had this event on my doorstep!

  6. Not quite on my doorstep, Andy. It's 145 miles by road or 3 hours by train (how I usually travel).

    The Festival is a superb event. Last year the highlight was Brian Cox talking about particle physics and CERN.

  7. Well, it's all relative Chris :-)

    Mind you, thinking about it, Edinburg is only three and a half hours from me in Birmingham!

  8. Chris,
    I attended this same lecture when Dawkins gave it here in Minneapolis a few months ago. Indeed, it was outstanding.