Richard Dawkins: Growing Up in the Universe - The Ultraviolet Garden

Continuing his Michael Faraday Christmas Lectures, Growing Up in the Universe, Richard Dawkins begins by asking a seemingly simple question: what are living organisms (bees, for instance) for?

The question seems so innocent that there is a very long tradition of thinkers who have thought it obvious, not simply that there is an asnswer to such a question, but that they actually knew what the answer was. And it turns out that most versions of the answer have been exceptionally anthropocentric: whatever their purpose, somehow all beings in the universe are there for us. How convenient :)

It should come as no surprise to you that Dawkins doesn't find this sort of answer satisfactory. Instead, he eloquently argues that the purpose of living organisms is given to them by their genes: make more copies of those genes. That's the general point, but of course, the details and support, as well as Dawkins' meditations on the concept of the extended phenotype are primarily what make this lecture fascinating.

As a nice treat, there is an awesome appearance and reading by Douglas Adams, author of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy.



Of course, the question of what the world is for is a very treacherous one, as Douglas Adams himself points out in this funny and thought-provoking excerpt (read by Simon Jones) from a fascinating talk he gave in 1998 about the hydrocentric point of view of a puddle (perfect timing, as I'm currently reading The Salmon of Doubt):




Unfortunately, I think Dawkins himself might be mistaken here, and confusing what is with what the something that is is for... the fact that genes construct complex organisms that perpetuate the existence of such genes doesn't mean that's what organisms are for... it just means that's what they do.

I may have to think about this further, but it seems to me, intuitively at least, that the question of what something is for will always require us to posit an agency or mind to provide that purpose. Without a mind, nothing is for anything. Things just are what they are...
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