Despite his inability to grasp the nature of his own faith in chance, Dawkins does not entirely ignore the problem of origins. His solution lies in something so nebulous that it can be made to fit any theory. It is the so-called “anthropic principle”, whereby we can be certain that we are on one of the few planets that are suitable for sustaining life, because we know that we are on one of the few planets that are suitable for sustaining life. Dawkins is surprised that religious apologists love the principle, because they think it supports the case for design, whereas he loves it because he thinks it does the opposite. So much for the decisive influence of the anthropic principle.

He now – all credit to him – forgets his equation of natural selection with the whole of life, and declares (p. 137) that “Darwinian evolution proceeds merrily once life has originated”, though he glosses over the fact that his merry procedure still requires countless random mutations for the production of new organs. “But how does life get started?” Again he admits that this “may have been a highly improbable occurrence”. “The origin of life was the chemical event, or series of events, whereby the vital condition for natural selection first came about. The major ingredient was heredity, either DNA or (more probably) something that copies like DNA but less accurately, perhaps the related molecule RNA.” This is an extraordinary simplification. The origin of life must at the very least have had two major ingredients, and they must have sparked into life at precisely the same moment: heredity was one, but what Darwin called the “breath” was the other. DNA is not much use in a lifeless body. By only calling on DNA/RNA, at a stroke Dawkins has halved the degree of the already high improbability. But be reassured: “I shall not be surprised if, within the next few years, chemists report that they have successfully midwifed a new origin of life in the laboratory” (p. 137). That’s OK then. Dawkins thinks that the combined knowledge of the finest brains, working on the findings of generations of earlier fine brains, will soon be able consciously to put together the ingredients and breathe the spark of life into them … which will prove that life came about through unconscious chance. Abiogenesis is the name of the theory that inanimate matter spontaneously assembled itself to create life. And it requires just as much credulity as the genesis theory it seeks to replace.

But Dawkins has one more theoretical trick up his sleeve. Statistics. There are billions and billions of galaxies in the universe, and so life is statistically bound to have arisen by chance not only on this planet but probably on millions more. “The beauty of the anthropic principle is that it tells us, against all intuition, that a chemical model need only predict that life will arise on one planet in a billion billion to give us a good and entirely satisfying explanation for the presence of life here” (p. 138). The beauty of the Dawkins principle is that it tells us, against all reason, that if you want to believe in miracles, you need only cloak them in chemical or statistical terms to make your belief entirely satisfying. “The spontaneous arising by chance of the first hereditary molecule strikes many as improbable. Maybe it is – very very improbable” (p. 137). But the fact that we are here, and that there are billions and billions of planets, proves that this very very improbable event took place by accident through the laws of probability. And so “this statistical argument completely demolishes any suggestion that we should postulate design to fill the gap” (p. 139). Given enough time and space, then, chance might produce absolutely anything. Presumably even Hoyle's Boeing 747.

After this complete demolition comes another small concession before the final hammer blow, with its heavy reliance on the totally non-committal “anthropic principle”: “[Natural selection] needs some luck to get started, and the ‘billions of planets’ anthropic principle gives it that luck. Maybe a few later gaps in the evolutionary story also need major infusions of luck, with anthropic justification. But whatever else we may say, design certainly does not work as an explanation for life, because design is ultimately not cumulative and it therefore raises bigger questions than it answers” [i.e. who designed the designer] (p. 141). A few later strokes of luck would have to include the ability of organisms to adapt themselves to new conditions and to produce the primitive but immediately functioning organs we have listed earlier, without which there would be no evolution. There is also a different form of gap in the evolutionary story: the fact that the fossil record has still failed to come up with the millions of missing links Darwin was hoping for, which presumably is just a matter of bad luck. (The Cambrian Explosion surely puts paid once and for all to Darwin's gradualism and to Dawkins' smooth ride.) Design “certainly” does not work - by this stage in Dawkins’ thesis we are indeed dealing in certainties - because it is “ultimately not cumulative”. Isn’t it? Did Hoyle’s Boeing suddenly spring into perfection from nowhere in no time? Are there any precedents in any field of design that are not cumulative but automatically come up with spontaneous perfection? Earlier, Dawkins points out that there are flaws in evolved organs – “exactly as you would expect if they have an evolutionary history, and exactly as you would not expect if they were designed” (p. 134). He may get away with this if we stick rigidly to the concept of the omnipotent, omniscient, all-perfect God, but for an agnostic who finds it difficult to believe in the miraculous creativity of chance and yet at the same time keeps an open mind about the existence and nature of a possible designer, the statement is quite baseless. Design requires experimentation, and just like natural selection functions by eliminating the unnecessary and perfecting the necessary. Consider the history of cars, planes, ships, and you will see that human design follows precisely the same process as evolution - a gradual elimination of flaws and enhancement of qualities. Besides, it seems reasonable to assume that the history is not yet finished: the work is still in progress, and still "perfecting" itself, whether by chance or by design.

But if it's hard to believe that life came about by chance, it's just as hard to swallow the explanations offered to us by religion and myth. According to Genesis, in a version accepted by Jews, Christians and Muslims alike, God created the heaven and the earth, then said, "Let there be light: and there was light", and went on saying, "Let there be this and that" for six days, and the job was done. What could be simpler? Many Creationists stick to the literal truth of this account (or dispute the meaning of the word "day"), argue that humans and all other species were created separately and individually, and by diligent biblical calculations have worked out that we have all been on the Earth for only about 6000 years. Even allowing for the possible inaccuracies of scientific research, current knowledge suggests that homo sapiens has been around for about 200,000 years, and probably diverged from the chimpanzee family about 5 million years ago. It is true that many believers reject the fundamentalist interpretation of the Bible, but once they begin to question the literal truth of what they believe to be the word of God (and we should not forget that Genesis is billed as the First Book of Moses, who had direct access to the Lord), it becomes increasingly difficult to accept anything as authentic. The separate, individual creation of all species runs counter to the theory of evolution, as does the simultaneous arrival of the beasts of the earth and man (all created on the sixth day). Here the fossil record clearly shows that the beasts of the earth preceded man as we know him by millions of years. Again allowing for the problem of origins as well as for gaps in the fossil record, it is difficult for someone non-committed to subscribe to the Genesis version with its truncated cosmology and history of life on Earth.

According to Hesiod's Theogony (8th century BC), creation started with Gaia (Earth), who gave birth to Uranus (Heaven), and he was thoroughly nasty to his children until one of them, Cronos, castrated him; Cronos in turn ate his own children, but his wife Rhea gave him a stone to eat instead of Zeus; when Zeus grew up (on the island of Crete), he forced his father to vomit up the rest of the family, and all of them ganged up on Cronos and gave him a hammering. Is this version more or less credible than Genesis? It has plenty of detail and action, and so why should Moses' version be any more reliable than Hesiod's? Who actually established in the first place that the Bible was the Word of God? Muhammad and Joseph Smith also claimed to have experienced divine revelation. What grounds do Jews and Christians have for rejecting their claims (even if they do not dispute the Genesis version of origins)? Hesiod may only have been recounting a version passed down to him by earlier generations that went all the way back to the beginning.

Immanuel Velikovsky, a figure much reviled by the scientific establishment, ingeniously collated myths and legends from ancient cultures and literatures - including the Bible - and related them to the geological and cosmological evidence of past catastrophes such as the Flood and the parting of the Red Sea. He did this, incidentally, at a time (the 1950s) when uniformitarianism (the theory that geological processes have remained stable throughout history) was the order of the day, but many of his findings have now been confirmed. The point I wish to make here is that some stories In the Bible and some ancient myths may be based on history, and as such they may well contain truths that we have come to regard as fairy tales. We cannot dismiss them. Nor can we trust in them. Even authenticated history is open to the subjective interpretations of the historians.

The North American Indians have a large variety of creation myths, one of them centring on conflict between "hero twins" whose father is the sun-god. One twin is helpful to mankind, and the other brings old age, disease and death. The concept of twin gods provides a far less mystifying explanation of good and evil than that of a single, all-good Creator who designs the Devil. In classical Indian mythology, Brahma is the creator who forms a trinity with Vishnu and Shiva, respectively the forces of light and dark, life and death etc. Brahma, as the balance between them, represents existence originating from the union of opposites. Interestingly, Brahma no longer figures as a major deity in Hinduism, perhaps reflecting increased concern with human life rather than with creation - a little like the atheist focusing on natural selection rather than on the origin of life.

But I do not belong to Hesiod's culture, or to Amerindian culture, or to Indian culture, or to Dogon culture (Amma threw pellets of earth into space to make the stars, and then made the Sun and Moon by using pottery), or to Chinese culture (Pan Gu woke up inside a big black egg, smashed it, and the contents became the heavens and the earth). Erich von Daniken tells us that visitors from outer space built many of our monuments, and the Raelians assure us that life on Earth was created in the laboratories of the Elohim - who also live in outer space, and are busily cloning Jesus and Muhammad, among others. If you subscribe to these interpretations of origins, so be it, but in my own quest for a believable truth, I find all these concepts as incredible as that of chance-created life, heredity and adaptability, and that of a benign deity who, in six days 6000 years ago, conjured up heaven and earth and every single form of life, with not a single stage of progression from one to another. This is a subject we shall return to under "Religion".

Despite my inability to take the necessary leap of faith, however, one of the above explanations may be true, or some of them may contain some of the truth. The fact remains that we are here, and so there must be a true explanation of how we got here. Whatever it may be, it will seem fantastic. Science may be moving us towards new discoveries about our planet and our cosmos, but time and our way of life are moving us further and further away from our origins. Perhaps the ancients knew things that we do not. We should therefore remain open-minded, which is the hallmark of agnosticism, for the admission of ignorance is rarely as harmful as the assumption of knowledge.

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6. The nature of a 'Creator'

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