I read it last year and liked it very much. Some email excerpts and updates on the book and Dawkins:
It’s published almost 20 years ago so I don’t know if the scientific stuff in it still holds, but intuitively the brutal theme makes sense that human, as well as any living (as defined as reproducing) mechanism, is nothing but a survival machine built and utilized by the individual genes to duplicate themselves forever and ever. The gene is inherently selfish because the only thing it “cares” and “does” is to duplicate, all the better at the expense of other competing genes. Therefore each individual living mechanism has no choice but be selfish. To counter such pessimistic and blunt Darwinism, Dawkins effectively argues that certain form of “reciprocal altruism” can and do develop and survive among the sea of selfish individuals. To me, the only thing that would stop us from reaching a much higher level of 人品 from simple and utilitarian “reciprocal altruism” is our knowledge and will power.
I recently happened to read about Prisoners’ Dilemma in Richard Dawkins’ The Selfish Gene. I know nothing else about game theory so I have no intention to claim I know anything else. The interesting conclusion, one of the few optimistic ones in the book, that Dawkins made is that in a game of iterated PD (where the game is played for a number of times without the players knowing the end), “nicer” strategies actually win in terms of better total gain. You can read the book or simply check out Wikipedia to find that the winningest strategy is surprisingly a very simple “Tic-for-Tat”: start with cooperate, then do whatever your opponent did in the last round. It is “nice” in the sense that 1) it never deflects first, 2) it retaliates immediately but also forgives immediately, 3) it does not hold “grudge” i.e. no matter how many times the opponent has deflected before, once s/he cooperate, it will cooperate again.
Dawkins used iterated PD to illustrate viable “evolutionary stable strategies” during evolution that seem “nicer” than some alternatives, but nicety comes from millions of years of natural selection instead of individual’s conscious or conscientious effort. An individual is just too fragile and unreliable. In engineering terms, any individual can break down at any time, whether physically (dead) or mentally (brainwashed or religious or I-am-the-king- of-the-world), so in order to build a robust machine (society) you have to be fault tolerant. It doesn’t mean that you don’t start with good parts–“good” in economical cost-effective sense. But you simply can’t spend all your money to get the best parts painstakingly hand crafted and use them at all critical sections of your system and pray that they’re worth the money. It’s a Google-eat-you world. Elitism has failed and will never work. Mass produce knowledgeable, open-minded, tolerate, and loving parts to build a globally distributed system, now that may be an evolutionary stable strategy.
(Respond to a friend forwarding the God vs. Science discussion between Dawkins and Francis Collins from a Times cover story.)
This Francis Collins guy is dangerous. He appears logical and tolerate and compassionate. I learned his name and book in a recent Scientific American review. Recently I talked to a friend who’s a biologist in academia. One of his current projects is human genome, so he knows Francis Collins (not personally) and also read this conversation on Times. I also asked him about Dawkins’ Selfish Gene a while ago. My friend said Collins is mostly an administrator, not a highly reputed scientist. Also none of my friend’s Christian colleagues is vocal about their religion and they keep it away from their work.
After reading The Last Temptation of Christ, I started to think that it doesn’t really matter if the person Jesus did exist; or if he did exist, how his life really was. He’s just the epitome of human spirituality, which is one essential and defining character for human being. And I’ve always thought that God’s existence is possible, but it’s just one of the many hypothesis for the ultimate Truth. That’s why I like Dawkins’ closing remarks. However I would not, nor would I tolerate other people to, resort to the all-too-familiar straw that “God works in mysterious way”. That’s lazy, cheap, and ultimately irresponsible toward oneself and the whole human race.
On a digression, tolerance is perhaps the greatest and most difficult human virtue. Should we tolerate injustice, oppression, and torture? Should we tolerate intolerance? It’s a semantic dilemma, but in reality it’s not, just like freedom isn’t absolute in the sense that you’re not free to violate and suppress others’ freedom.
I wonder why Collins didn’t mention Gödel’s Incompleteness Theorems, though, because that’s actually the most direct and convincing argument to why God may (not must) exist, since Gödel proved that there exist unprovable truth in an axiomatic system, so God’s existence may just as well be one of those pieces of unprovable truth–or falsity, but again unprovable.
I got to know someone in UIUC who’s from Tsinghua. We lived pretty close and our two couples became very good friends. He finished his Ph.D one semester later than my graduation, and I referred him into my previous company and we worked together for 4.5 years. He is very creative and inquisitive, but sometimes his logic and argument are kind of odd and a bit absurd. He and his wife converted to Christianity while in Champaign, and once he half jokingly said that the reason he believes God is very pragmatic: If God doesn’t exist, there won’t be much lost, if any, that his false belief would incur. If God does exist, he would gain a huge deal. So why not? (Note: I later learned from Dilbert Blog that it’s a form of Pascal’s Wager.) He loves to ask “why” to everything, and after a party a friend gave him the nickname 十万个为什么. In a sense it’s understandable or even natural for such an inquisitive person to convert to religion, because it’s actually the only available answer to some ultimate questions.
But is it a real “answer”? Science tries to answer everything, but it doesn’t, and probably will never by its nature, claim to have The Answer. I’d rather knowing that I do not know, instead of believing that I do.
I just read about the Traveler’s Dilemma from Scientific American. The article quotes experiments where most people do not choose the selfish/rational Nash Equilibrium. Instead they pick the potential high payoff (when the other player cooperates) and high loss (when s/he doesn’t), out of random choice, irrationality, rationalization of irrationality, or, hopefully, “reciprocal altruism”.