Americans are notoriously ill-informed about evolution. A recent Gallup poll (June 1993) discovered that 47 percent of adult Americans believe that Homo sapiens is a species created by God less than ten thousand years ago.
Human beings are actually more closely related to the two species of chimpanzees (Pan troglodytes, the familiar chimp, and Pan paniscus, the rare, smaller pygmy chimp or bonobo) than those chimpanzees are to the other apes.
You don't get to advertise all the good that your religion does without first scrupulously subtracting all the harm it does and considering seriously the question of whether some other religion, or no religion at all, does better.
Our fundamental tactic of self-protection, self-control, and self-definition is not spinning webs or building dams, but telling stories, and more particularly connecting and controlling the story we tell others - and ourselves - about who we are.
People who want to study religion usually have an ax to grind. They either want to defend their favorite religion from its critics or want to demonstrate the irrationality and futility of religion, and this tends to infect their methods with bias.
To put it bluntly but fairly, anyone today who doubts that the variety of life on this planet was produced by a process of evolution is simply ignorant—inexcusably ignorant, in a world where three out of four people have learned to read and write.
We live in a world that is subjectively open. And we are designed by evolution to be "informavores", epistemically hungry seekers of information, in an endless quest to improve our purchase on the world, the better to make decisions about our subjectively open future.
The real danger, I think, is not that machines more intelligent than we are will usurp our role as captains of our destinies, but that we will over-estimate the comprehension of our latest thinking tools, prematurely ceding authority to them far beyond their competence.
The juvenile sea squirt wanders through the sea searching for a suitable rock or hunk of coral to cling to and make its home for life. For this task, it has a rudimentary nervous system. When it finds its spot and takes root, it doesn't need its brain anymore so it eats it!
Up till now [the development of proto-consciousness], we can suppose, nervous systems solved the "Now what do I do?" problem by a relatively simple balancing act between a strictly limited repertoire of actions — if not the famous four F's (fight, flee, feed, or mate), then a modest elaboration of them.
Every living thing is, from the cosmic perspective, incredibly lucky simply to be alive. Most, 90 percent and more, of all the organisms that have ever lived have died without viable offspring, but not a single one of your ancestors, going back to the dawn of life on Earth, suffered that normal misfortune. You spring from an unbroken line of winners...
I listen to all these complaints about rudeness and intemperateness, and the opinion that I come to is that there is no polite way of asking somebody: have you considered the possibility that your entire life has been devoted to a delusion? But that’s a good question to ask. Of course we should ask that question and of course it’s going to offend people. Tough.
If I were to give a prize for the single best idea anybody ever had, I'd give it to Darwin for the idea of natural selection - ahead of Newton, ahead of Einstein - because his idea unites the two most disparate features of our universe: the world of purposeless, meaningless matter and motion, particles jostling on the one side, and the world of meaning and purpose, design on the other.
If you can approach the world's complexities, both its glories and its horrors, with an attitude of humble curiosity, acknowledging that however deeply you have seen, you have only scratched the surface, you will find worlds within worlds, beauties you could not heretofore imagine, and your own mundane preoccupations will shrink to proper size, not all that important in the greater scheme of things.
The traditional view of purpose says it comes from on high, from God, from the Creator. Darwin's idea of natural selection makes people uncomfortable because it reverses the direction of tradition. Whereas people used to think of meaning coming from on high and being ordained from the top down, now we have Darwin saying, "No, all of this design can happen, all of this purpose can emerge from the bottom up without any direction at all."
After Darwin, God's role changes from being the designer of all creatures great and small to being the designer of the laws of nature, from which natural selection can unfold, to being perhaps just the chooser of the laws. By the time God's role has been so diminished, he becomes a bit like a constitutional monarch, presiding ceremonially but not having any more work to do. That's a place for God if it makes people comfortable to keep God as the presider over the universe. I suppose that is satisfying for many.
I am confident that those who believe in belief are wrong. That is, we no more need to preserve the myth of God in order to preserve a just and stable society than we needed to cling to the Gold Standard to keep our currency sound. It was a useful crutch, but we've outgrown it. Denmark, according to a recent study, is the sanest, healthiest, happiest, most crime-free nation in the world, and by and large the Danes simply ignore the God issue. We should certainly hope that those who believe in belief are wrong, because belief is waning fast, and the props are beginning to buckle.
I was once interviewed in Italy and the headline of the interview the next day was wonderful. I saved this for my collection it was... "YES we have a soul but it's made of lots of tiny robots" and I thought that's exactly right. Yes we have a soul, but it's mechanical. But it's still a soul, it still does the work that the soul was supposed to do. It is the seat of reason. It is the seat of moral responsibility. It's why we are appropriate objects of punishment when we do evil things, why we deserve the praise when we do good things. It's just not a mysterious lump of wonder stuff... that will out live us.