Daily Archives: December 6, 2009

Shaking the Dead Hand of Plato

Last month I had the honour to chair Richard Dawkins when he gave a talk in Bristol about his new book, “The Greatest Show on Earth.” We exchanged respective signed copies of our books and I have been slowly working my way through his though I have to say I have not yet finished – a million writing deadlines of my own to complete.

But I did want to write a post on the opening to Chapter 2 entitled, “Dogs, Cows and Cabbages.” In it Dawkins, asks the question, “Why is it so difficult for people to accept natural selection,” and he gives the answer, that when I read it,   knocked me off my seat – essentialism. If you have not read SuperSense, a large proportion of it addresses this notion that we believe the world is inhabited by essences and that this explains many supernatural beliefs and practices. So you can imagine how gratifying it was to see it pop up in Dawkins’ latest book where he calls its influence, “the dead hand of Plato.”

However, if I had researched SuperSense more thoroughly I would have discovered that essentialism is also the answer given by Ernst Mayr for why people have a problem with natural selection. Mayr points out that since the time of Plato, people have assumed that there is a true identity to reality that cannot necessarily been seen directly. It’s like there is an ideal form for all the things we detect in the world. So there is an essential dog, an essential tree and so forth. All the variation we experience in the world is interpreted as some deviation from an ideal form – a form that is essential. But such a viewpoint is inconsistent with continual change and evolution. Origins of species through natural selection does not fit with the Platonic view and this is a point that I made in the book. You don’t have to teach children this. They naturally assume that all species are essentially different from each other and that’s why they have a problem with accepting Darwin.

Of course, I go further than Dawkins and Mayr in my theory. Essentialism is not just a belief about true identity. It manifests as a supernatural force that can contaminate reality. There is essential evil, essential goodness, essential youth, and indeed I would argue that we essentialize those things we consider unique such as individuals. I argue that an individual’s essence can contaminate an inanimate object or possession – maybe even a signed book. This is one reason why some people don’t want to touch or wear the killer’s cardigan. It also explains why we find the notions of duplication, genetic modification and all manner of procedures that violate the integrity of the individual as abhorrent. We are not necessarily aware of this way of thinking and as I have been at pains to point out, it may operate intuitively, but I think that every child born is still shaking the dead hand of Plato.

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