1. The replicator molecule was able to make copies of itself. Previously, molecules formed by chance collisions, so no one type of molecule was very numerous. Replicators quickly became more common than randomly formed molecules because of their self-copying abilities. Replicator molecules were also the first entities on which natural selection could act.
2. Replicators can “compete” with other replicators through longevity, fecundity, and replication accuracy. Molecules that are very stable (high longevity) have more time during which to make copies of themselves, which is a competitive advantage. Molecules that replicate speedily (high fecundity) also have an advantage over slower-replicating molecules. Lastly, high replication accuracy is advantageous, because incorrectly copied offspring do not increase the population of the parent molecule, nor do the descendants of that offspring.
3. Dawkins writes that while evolution may be inherently competitive, this does not mean that we should base our moral system on Darwinian competition. The “ought” of morality does not follow directly from the “is” of evolution.1 In addition, genes may predispose humans to be selfish, but they are not the sole factor controlling human behavior. While there is no definitive answer to the “nature versus nurture” debate, it is certain that not all human behavior is hardwired by genetics.
4. An entity performs an altruistic behavior when it does something that “increase[s] another such entity’s welfare at the expense of its own.” An entity performs a selfish behavior when it does something that promotes its own chances of survival. Dawkins further specifies that these definitions are entirely separate from the entity’s motivations; they focus only on the effect of the action itself.
5. According to Darwinian evolution, natural selection favors individuals that promote their own health and reproduction. Since altruism promotes the survival of somebody else’s genes, individuals inclined towards altruism should not be favored by natural selection. As a result, they should pass on their altruistic genes less than selfish individuals pass on their selfish genes. Each passing generation should then have a lower percentage of altruism-promoting genes in its gene pool.
6. Intelligent design denies that the organized complexity of life could have arisen by chance and undirected processes. Proponents of intelligent design speak of irreducible complexity, which is the idea that many complex biological structures provide no benefit if they are missing even one of their parts. Therefore, they could not have arisen by natural selection, because their components have no benefit if they are added sequentially. Intelligent design’s supporters further claim that undirected processes such as natural selection cannot explain certain aspects of the universe and living things, especially the complexity of DNA and the universe’s life-sustaining qualities. Instead, supporters of intelligent design say that God (or some other type of designer) created the basics of replicating DNA and then guided the process of evolution from there.
According to Dennett, intelligent design begs the question because it attempts to explain the origin of organized complexity with a creator who possesses organized complexity. This adds an additional layer of complication. (I have a feeling that William of Occam would disapprove.) It also offers a sort of pseudo-explanation, because it makes the origin of organized complexity seem mysteriously out of the scope of human understanding. Nobody could explain the origin of the creator required by intelligent design. However, intelligent design does not actually explain anything about the origin of life.2
Darwinian evolution does not beg the question because it proposes an explanation for how complexity could arise out of simplicity. Darwinian evolution does not assume that fully functional DNA assembled all at once by some insanely improbable act of chance. Instead, it starts with a lifeless Earth and explains step-by-step how small molecules could eventually give rise to a replicator molecule. Then, with the principles of natural selection and several billion years of evolution, we could arrive at the complexity of life we see today.
7. Dennett views faith as “socially useful obfuscation.” That is, unless someone manages to find a reason-based argument for faith, it is not a useful way to pursue truth. One common defense of faith is that it is fundamentally separate from science, and therefore should not be judged by scientific and rational principles. This does not satisfy Dennett, who points out that once we give up the principles of reason, we have nothing left on which to base arguments. Absurd claims ranging from (to paraphrase Dennett’s examples) “God is a ham sandwich,” to, “The murderer is innocent because his family has faith that he did not commit the crime,” become possible. I do think that these are legitimate criticisms of faith as a process for seeking knowledge about the world.
1. In may not in the sense of the appeal to nature, but it somehow must in a more literal sense. There is nothing in existence other that what is, so our sense of ought and ought-not must come from what is if it is to come from anywhere.
2. There is some legitimacy in scientists being hesitant to accept a blind and dogmatic Darwinism. One of the main differences (say, compared to string theory proponents and skeptics) is that one doesn’t always have the sneaking suspicion that if they scratch the surface of a string-theory skeptic, they’re almost bound to immediately strike an ardent theist.