Monday, September 25, 2006

You, Me and Cousin Chimpanzee

Dawkins Diagram 1Dawkins Diagram 2

I'm reading Richard Dawkins's wonderful collection of essays A Devil's Chaplain, and early on he includes these simple but effective illustrations, showing how closely we're related to our chimpanzee and gorilla cousins. The first (left) shows how you have to ignore significant branches of our family tree in order to artificially separate us humans from "the apes." The second (right) effectively highlights how we're more closely related to gorillas than gorillas are to orangutans. How many folks do you think know that? And are teachers explaining such specifics to kids in our schools?

In the last chapter, "Good and Bad Reasons for Believing," Dawkins addresses his ten-year-old daughter to tell her about "how we know the things we know. He closes with this simple exhortation:
Next time somebody tells you something that sounds important, think to yourself: "Is this the kind of thing that people probably know because of evidence? Or is it the kind of thing that people only believe because of tradition, authority or revelation?" And, next time somebody tells you that something is true, why not say to them: "What kind of evidence is there for that?" And if they can't give you a good answer, I hope you'll think very carefully before you believe a word they say.
Simple, sage, sound advice. We'd probably not be in Iraq if more of us followed it. Of course, there are myriad other ways the human condition could be improved if more of us followed that advice.

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