Human beings are parasites – or the image of God?

Review of Stephen Hawking’s “Brief Answers to the Big Questions” - Part 3

Hawking begins his chapter “Are we alone in the universe?” by stating that the behaviour of the human race “throughout history has been pretty stupid and not calculated to aid the survival of the species.” (67) This is somewhat strange, some might even say ungrateful, coming from a man who was diagnosed with motor neurone disease at the age of 21 but, with the help of modern medicine and technology, not only survived to the age of 76 but lead a productive life, advancing our knowledge of the universe, in particular of black holes.

However, when writing those words Hawking was just getting started. He then says that “most forms of life, ourselves included, are parasites, in that they feed off and depend for their survival on other forms of life.” (69, my emphasis). Quite apart from this being incorrect biologically, and a surprising mistake for a scientist to make, this statement reveals a deeply misanthropic mindset. The above statement about “stupid history” was not a one-off, not a statement simply made to score some points with the upper classes, amongst which he often circulated, many of whom may look down on the less fortunate. No, that statement was the result of the same mindset: We humans are stupid parasites.

However, Hawking can’t make up his mind. In the introduction to his book, where he calls humans “mere collections of fundamental particles of nature”, he expresses wonderment at the fact that we have nonetheless, “been able to come to an understanding of the laws governing us, and our universe”. Moreover, this fact is a “triumph”, he claims, without saying over what. (21)

He claims, believably, to be very concerned about how we will feed an ever-growing population, how we will provide clean water, generate renewable energy, prevent and cure disease and slow down global climate change. However, he hopes that science and technology will provide solutions. He adds this appeal: “Let us fight for every woman and every man to have the opportunity to live healthy, secure lives, full of opportunity and love.” (22) Again, this is strange. Why would anyone who calls humans “parasites” with a “stupid history” wish that they succeed?

Hawking does provide an answer to this question, of sorts: Something must be done to improve the human race. So there is something in human beings that makes them worth saving. What exactly that is we never learn from him. But at least he wants to save humanity. And with so many imminent dangers threatening our survival, time is of the essence, he claims. So much so, that “[t]here is no time to wait for Darwinian evolution to make us more intelligent and better natured. But we are now entering a new phase of what might be called self-designed evolution, in which we will be able to change and improve our DNA. We have now mapped DNA, which means we have read ‘the book of life’, so we can start writing corrections.” (80-81, my emphasis)

This idea is of course no different from eugenics.  

This being eugenics, the idea is hubristic. Hawking admits that we still don’t know how certain atoms came to be arranged in the form of molecules of DNA. “Somehow”, he says. (73). “Maybe there was some simpler form of organisation [of life] which built up DNA. Once DNA appeared, it would have been so successful that it might have completely replaced the earlier forms.” (75)

Some biomolecular scientists beg to differ. They have observed what they call “irreducible complexity”. John C. Lennox, in his book “God’s Undertaker – Has Science Buried God?” quotes biochemist Michael Behe, who studies the tiny acid-driven motor that powers the bacterial flagellum – a propeller-like device that enables bacteria to swim. According to Lennox, Behe “shows that this motor . . . consists of some forty protein parts including a rotor, a stator, bushings and a drive-shaft. Behe argues that the absence of any one of these protein parts would result in complete loss of motor function . . . a removal of any one of these parts causes the system to effectively cease functioning.” (Lennox [Lion Hudson Ltd, Oxford 2009], p. 124)

Behe believes that his discovery meets Charles Darwin’s challenge. The 19th century scientist, who could not have known about the flagellum due to its tiny size, wrote: “If it could be demonstrated that any complex organ existed which could not possibly have been formed by numerous, successive, slight modifications, my theory would absolutely break down.” (Lennox 124, quoting Darwin, my emphasis)

Lennox quotes the Darwinist Stephen Jay Gould, who conceded that irreducible complexity is a phenomenon the origin of which Neo-Darwinism “cannot even in principle explain” (Lennox 125, emphasis in the original). Interestingly, Gould thinks new scientific methods would be insufficient to solve this problem. Instead, “[w]e need new philosophies and models, and these must come from a union of the humanities and the sciences as traditionally defined.” (Lennox 125, quoting Gould)

So, Hawking suggests a eugenics program because we apparently can’t wait for Darwinian evolution to do the job, and for that we should fiddle with a system we barely understand, and the origins of which we certainly do not understand. And which to understand we will need something like a “new philosophy” resulting from a “union of the humanities and the sciences”. At least Gould realises that there is a mindset aspect to take into account here, not just mere facts. Which is more than can be said of Hawking.

Apart from coming close to calling the human race stupid, and actually calling us parasites, Hawking also gifts us with inescapable guilt. A kind of atheist’s version of original sin – a version with not even a snowball’s chance in hell of redemption, forgiveness, or mercy. And that is when he talks about entropy. The second law of thermodynamics, explains Hawking, “says that the total amount of disorder, or entropy, in the universe always increases with time. However, the law refers only to the total amount of disorder. The order in one body can increase provided that the amount of disorder in its surroundings increases by a greater amount.” (67, 68 – emphasis in the original). And because we can define life “as an ordered system that can keep itself going against the tendency to disorder and can reproduce itself”, living systems “must convert energy in some ordered form – like food, sunlight or electric power – into disordered energy, in the form of heat” (68) – or pollution, but he doesn’t mention that word in this context, although he could have.

In other words: It doesn’t matter what we do. We, as living beings, will increase the amount of entropy simply by the act of living. And as we are the most conscious beings on the earth, the most aware of this state of affairs, we are the most guilty and culpable of it. It is at this point where Hawking leads over to the passage about “most forms of life, ourselves included”, being “parasites”. No wonder. In the eyes of materialist scientists like Stephen Hawking, human beings are irredeemably guilty of the act of living. This view, I believe, lies at the heart of the kind of environmentalism that is plaguing the world today (see, for example, “Insulate Britain”) and which has all the hallmarks of a religion.    

Hawking doesn’t, of course, put it that way. But it’s the inescapable logical consequence of his outlook. It is also completely consistent with his speculation about artificial intelligence as future life forms evolving from humans. He writes about it in this chapter in the context of spaceflight, which he sees as indispensable for our survival (without explaining why he would want “parasites” to survive). He explains that due to vast distances, and the limits of speed imposed on us by the natural constant of the speed of light, if we remain a DNA-based life-form our reach into the universe will remain limited. His solution: Send machines. “When they arrived at a new star, they could land on a suitable planet and mine material to produce more machines, which could be sent on to yet more stars.” (82) He goes on to claim that “[t]hese machines would be a new form of life”, which “could eventually replace DNA-based life, just as”, he speculates again, “DNA may have replaced an earlier form of life.” (82-83)

Here’s the strange thing. Hawking claims that practically all life forms, including humans, are “parasites” that are guilty of causing, or at least accelerating, entropy. Yet he immediately goes on to encourage us to develop machines, efficient and intelligent enough to one day replace us, which would do nothing but accelerate entropy even more. And still there is no hint of an answer to the question: Why? Why should we strive for all this, just to end up either being swallowed up by the Big Crunch or forever arrested by the Big Freeze? There is no rhyme nor reason in Hawking’s vision.

Next part of the review: Despite all that, let’s save the world – ok, but why?