Monthly Archives: March 2009

Dawkin’s “Middle-World” Theory

Throughout all the long ages of human history, people have tried to make sense of the world, and their place in it. We call this particular intellectual pursuit “philosophy”; it is roughly defined as the contemplative reflection of existence, truth, nature and consciousness. Or at least, that’s my best stab at it.

There have been many philosophers throughout history. Indeed, every one of us a philosopher, regardless of whether we are published authors, famous historical figures, or average Joes. That’s because every one of us contemplates these issues, in his/her own way. 

I’d like to tell you about one particular philosophical theory, posited by a scientist named Richard Dawkins. Some of you may have heard his name; he has become quite famous (or infamous?). He is an evolutionary biologist, and a noted author. His book “The Selfish Gene”, published in 1976, was one of the first popular books to explain, in simple terms, how evolution occurs at a genetic level. His more recent book “The God Delusion”, a staunch polemic about the follies of monotheistic faith, has earned him the nickname “Darwin’s Rottweiler”. 

The theory that I’d like to tell you about is described in the last chapter of “The God Delusion”. Actually, Dawkins himself does not call it a ‘philosophical’ theory; it is actually a biological theory, but one that addresses questions of existence, truth, nature and consciousness. Ever since I read his theory, I’ve looked at the world a little differently, and I think it has enriched my own outlook on things. I’ll try my best to explain it. It’s called the “Middle World” theory.

Let’s start with a simple question. Why can’t you walk through walls? Physicists have proven that walls, and other solid things, are actually full of empty space. If you were able to get a powerful microscope that could see atoms, you would see that they are mostly empty – the nucleus being like “a fly in a baseball stadium”. All physical matter is like this – empty space. So why can’t we walk through walls?

In fact,  there is a simple answer. The atoms in your body never actually touch the atoms in the wall – the particles on both sides repel each other. Go ahead and try it – reach out and touch something. The matter in your body will not technically “touch” it – your hand is actually being repelled by trillions of charged particles. 

Of course, we don’t see the world in that way. To us, a wall is a wall, and it’s just solid. Simple as that.

Now, let’s do a little thought experiment. Let’s pretend there is a lifeform that is SO SMALL that it can fit between the particles in a wall. How do you think IT would see the wall. Would it be as solid? Well… no it probably wouldn’t. To that tiny lifeform, the wall would be no more solid than empty space is to us, right?

You might be wondering why a biologist would ask us to consider these questions. Well the question becomes more interesting when you look at it from an evolutionary perspective. Dawkins makes a simple proposition: our conceptualization of the world, as a matrix of thee-dimensional solid objects, is itself the result of evolution. Our mental construction of the world has been shaped, for billions of years, by natural selection. If you think that sounds outlandish, then consider something this:

Many species of birds see the world much differently than we do. Scientists discovered, only recently, that many birds have ultraviolet patterns on their feathers. Imagine holding a UV light up to a kestral, and seeing glowing patterns magically appear on its wings. Ornithologists have speculated that these patterns are used during courtship. The birds see them just fine – of course, we do not see them at all, without the help of special UV lights.

There is, of course, a logical reason why birds see UV and we do not: their environment must have favoured those individual birds whose eyesight bordered that range of the electromagnetic spectrum. It is likely that any bird able to pick up the UV traces in the urine trails of rodents, for example, would have an advantage in the wild, and would therefore be more likely to propagate his/her genes. It doesn’t take a great leap of imagination to see how sensitivity to UV could have evolved in birds. 

The implications of this are clear: animals do not evolve only PHYSICALLY. Their sensory world evolves as well. Dawkin’s simply asks us to consider how OUR sensory world may have been influenced by natural selection, and our changing environment.

The more I thought about this theory, the more it seemed obvious. As a child, I was confused when my teacher told me that bats were blind, and that they navigated by hearing alone. However, according to Dawkin’s theory, this makes perfect sense. The bats, by means of echo-location, have simply developed an alternative method by which to construct the world. Bats are not blind – they see with their ears, just as clearly as we see with our eyes. Some have even speculated that bats “hear” colour as arbitrary markers for different kinds of surfaces.

Dawkin’s philosophy, I hope, is becoming clear. Human beings live in a world that is, for the most part, an arbitrary mental construct. We are the “survival mechanisms” of our genes, and part of that survival, of course, entails constructing the world in a way that helps us to survive. We need to be able to distinguish between different categories of physical mutability, for example, so our brains construct concepts of “empty” and “solid”, even though air and rocks are both virtually empty. We cannot conceive the vastness of the cosmos, or the minuteness of the atom because our brains have evolved, in “middle world”, to construct distances and spatial relationships relative only to our order of magnitude. In short, we do not see ultraviolet because we never needed to. 

Ever since I read this theory, it has crossed my mind on an almost daily basis. It’s a funny thing, to look at a rock and KNOW that it is empty space, to KNOW that it is just an arbitrary mental construct. I find myself wondering, what does a rock look like to a bird? What does it sound like to a bat? I suppose Dawkin’s theory doesn’t solve any of the old philosophical riddles. Like any good scientific inquiry, it produces more questions than answers. 

If you found this at all interesting, I recommend reading any of Professor Dawkin’s books.