A Beautiful Richard Dawkins Passage… in Cartoon Form

It’s one of my favorite Richard Dawkins passages (from Unweaving the Rainbow) and Gavin Aung Than has put it in cartoon form:

The full cartoon is here.

So when’s someone going to turn The God Delusion into a graphic novel? Because I would totally buy that.

(Thanks to Rebecca for the link!)

About Hemant Mehta

Hemant Mehta is the editor of Friendly Atheist, appears on the Atheist Voice channel on YouTube, and co-hosts the uniquely-named Friendly Atheist Podcast. You can read much more about him here.

  • Octoberfurst

     Wonderful cartoon! When you read the whole thing it makes you realize how lucky you are to have been born at all.  It makes you see your existance in a whole new light. :-)

  • ortcutt

    These statements makes no sense whatsoever.  “People” who are never born aren’t people because they don’t exist.  All people were born at some time and all people will die at some point.  I have no idea how he is counting “potentialities” either.  Can we please leave the chicken-soup-for-the soul BS to religionists and actually care about making true claims?

  • viddy_well

    ortcutt: “I have no idea how he is counting “potentialities” either.”

    “We know this because the set of possible people allowed by our DNA so massively outnumbers the set of actual people.”

  • C Peterson

    The sentiment makes perfect sense. All it’s saying is that only a tiny fraction of all the ways an individual human could be constructed will ever actually occur. That’s a statement of fact. Philosophically, many of us look at that fact and are impressed by our personal “luck” that the combination that defines us happened. It’s a way of helping us define our existence by our lives, not by our deaths. This is just a poetic way of recognizing the unlikelihood of our individual existence, and I think it’s something that resonates with many people.

  • ortcutt

    Our DNA doesn’t limit the number of people.  Identical twins have the same DNA sequence, but they aren’t the same person.  No one knows how many possible “Human” DNA sequences there are but that wouldn’t tell us anything about “potentialities”.  I think the reality is that Dawkins feels expected to utter this chicken-soup-for-the-soul pabulum in order to parry claims that atheists aren’t “deep”.  Sorry, but that’s no excuse for making false and nonsensical claims.

  • http://profiles.google.com/davydd.norris David Philip Norris

    There is definitely a lump in my throat after reading that. To live at all is indeed miracle enough. Good on ya, Zen Pencils.

  • Nigel

    I know if I showed this cartoon to some people, they’d bring up abortion, and I would have to admit that it’s a good point. If we look at the definition of a life as the outcome of an almost impossible set of odds to produce a programmed being, then that program is already set in place at conception and artificially ending it robs that unique being of the rare opportunity to experience life, despite the fact that at first they have absolutely no self-awareness or ability to experience life — yet. 

    Then again,I could make the same argument for my cat.  

    All arguments I hear against abortion use religion in their argument, and that loses the argument for me right away, but here I’m presented with an unintended secular reason against abortion.

  • ortcutt

    On that accounting of luck, we would have to say that all people are lucky.  All people exist or have existed at some time.  The “unlucky ones” don’t exist, so they aren’t unlucky.  You have to actually exist to have the property of being lucky or unlucky.  I don’t know how you are judging likelihoods either.  Do you have some basis for assigning probability distributions?

    You’re last sentence is the most damning.  You’re basically saying that you like it because it makes you feel good.  I thought that skeptics were people who rejected that way of thinking.

  • Nigel

    That was my first thought, but just my quick searching around found numerous articles claiming that this isn’t necessarily true, like this one:   http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=identical-twins-genes-are-not-identical

  • ortcutt

    OK.  There’s nothing in that article that contradicts the claim that some identical twins have the same DNA sequence.  The point is simply that there is no rule that says that each sequence needs to be instantiated at most one time.

  • Jeanette

    When your dad’s sperm fertilized your mom’s egg, it prevented an enormous multitude of other potential people. So you could say your existence “robbed those unique beings of the rare opportunity to experience life”, or you could just be reasonable and say that what happened, happened, and worrying about the ridiculous number of what-ifs is silly (what if your mom was too tired for sex that night? OH GOD THE POTENTIAL PEOPLE HAVE BEEN ROBBED!).

    Just because abortion is the last obstacle doesn’t make it magically different from all the other obstacles. What happens, happens.

  • Pen

    — the first passage by Dawkins that I ever read.  And committed to memory that same night.  

    Dawkins isn’t making claims about specific numbers.  The potential people relates to: the combinations that could result from the billions of sperm ovum unions, the timing of that conception as opposed to another day/week/year, the fact that if one of your ancestors had not met the other, you would not exist and someone else might, etc. etc.  The “set of people allowed by our DNA” is a way of saying “look at all the possible combinations!  And yet, your combination/my combination made it.”  

    “Unweaving the Rainbow” is a work that masterfully ties together poetry and science.  The key to that union, at least for me, was Dawkins’ poetic style.  

  • C Peterson

    Exactly. All people are lucky. That is precisely Dawkins’s point.

    The probability is based on considering all the possible viable combinations the human genome could take, compared with the number of humans who exist (past, present, and future).

    I don’t know where you get the idea that skeptics reject things that make them feel good! That’s crazy. Skeptics don’t place more value on statements of fact (right or wrong) solely because they might make somebody feel better. But how does skepticism prevent somebody from appreciating a philosophical argument that has an aesthetic value?

  • Gary B

    All it’s saying is that it is better to have lived and died than to not have lived at all.  And considering the potential combinations and the size of the universe(s), you should appreciate that you even had the chance to live.  It’s fine if you don’t see the value in this perspective, but I don’t see how you can call it false.

  • ortcutt

    The claim that most people are never going to be born is false.  All people were or will be born at some time because that’s what it is to be a person.

  • http://johnfranc.blogspot.com/ John Beckett

    This is excellent.

    As someone who considers himself a rational theist, I have long said that Richard Dawkins is an excellent biologist but a lousy theologian and philosopher.  He’s still a lousy theologian, but after reading this cartoon, I’m going to have to re-evaluate my opinion of his philosophy.

  • Octoberfurst

     Orcutt, I really don’t understand your negativity. All the strip is saying is that we are lucky to have been born at all and that there were millions of potential people who never go the chance to be born.   I think that all of us are special in that we drew the lucky card. It makes me feel blessed–if I may co-opt a religious term.
      I honestly don’t understand atheists who say that our lives are no big deal. That we’re just animals and that there is nothing special about being a human. Don’t you relish the idea that we can enjoy a sunset? Appreciate great poetry. Be moved to help our fellow human beings. Because of a quirk of evolution we are sentient.  We are unique. So to play it down as “chicken soup for the soul BS” is to not appreciate all the qualities that make us human.

  • C Peterson

    It’s just a rhetorical phrase. What it means is that most of the unique genomes that could define a viable human being will never occur, which is certainly true.

  • Gary B

    Potential people, not actual people.  I like to think of the billions of planets without life.  That’s a lot of potential people!

  • ortcutt

    How many potential people are there.  5? 9 million? 40 billion? 100 billion? One googolplex?  There is simply no reasonable way to answer the question.

  • Reginald Selkirk

    So when’s someone going to turn The God Delusion into a graphic novel?

    The plot’s a bit thin, don’t ya think?

  • C Peterson

    Sure there is. The better we understand the human genome, the more accurately we can estimate the number of DNA permutations possible. Already, we have several million actual variations identified for each chromosome. Combine this with the number of known gene and protein variations, and the number of potential whole-genome variations that still produce fully human individuals exceeds ten to the hundredth power. The actual number will be much higher than this, but doesn’t matter in the slightest, since the already identified potential variations exceed the number of humans beings that will ever exist by so many orders of magnitude that Dawkins’s point is forcefully supported.

  • ortcutt

     As I’ve already explained, the number of DNA permutations tells you nothing about the possible number of persons, unless you are some kind of radical genetic determinist.  Two people with the same DNA sequence raised in different circumstanes are different people.  If I had been born ten minutes later, I would have been different in countless ways as well.

  • ortcutt

     I just don’t see the need for inaccurate happy talk about possible persons to convince someone that they are lucky.  I’m lucky because I value my life, not because some possible person doesn’t exist.

  • C Peterson

    You think the number of DNA permutations tells us nothing about the possible number of persons? Certainly, it defines a minimum number of possibilities- the nature side of the equation. The fact that this number is vastly increased by the nurture side just goes to further support Dawkins’s statement!

  • http://yetanotheratheist.com/ TerranRich

    Unintended secular reason against abortion? Hardly. Just remember, one life never has the right to use the body of another life without their consent. That’s all that really needs to be said in regards to abortion.

  • brianmacker

    … and most of those people who were never born have horrible genetic defects.

  • Drew M.

     I’ve always loathed this quote, personally. For some reason, I find it way too reminiscent of  anti-abortion rhetoric.

  • http://www.facebook.com/wcwalker1 William C. Walker

     Some would say the plot sickens, but not me.

  • AnalogousGumdropDecoder

    I definitely know an atheist illustrator capable of adapting works like The God Delusion into graphic novel.  Hell, I’d adapt and edit the text for the damned thing myself.  The issue is that it would be an incredibly time- and labor- intensive project, something very hard to do without  funding.  Oh yeah, we’d also need to actually have the legal rights to do it.

  • AnalogousGumdropDecoder

     There’s definitely a way this can be done.  I can already see it in my head.  It wouldn’t read like a “graphic novel,” but more like a series of cartoons.  I actually want to do this now.

  • AnalogousGumdropDecoder

     I think Dawkins would (rightly) argue that there is no such thing as theology.

  • Mike Laing

     You must be a real blast at parties.

  • Blacksheep

    Is this an anti abortion cartoon?

  • C Peterson

    At its most basic, theology is simply the study of religion, and as such is clearly a real thing. Dawkins might or might not consider himself a theologian, but I can’t imagine he would argue that theology doesn’t exist!

  • C Peterson

    To recognize our good fortune in existing (against enormous odds) is quite different from arguing that never existing at all is a bad thing. Nobody is harmed by not existing- whether that happens because they are never conceived at all, or whether it happens because they fail to develop into sentience after conception. Either way, no person ever exists who can suffer harm.

    I don’t recognize a valid secular argument against abortion in Dawkins’s sentiment.

  • Reginald Selkirk

    the field of study and analysis that treats of God and of God’s attributes and relations to the universe; study of divine things or religious truth; divinity.

    This differs substantially from the definition which you just made up. Some schools have departments of “religious studies” which study religions as cultural entities, rather than just their views on God.

  • AnalogousGumdropDecoder
  • C Peterson

    Dawkins uses the entire article to compare theology to science. He clearly understands that it exists. He’s arguing that it’s proven pretty useless, and that may be true. But he isn’t seriously suggesting that there’s no such thing.

  • C Peterson

    I note that most dictionaries list as the first meaning the study of religious faith and practice, and its influence on society.

    While we can all argue different views on the value of theology, suggesting that there is no such thing is pretty silly. It’s like arguing that there’s no such thing as astrology just because astrology doesn’t work, or there is no such thing as religion just because there are no deities.

  • AxeGrrl

    Beautifully said, Octoberfurst :)