There was something new to learn about science in that Dawkins-Chopra debate and, as a bonus, Chopra put Dawkins down in his place. Ironically, it was in reply to Dawkins’ own challenge – he was given a chance to ask his own question by the moderator and Dawkins looked up a quote on his phone he wanted Chopra to explain.
There was a customary “Still learning my way around this” excuse which made Dawkins look slightly senile, especially in contrast with Chopra who showed multiple sensors on his wrists that feed his biological data to his iPhone and then onto a server that monitors these things for research purposes. It was 2013, there was no Apple watch then and so Chopra probably had the very first wearables around. Thumbs up for “spirituality”, and “science” appeared quite archaic by comparison, and it didn’t stop there.
I’m not going to type up the quote that interested Dawkins, it’s quite, long, but he asked for an explanation of quantum leaps in evolution, I assume he thought it was a heresy. Chopra actually loved this, he gave a couple of examples of what he had in mind – emergence of language and emergence of new species with nothing in between, but it’s his bio sensors that prompted him to add a new dimension to the discourse.
He used these sensors to monitor his physiological reactions to what happens in his mind, to explore mind-body connection. He said Dawkins’ blood pressure was visibly rising simply by hearing these things and then described how the body reacts to hearing in general, how it automatically produces certain chemicals depending on whether the news is good or bad. Same words, “I love you”, can produce pleasure giving dopamine and oxytocin if the words are welcome, but if one contemplates a divorce instead then his body would start pumping up adrenaline instead. Chopra said we don’t know how mind processes these things, to him it was a reaction lead by consciousness, not by chemicals, and it was a “quantum shift” in one’s biology. He was really exalted about this and Dawkins didn’t dispute this part of the answer.
Chopra then again mentioned evolutionary gaps between species and referred to the then current article in New Scientist, he gave a title wrong and New Scientist keeps it behind a paywall but someone put it on his blog and it can be read in full here.
It appears animals CAN guide their own evolution, even if the original Lamarck’s theory about it has long been disproved. Turns out animal behavior, which is purpose driven, can affect the genetic expression of the offspring via a process elsewhere called transgenerational epigenetics. It’s not that they can alter their genes but they can turn on the useful but dormant ones and these will stay turned on in the offspring, too. It’s a complex process and there’s neo-Lamarckism and epigenetic inheritance and possibly some other theories already build around it.
The author of that article contacted Dawkins for comments but Dawkins was dismissive. Now it came back to bite him. Not sensing the danger Dawkins insisted on trying to correct Chopra’s use of the phrase “quantum leap”, possibly because he wanted Chopra to pay for his earlier word salad, but it backfired spectacularly.
Chopra not only defended his metaphorical use but also rattled out names of journals and scientists who co-authored or published his articles on those same quantum leaps in biology Dawkins was trying to nail him on, proving that he is not as loose with his language and Dawkins alleged.
Btw, Chopra cited New England Journal of Medicine for giving his book Quantum Healing a favorable review, but he probably didn’t look past the first Google search result (which was Amazon), otherwise he’d discover that NEJM considered Ig Nobel award to this very same book quite appropriate, too.
To be fair, things have probably changed since then and at least some of Chopra’s ideas are finding legitimate place in science – like that behavior driven evolution. Dawkins has apparently completely missed that train, which has now gone mainstream.
Another case where Dawkins appeared outdated was his insistence that while we don’t have the intermediate stages between species we are certain that they were all there. He has no proof but he believes things happened his way. And he said the same thing about emergence of language – he doesn’t know how it happened but he is certain it happened according to his theory. “There’s no such thing as not passing through intermediate stages. There were intermediate stages, which just don’t know what they were.” At this point Chopra made a telling hand gesture regarding these endless promises and “don’t knows”. I mean, if you don’t know then don’t say anything with certainty. Why be so stubborn about other possibilities while professing ignorance? Is it rational?
There are other people out there who are not waiting for creation of life in a lab or for finding missing links, and they are pushing science without being hung up on Darwinian evolution, even though they are not challenging it openly. They simply discover other means by which evolution happens, random mutation and natural selection being only a part of it. That New Scientist article said that in some research about half the evolutionary changes were behavior, not gene driven. It’s the new reality in science and, as Chopra said, Dawkins need to catch up.
There was another point that Chopra made there but it went largely unnoticed. He was talking about quantum physics and, as an example of quantum leap, he used non-empirical state of subatomic particles that suddenly changes to empirical and then back to non-empirical again. I never thought of it this way. To me, non-empirical means transcendental, related to divinity and spiritual energy of the Lord. Chopra, however, used it to describe ordinary particles when they are not being observed.
In quantum physics observation is a very important process and, perhaps, in some cases we really have no idea what non-observed particles are doing, and whether they even stay as particles at all. Earlier on Chopra said that some 95% of all matter is non-empiric, iirc. It’s probably not important where he got this number and what it means exactly but he offers an entirely new perspective on the non-empiric world. I don’t think it agrees with ours, though, it needs further investigation.
When Dawkins mentioned quantum mechanics and quantum leaps he gave an example of information being passed to satellites. That’s just radio, it has very little to do with quantum mechanics and nothing to do with quantum leaps at all. Who’s using words that don’t mean what one wants them to mean now? Granted, it was just a bad example, but still, and it questions whether Dawkins simply erred or had absolutely no idea what he was talking about at all.
So, purpose driven evolution is science now, not just my wishful thinking, and non-empiric might mean something else entirely – two big topics to wrap my mind around today, and Dawkins has been shown as senile, stubborn, and outdated. Not bad, not bad.