Message to Richard Dawkins: Human Happiness Is Not Determined By Circumstance


The eminent geneticist Richard Dawkins caused controversy last week with his remarks that it would be immoral to carry on with a pregnancy if the mother knew the foetus had Down’s syndrome.  His remarks implied that a child with Down’s syndrome has little to add to the world and the condition overshadows any achievement the child might make.

As a neuroscientist and Professor myself  I would suggest that he has missed something important namely that human happiness/ mental health /quality of life/ well-being is not determined by what happens/does not happen to us or indeed by what we have/don’t have.

Genetics may be difficult but humans are even more complex!

It is an astonishing fact that the recipe for human happiness can be summarised into just one sentence and here it is. Happiness is determined by an ability to engage and respond appropriately to the people, things and events that surround us.  Notice from this, that your own happiness depends on YOU alone and not the people, things and events that surround you.

What is empathy?

The ability to engage and respond appropriately to people, things and events is the basis of empathy. Furthermore, the quality of your engagement and the appropriateness of your response determine your level of empathy. Empathy allows human beings to not only interact with each other effectively, but also to predict the actions, intentions, and feelings of others.  A useful trait indeed for a happy life.

Where is empathy in the brain?

The recent discovery of mirror neurons  – a cluster of neurons that help connect us emotionally to other people, respond sympathetically towards others and allow us to anticipate others intentions  is believed to be the basis of human empathy

Empathy – you either use it or lose it.

How can we learn to better engage and respond?  The recent discovery that the practice of meditation changes the shape of those brain areas involved in empathy  – allowing those discrete areas in the brain to grow or change – by adding a tiny fraction of the brain’s neural circuitry and eliminating old ones. This finding has established a new field of contemplative neuroscience – the brain science of meditation – and it helps to explain how meditation acts to improve mental health by cultivating the empathy needed to lead a more compassionate and loving outlook in life.

Happiness or heartbreak.

I do think that Professor Dawkins’s statement might be of some benefit if it opens up a debate on how we deal with what life serves up to each of us. At various times we may experience a great deal of stress in our lives and in this we are not alone. The question is – as events and worries beset us, are we going to turn more and more to quick fixes to handle our dis-stress?

Probably the most important lesson to be taken from Richard Dawkins/ Down’s syndrome controversy is the realization that the stresses of life and how we manage them IS the difference between happiness and heartbreak.

I look forward to developing this theme in greater detail including drug-free tips on how the avoid worry and stress in future posts.

Other posts on this topic

Emotions are habits, so pick up a good one

Mental health and well-being for mind and brain

What can neuroscience teach us about consciousness,mental health and well-being?

The empathic brain

Your brain and the art of confusion



2 thoughts on “Message to Richard Dawkins: Human Happiness Is Not Determined By Circumstance

  1. elspethc says:

    Good to hear this stated so clearly. I would also like to hear how others find empathy with Dawkins. In the positions he has taken publicly I can hear his distress at inadequacies, but also he seems to think that others could take his route to dealing with that – which is seems to be something like ‘inadequacies are in others, mostly’. Am I saying that he seems to have a barrier that takes him away from empathy? in a bubble? not on our page? How do we, or anyone, empathise with the person whose world view has taken a very different route from our own? (I am also a scientist and do not have a faith in any god, but I can find empathy more easily to many people of faith or with ‘syndromes’ than I can to some of Dawkins statements.)

  2. Professor William T. O'Connor says:

    Thank you for your valuable comments Elspethc.
    You question why some of Dawkins’ statements appear so remote and unkind. In this regard, your dislike for some of Dawkins’ statements mirrors the opinion of many including other scientists. I believe that this is in part because science – which is nothing more than a collection of observations of the world around us – has until recently lacked an understanding of the empathy that we humans crave. Indeed, the reason why habit and superstition continue to persist in many areas of our lives is that they trigger feelings within us that make us feel safe, wanted even, while science often lacks this emotional safety blanket. This is what I attempted to redress in my post.

    Also, as in all walks of life there are many different personality types and while Dawkins outshines Darwin in his ability to describe the inherent beauty of biology while remaining true to our scientific understanding of the complexity of life he sometimes stumbles in the glare of the media in trying to negotiate the delicate balancing act between the acknowledgement of reality for what actually is (reason) and not what we would like it to be (emotion). In this regard, his statements often resemble a harsh judgment handed down in a court of law whereas other scientists who understand that logic -no matter how strong- without humanity is a very hard pill to stomach.

    Dawkins should understand that people need to be coaxed not cajoled yet to give him his due, his writings are much more persuasive than some of his statements. We need to take this foible into account when appraising some of his pronouncements particularly when they are quoted out of context.

    Despite its inherent loneliness science allows us as to look at reality see the infinite possibilities therein – a major threat indeed to those only interested in protecting the status quo. It represents an act of courage by those who practice it and live by it. Science is an act of faith in the power of reason over emotion. Dawkins can take this to an extreme at times -possibly as a result of the virulent opposition to his message that he has had to endure during his career and in this he can be forgiven.

    I would argue that despite his foibles, we need more brave and creative personalities like Dawkins to question the status quo. Every evolutionary biologist knows that the status quo spells certain death if not responsive to changing circumstances. In this regard, Dawkins’ views on organized religion have made him a figure of hate (more emotion) for those only interested in preserving that particular status quo at all costs – but his views are brave, thought provoking and necessary and he does us a service in leading the struggle of reason over emotion and thereby securing a future for our humanity.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s