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In Defense of Richard Dawkins

February 21, 2012

Richard Dawkins has faced considerable hostility in the public arena ever since he published his first book in 1976, and it hasn’t stopped since. The vast majority of it is based on the purest ignorance of what he has actually said or written. Even a large number of academics who criticize him have failed to read him either closely enough or even at all. Consequently, he continually finds himself accused of holding views which are either absurd, or which he himself finds abhorrent.

Obviously anyone who writes a book called The God Delusion knows he can expect trouble, and Dawkins clearly harbored no illusions about his fate. The latest attack however is really a bit much. Britain’s Telegraph newspaper has published work by journalist (and ignoramus) Adam Lusher, followed up by the Daily Mail, consisting of a grotesque and hateful smear campaign of the most absurd proportions.

Below is a graphic from the Daily Mail’s article: 

“Revealed: How atheist Richard Dawkins’ family fortune came from the slave trade.”

“Ancestors of Richard Dawkins are believed to have been linked to slavery”

This is so pathetic and in such appallingly bad taste that I don’t want to even bother making further comment on the matter. I will though, briefly point out that Professor Dawkins’ wealth did not come from the slave trade. It came mostly from the sale of his own books.

Here is a brief snippet from Dawkins’ own account of the initial interview:

“Darwinian natural selection has a lot to do with genes, do you agree?” Of course I agreed. “Well, some people might suggest that you could have inherited a gene for supporting slavery from Henry Dawkins.”
“You obviously need a genetics lesson,” I replied. Henry Dawkins was my great great great great great grandfather, so approximately one in 128 of my genes are inherited from him…

So this is the way journalists treat a highly accomplished scientist, merely because he is on the public record as not believing in God.

Dawkins the Atheist Slave Owner” is sadly only a few further steps in a direction already indicated by his fellow academics. His views are routinely misrepresented by his critics, so badly misrepresented in fact that their criticism is not only unfair: it often doesn’t even begin to address his actual views.

So common is this academic laziness that I can easily find two representative examples in books I’ve been reading recently….

Here’s a line in Diarmaid MacCulloch’s History of Christianity, explaining why he as a historian will avoid the question of God’s existence. He can’t resist a side-swipe at his fellow Brit:

…But historians do not possess a prerogative to pronounce on the truth of the existence of God itself, any more than do (for example) biologists…. (p.11)

That’s rather tame as snide remarks go, (it can only be referring to Dawkins, incidentally). But although Dawkins is often portrayed as claiming God does not exist, he actually doesn’t do that. Yes, he says there is no good evidence for God’s existence, but as most theologians agree with that, it is not a controversial statement. Pay attention and you will hear Dawkins say that on a scale of certainty where 1 is certain there is a God and 7 is certain there is none, he is at about 6.5. That is not a “pronouncement on the truth of God”, rather a personal statement of a totally reasonable position for a scientist to take.

However, he does indeed “make pronouncements”, when religious people “make pronouncements” about the natural world. The claim, for example, that all humans are descended from Adam and Eve, is utterly refuted by masses of genetic data from around the world, to say nothing of masses of scientific evidence from many different fields. The extraordinary story of our emergence from a single small population in north eastern Africa, our brush with extinction (we were at one point reduced to a population of few thousand), and our subsequent journeys out of Africa is emerging in ever greater detail. Yet how many people know about it? (Here is a link to Alice Walker’s excellent documentary series.)

Prof. MacCulloch may not like like it that Dawkins “makes pronouncements” on straight forward matters of biology, but scientists are actually paid to do that when the science is clear enough. And anyway, not all religious believers collapse in despair if they hear information that conflicts their beliefs, as some academics and apologists so patronizingly assume. Gee, maybe some Christians are even interested in science, and maybe some people’s faith isn’t particularly disturbed when someone fails to “scientifically” confirm it for them.

And so on to another sample from my bookshelf.

The following is a string of very commonly made and extremely stupid errors, in which a ideas are ascribed to Dawkins which he doesn’t hold. In fact, they are so far removed from what he said, that I am astonished that anyone could even come up with them. This is not a misunderstanding. This is hallucination.

 ….British zoologist Richard Dawkins introduced a new term into the English language, the “selfish gene”, a metaphor that soon solidified into reality. When Darwin put forward his theory of aggressive survival, he incorporated the aggressive ethos of Victorian capitalism; in Dawkins’ version, self-interest is encoded in our molecules. Dawkins maintained [argued for] ruthlessness in the natural world, claiming that individual genes, not entire organisms, are ceaselessly trying to eliminate their molecular competitors….Although acts of human generosity may appear to be altruistic, they conceal fights being waged deep inside our cells, where the genes are selfishly influencing our behavior to ensure their own future.

I’ll stop that quote there before it sprouts bat wings and bites someone.

I’m not surprised if those who haven’t read The Selfish Gene don’t know what’s wrong with all that. But sadly, many academics who are paid to know better will not even have realized that the author of that is completely off her rocker. It comes from Patricia Fara’s Science: A Four Thousand Year History,  (p.383) and is entirely unrelated to any statement Professor Dawkins has ever made.

It seems that Dawkins’ book title and Ms Fara’s ideological bias clouded her perception of the words that were appearing in black and white before her eyes. I admit that I too avoided reading The Selfish Gene for many years, having been put off by the title, but at least I didn’t write an academic paper criticizing it based purely on my emotional reaction to the title.

Of course, had I opened it and read PAGE ONE, I would have learned that

a) the book argues that altruism may in fact be embedded in our genetic make up, and

b) that it does not claim that genes are selfish.

Dawkins’ own publishers suggested titles like The Immortal Gene, or The Cooperative Gene. Dawkins even briefly considered The Altruistic Vehicle — all of which would have been equally representative of the book’s central theme. But ultimately, Dawkins (to his later regret) stuck with The Selfish Gene.

As to the book’s contents, he noted in the second edition that during the intervening dozen years,

its central message has become text book orthodoxy.

(Certainly my copy of Campbell’s Biology (2009), a standard university text, confirms this.) Richard Dawkins continues in his preface to the second edition:

From the outset reviews were gratifyingly favourable and it was not seen, initially, as a controversial book. Its reputation for contentiousness took years to grow until, by now, it is regarded as a work of radical extremism.

As frequently befalls Dawkins, he is attacked for advancing a radical, narrow minded and scientifically unjustified ideology, when in fact all he is doing is presenting solidly supported science. He is not presenting his personal ideologically inspired musings. Every statement that comes out of his mouth can be backed up often by centuries of science and whole libraries of work. The Selfish Gene encapsulated a view point derived from four other highly regarded biologists whose work was little known outside the field of biology. He summed up their work clearly, and argued for their view of the gene as the basic unit of evolution.

It was popular at that time to see evolution in terms of individual organisms, or by some accounts (group selection) as if whole species acted collectively in ways to promote their own survival. The reason Dawkins chose his provocative title, incidentally, was to clearly distinguish his view from group selection. All of this is in the early pages of the book. Patricia Fara, despite being a professional academic historian of science, didn’t notice it.

When Charles Darwin put forward his theory of aggressive survival, he incorporated the aggressive ethos of Victorian capitalism…

So she also doesn’t understand evolution. And she hasn’t bothered reading up on Darwin either. Before he published his masterpiece, and for decades after, Darwin undertook a Herculean effort to verify and secure the foundations of evolutionary theory. He painstakingly studied things like worms, ants, pigeons and barnacles. In fact, in his own lifetime his most successful book was called The Formation of Vegetable Mould Through the Action of Plants.

….Just how “aggressive” are these things???

Fara’s understanding of evolution seems to have gotten no further than the term “survival of the fittest” (not Darwin’s term) and made the popular error of understanding “fitness” in terms of gym training rather than biological suitability to a particular habitat.

Certainly Charles Darwin knew of the ruthless life and death struggles and that occur in nature. It horrified him in fact. And he knew the role that death played in clearing out those who were less well adapted. But people like Fara, who think that evolutionary theory somehow advocates the crushing of the weak, forget that a horrible death awaits many if not most creatures in nature, even the “evolutionarily successful” ones. Just as important, adaptive survival can just as easily involve nurturing the young, co-operating with and accommodating other creatures, or getting smaller and hiding better. It is ideologues like Fara who are fixated on a narrow “lions eating gazelles” notion of evolution.

Nor did Charles Darwin’s fundamental insight arise from his supposed ruthless capitalist mentality. He saw that pigeon breeders could select for certain traits, and realized that nature must in fact be doing just the same kind of thing slowly over time.

Fara compounds these errors by adding a few more. Where on earth did she get the idea that Dawkins claimed “self-interest is encoded in our molecules”? He never said anything even remotely like that, and in a way the book said exactly the opposite. In Dawkins’ view, altruistic behavior can be directly influenced by genetics. That is a central paradox the ironically titled book concerns itself with.

But Fara’s bizarre fantasy of Dawkins’ position fits with her mistake about evolutionist ideologues claiming nature is aggressive so we can be too.

Dawkins – and the basically the whole of modern biology – sees that genes can be thought of as being indifferent to the survival of the individual organism that carries them. This insight can certainly be a bit of a shock, but if it’s true, it’s true. To put it theatrically, if a gene “wants” to make tail-feathers on a peacock that increases the likelihood of him getting eaten by a fox, the gene will do it anyway. And if, because of that trait, the peacock attracts a mate and passes on his genes, his male offspring will also get such tail-feathers and be similarly damned to a shortened (but evolutionarily successful) life. That gene will spread through the population and may eventually become the only form of that particular gene (at which point it can be recognized as an “adaptation”).

This might all sound a bit obvious, but it’s actually quite a subtle shift in perspective. Instead of considering tail-feathers on individual birds or bird populations, what Dawkins is doing is sinking down to the genetic level and watching the slow promulgation of particular genes through a given population over successive generations.

But Patricia Fara has misunderstood this completely and thinks Dawkins sees a struggle between particular various genes within an individual rather than in a given population, when she says:

….Although acts of human generosity may appear to be altruistic, they conceal fights being waged deep inside our cells, where the genes are selfishly influencing our behavior to ensure their own future…

As shown earlier, Dawkins said the exact opposite of this. But worse, Fara’s understanding of genetics is dreadful. A creature does not have multiple genes for the same trait which have to slug it out with each other for supremacy. Only someone with absolutely no clue about genetics could even come up with such an idea. It is inexcusable for an academic to publish such foolishness. 

Yet it is on the basis of this kind of stupidity that Dawkins is so often accused of being an advocate of a ruthless and aggressive ideology. She continues:

…as [Dawkins’] critics point out, genes can’t think and they can’t have motives, selfish or otherwise.

Yes, the critics do point that out, and in doing so they demonstrate that they have neither read Dawkins book, nor grasped the basics of evolution. Dawkins is often the complete opposite of what he is accused of being. This should be obvious to anyone who reads his lucid expositions of well established science. He is an anti-elitist whose work throws open the doors of science to anyone wishing to enter.

Ignorant condemnations serve to stir up the baying hounds of the yellow press and religious fanatics. It’s not just Richard Dawkins’ personal safety that people like the Telegraph’s Adam Lusher are endangering; it’s scientific advancement itself that they are ultimately attacking. The last dark age lasted a long long time.

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4 comments

  1. A footnote:

    Obviously I have no expertise in biology, and that is rather the point of writing. I argue that the errors I point out above are so bad that the ability to read is the only qualification needed to correct them.

    I welcome corrections and improvements on the wording and terminology, but I hope to have represented the ideas of all authors fairly.


  2. I like Dawkins as a biologist, not Dawkins the Priest of Atheism. I don’t know why he gave up his biologist career and becomes a cleric and makes himself like a clown.


  3. Richard Dawkins is very talented to show the religious world in which we live through documentaries (Enemies of reason for exemple and others) .He is able to let people talk about their faith and bring more transparency which allows many people to open their eyes about the power of religion in our lives.


  4. I think it’s inaccurate to call Dawkins a priest of atheism, although he certainly does have plenty of sycophantic followers, and is probably guilty fo the odd power trip and some poor communication, and maybe the odd personal failing.

    But as Caroline says, his work on religion has been excellent. He’s opened a lot of new territory for public discussion. And his views on religion are based on very straight forward and uncontroversial science. He’s often described as holding radical or fanatical views, but in fact his views are perfectly reasonable conclusions drawn from established science. The only controversial thing he does is puts it clearly, and asks the religious to define their position clearly.



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