Sketches #3 Richard Dawkins

February 14, 2009

The People’s Atheist


Clinton Richard Dawkins was born on 26 March 1941 in Nairobi, Kenya, which at that time was a British colony. His father had gone to Kenya with the British army but the family returned to England when Dawkins was eight. He had what he calls “a normal Anglican upbringing“, but by the age of nine he had already started doubting the existence of God. In 1959 he went to Balliol College, Oxford to study zoology, where he was tutored by Nobel Prize-winning ethologist Nikolaas Tinbergen, a pioneer in the study of animal behaviour.

In 1976 Dawkins came into the public eye when his book The Selfish Gene came out. It popularised the gene-centred view of evolution and introduced the term meme. This neologism coined by Dawkins refers to any unit of cultural information, such as a practice or idea, that is transmitted by non-genetic means from one mind to another. Examples include thoughts, ideas, theories, practices, clothes fashions, habits, songs, dances, ways of making pots and the technology of building arches. They are the cultural counterparts of genes. Dawkins has argued that when a fertile meme is planted in your mind it literally parasitises your brain, turning it into a vehicle for the meme’s propagation in just the way that a virus may parasitise the genetic mechanism of a host cell.

            Dawkins has also been an outspoken critic of creationism and intelligent design. His 1986 book The Blind Watchmaker, was a refutation of intelligent design theory. William Paley had argued that if you were you were walking along and you found a watch lying on the ground, you could not possibly imagine that something so complex had been assembled by chance. There had to have been a maker. Paley went on to argue that the complex structures of living things and the adaptations of plants and animals required an intelligent designer. For Dawkins evolutionary processes are analogous to a blind watchmaker; there is no need for a creator to intervene.

            Dawkins’s most recent book The God Delusion is an atheist polemic from its uncompromising title. It is actually one of number of such books published in the last few years. I’m not sure what has brought on this trend – probably it is a reaction to the rise in fundamentalisms that has become apparent. These books have been a great publishing success and there have also been initiatives such as those atheist buses. Dawkins has been criticised for his understanding of theology. The most famous criticism came in a scathing review in The London Review of Books by Terry Eagleton:

“Imagine someone holding forth on biology whose only knowledge of the subject is the Book of British Birds, and you have a rough idea of what it feels like to read Richard Dawkins on theology.” I happen to think this criticism is wrong. You don’t have to be an expert on Tarot cards to critique it. Dawkins is a biologist, not a philosopher. He is studying religion as a natural phenomenon. Dawkins has come under fire for a death – the tragic suicide of 22-year-old Jesse Kilgore.  Kilgore, who had been challenged to read The God Delusion by a college professor, said that Dawkins’ book had destroyed his belief in God.

            As a non-believer I am not unsympathetic to many of Dawkins’s ideas and in his post as Professor for Public Understanding of Science at Oxford he was very effective raising awareness of science. He is always very quotable and has an incredible talent for coining metaphors. However I do think sometimes his role as Darwin’s Rottweiler gets in the way of his message.  I think a couple of examples will suffice to show this. Before the 2004 election in the US, Dawkins along with John Le Carré and Antonia Fraser was part of a Guardian initiative to write letters to Americans in Clark County, Dear Clark County voter, Give us back the America we loved.  Here’s what he wrote:

“Don’t be so ashamed of your president. The majority of you didn’t vote for him. If Bush is finally elected properly, that will be the time for Americans travelling abroad to simulate a Canadian accent.” The result was he found himself subject to a barrage of abuse from the voters. And the election? Clark was the only county in Ohio that, having voted for Al Gore in 2000, switched over to Bush in 2004.

Dawkins is also a member of a social movement that aims to promote public understanding and acknowledgment of the naturalistic worldview, known as the Brights, which also includes Steven Pinker and philosopher Daniel Dennett. As the mathematician John Allen Paulos has pointed out you don’t need to have a degree in public relations to realise that this will come across as smug, ridiculous, and arrogant. Perhaps I see a little too much intellectual certainty there. There are many very intelligent people, including scientists, who believe in God. The existence of God is an objective question – he either exists or he doesn’t exist- but it is beyond our pattern recognition software to find the truth about thus question. We will always have answers that are at variance.

            There is also a tendency to see the abolition of religion as a panacea for all the world’s problems. I think the twentieth century has shown that this is not the case. People commit evil acts with or without religion. Religion does make people do terrible things but it also can make them do wonderfully selfless things. Science is a wonderful too but it cannot tell us what is right or wrong and in my opinion neither can a book written thousands of years ago. We have to discover this for ourselves and it can be a very painful progress. Scientific progress may be linear but moral progress is a completely different enterprise.



Quotes by Richard Dawkins

February 14, 2009

We are all atheists about most of the gods that humanity has ever believed in. Some of us just go one god further.


When two opposite points of view are expressed with equal intensity, the truth does not necessarily lie exactly halfway between them. It is possible for one side to be simply wrong.


Faith is the great cop out, the great excuse to evade the need to think and evaluate evidence. Faith is belief in spite of, even perhaps because of, the lack of evidence.


I am against religion because it teaches us to be satisfied with not understanding the world.


The God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction: jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully.


We are going to die, and that makes us the lucky ones. Most people are never going to die because they are never going to be born. The potential people who could have been here in my place but who will in fact never see the light of day outnumber the sand grains of Arabia. Certainly those unborn ghosts include greater poets than Keats, scientists greater than Newton. We know this because the set of possible people allowed by our DNA so massively exceeds the set of actual people. In the teeth of these stupefying odds it is you and I, in our ordinariness, that are here.


Our brains are separate and independent enough from our genes to rebel against them. We do so in a small way every time we use contraception. There is no reason why we should not rebel in a large way too.


Like computer viruses, successful mind viruses will tend to be hard for their victims to detect. If you are the victim of one, the chances are that you won’t know it, and may even vigorously deny it.


No doubt soaring cathedrals, stirring music, moving stories and parables, help a bit. But by far the most important variable determining your religion is the accident of birth.


Over the centuries, we’ve moved on from Scripture to accumulate precepts of ethical, legal and moral philosophy. We’ve evolved a liberal consensus of what we regard as underpinnings of decent society, such as the idea that we don’t approve of slavery or discrimination on the grounds of race or sex, that we respect free speech and the rights of the individual. All of these things that have become second nature to our morals today owe very little to religion, and mostly have been won in opposition to the teeth of religion.


There may be fairies at the bottom of the garden. There is no evidence for it, but you can’t prove that there aren’t any, so shouldn’t we be agnostic with respect to fairies?


It has become almost a cliché to remark that nobody boasts of ignorance of literature, but it is socially acceptable to boast ignorance of science


There are all sorts of things that would be comforting. I expect an injection of morphine would be comforting… But to say that something is comforting is not to say that it’s true.


I think it is not helpful to apply Darwinian language too widely. Conquest of nation by nation is too distant for Darwinian explanations to be helpful.


Either it is true that a medicine works or it isn’t. It cannot be false in the ordinary sense but true in some “alternative” sense. If a therapy or treatment is anything more than a placebo, properly conducted double blind trials, statistically analysed, will eventually bring it through with flying colours. Many candidates for recognition as “orthodox” medicines fail the test and are summarily dropped. The “alternative” label should not (though, alas, it does) provide immunity from the same fate.


Who will say with confidence that sexual abuse is more permanently damaging to children than threatening them with the eternal and unquenchable fires of hell?


By all means let’s be open-minded, but not so open-minded that our brains drop out.


The enlightenment is under threat. So is reason. So is truth. So is science, especially in the schools of America. I am one of those scientists who feels that it is no longer enough just to get on and do science. We have to devote a significant proportion of our time and resources to defending it from deliberate attack from organized ignorance. We even have to go out on the attack ourselves, for the sake of reason and sanity. Of course, excellent organizations already exist for raising funds and deploying them in service of reason, science and enlightenment values. But the money that these organizations can raise is dwarfed by the huge resources of religious foundations such as the Templeton Foundation, not to mention the tithe-bloated, tax-exempt churches.


The feeling of awed wonder that science can give us is one of the highest experiences of which the human psyche is capable. It is a deep aesthetic passion to rank with the finest that music and poetry can deliver. It is truly one of the things that make life worth living and it does so, if anything, more effectively if it convinces us that the time we have for living is quite finite.

My media week 15/02/09

February 14, 2009

I am not a big fan of the clinical psychologist Oliver James but I quite enjoyed this Guardian article, where he looks at the psychology of the bankers who went before a parliamentary committee this week, the Scumbag Millionaires as The Sun called them. Here is his conclusion:

But then I think it is probably not surprising that these men are so disconnected from the realities of shame and guilt. The definitive study of senior business managers found they were more likely to suffer from several personality disorders, such as narcissism, than inmates at a secure mental hospital.


In this podcast Denis Dutton, Professor of Philosophy at the University of Canterbury, New Zealand talks about The Art Instinct, how close we remain to the prehistoric women and men who first found beauty in the world.  


Jon Ronson and the Quest for the Aryan Cow is the controversial story of the work of Lutz Heck, the director of Berlin Zoo who attempted to resurrect several pure-blooded, extinct animal species as part of the Nazi programme to replace Europe’s ‘racially degenerate’ wildlife and plant life with pure, ‘noble’ and extinct species. Available until Tuesday


The Onion has this story: Japan Pledges To Halt Production Of Weirdo Porn That Makes People Puke

My favourite links #28

February 14, 2009

Arts and Letters Daily website


I discovered this website in the interview with Dennis Dutton I included in My media week. According to founder Denis Dutton, Arts & Letters Daily is a web portal for “the kinds of people who subscribe to the New York Review of Books, who read Salon and Slate and The New Republic — people interested in ideas.” A&L Daily’s layout evokes the 18th century broadsheet format associated with The Enlightenment. Three columns of links dominate the site: Articles of Note, Book Reviews, and Essays/Opinions. Each link is introduced with a 25-word teaser. The teasers are often witty and provocative. Examples of this week’s teasers include:


Organ donation, some argue, should be built on altruism, pure kindness to complete strangers. Lovely ideal, but what if it means people die for want of transplant organs?…


In the last years, the financial system created a fog so thick that even its captains could not navigate it. Like the rest of us, they fell for a kind of pseudo-objectivity…


Good Americans don’t seriously question English aesthetic judgments, said H.L. Mencken. Film critic David Thomson has long dined out on that maxim…


The cognitive capacities that have made us so successful as a species also work together to create a human tendency for religious thinking…


Dutton is a libertarian and Tran Huu Dung, the other editor is more liberal, in the American sense of that word.

Here is a the website: