Dawkins, Darwin, and the Devil
by William Harwood
reprinted from E-Skeptic

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A review of A Devil's Chaplain: Reflections on Hope, Lies, Science, and Love, Richard Dawkins, Houghton Mifflin, 215 Park Avenue, NY 10003, 2003, ISBN 0-618-33540-4, 271 pp, HC, $24, reviewed by William Harwood.

 

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"What a book a Devil's Chaplain might write on the clumsy, wasteful, blundering low and horribly cruel works of nature." These are the words of Charles Darwin, borrowed by Richard Dawkins for the title essay of this, a collection of published articles, essays, opinion editorials, and reviews. What both Darwin and Dawkins mean is that anyone seeking proof that the universe was not designed and supervised by a benevolent creator need look no further than the natural world in which, for example, wasps lay their eggs in the living bodies of caterpillars. "Blindness to suffering is an inherent consequence of natural selection. Nature is neither kind nor cruel but indifferent."

Dawkins is best known as the apologist-in-chief for what Stephen Jay Gould called "Darwinian fundamentalists." Although he has his fair share of critics, particularly those who do not fully embrace the tenets of evolutionary psychology, he has a far larger pantheon of supporters who champion Dawkins' record of useful, logical and meaningful contributions to the advancement of science and the annulment of superstitious ignorance. Where Dawkins and Gould disagreed, Gould was right on the extremes of sociobiology, and Dawkins was right on the imbecility of Gould's Non-Overlapping Magisteria doublethink.

In defending his earlier books, The Selfish Gene and The Blind Watchmaker, Dawkins writes (p. 11), "If you seem to smell inconsistency or even contradiction, you are mistaken. There is no inconsistency in favouring Darwinism as an academic scientist while opposing it as a human being." Since the former book appeared to endorse a somewhat purposeful evolution, and the latter a purposeless evolution, I do see inconsistency. Perhaps this is an eye-of-the-beholder situation, and Dawkins never intended "selfish gene" to be anything more than a metaphor.

In his chapter, "What is True?" Dawkins annihilates the philosophical hogwash that truth is relative and that there is no absolute truth. He writes (p. 15): "Science boosts its claim to truth by its spectacular ability to make matter and energy jump through hoops on command, and to predict what will happen and when." Religion cannot do that. Paranormalists cannot do that. Add 3 and 5 and the predictable sum will always be 8. That is absolute truth. Anyone who thinks otherwise should consider a brain transplant.

An essay entitled "Gaps in the Mind" spells out the conditioned thinking (actually non-thinking) that led South African courts to adjudicate "whether particular individuals of mixed parentage count as white, black or 'coloured'" (p. 21). That there is a continuous link from humans to gorillas, with the intermediate species merely long dead, is beyond the understanding of speciesists. Tie the label Homo sapiens even to a tiny piece of insensible embryonic tissue, and its life suddenly leaps to infinite, incomputable value" (p. 21). As Dawkins points out (p. 22), "Self-styled 'pro-lifers,' and others that indulge in footling debates about exactly when in its development a foetus 'becomes' human, exhibit the same discontinuous mentality. 'Human,' to the discontinuous mind, is an absolutist concept. There can be no half measures. And from this flows much evil." Since the allegedly pro-life paranoia of one Polish expatriate in Rome is edging the human species ever closer to starvation and extinction, "much evil" is unduly charitable.

In "Science, Genetics and Ethics," Dawkins demolishes the "muddleheaded" objections to genetically modified food so entertainingly that I will not detract from the reader's pleasure by revealing the details. "The present Luddism over genetic engineering may die a natural death as the computer-illiterate generation is superseded" (p. 28). Let us hope so. As Dawkins warns (p. 29), "I fear that, if the green movement's high-amplitude warnings over GMOs turn out to be empty, people will be dangerously disinclined to listen to other and more serious warnings." In other words, opponents of genetic engineering are crying wolf, and Aesop showed where that can lead.

Continuing his witty but barbed observations, Dawkins note: "Trial by jury must be one of the most conspicuously bad good ideas anyone ever had" (p. 38). By example Dawkins cites the trials of Louise Woodward and O. J. Simpson. He asks (p. 41), "Could you imagine even one other jury reaching the same verdict in the O. J. Simpson case?" Juries are asked to evaluate evidence in fields in which they are totally incompetent. "And should I be charged with a serious crime, here's how I want to be tried. If I know myself to be guilty, I'll go with the loose cannon of a jury, the more ignorant, prejudiced and capricious the better. But if I am innocent ... please give me a judge" (p. 41).

The chapter on "Crystalline Truth and Crystal Balls" is best compared to using a sledgehammer to squash an ant. Unfortunately, believers in such hogwash if they can be cured at all, require such overkill. Treating nonsense beliefs as unworthy of rebuttal can be a very bad strategy, as the Velikovsky fiasco proved.

Dawkins' highly favorable review of Intellectual Impostures employs the tactic of exposing disseminators of gibberish by quoting them. If critics keep doing that, hundreds of thousands of fatuous ignoramuses who use doubletalk to disguise the meaninglessness of their discourses could be put out of business. Tut tut.

In the introduction to the five essays on religion, Dawkins writes (p. 117), "To describe religions as mind viruses is sometimes interpreted as contemptuous or even hostile. It is both. I am often asked why I am so hostile to organized religion." My first response is that I am not exactly friendly toward disorganized religion either." And his reference (p. 118) to "the religious atrocity committed in New York on 11 September 2001" acknowledges that the first cause of that atrocity was not an individual, not an aberrant sub-sect, but religion itself. Belief in Bertrand Russell's postulated china teapot orbiting the sun does not trigger man's inhumanity to man. "Mothers don't warn their sons off marrying teapot-shiksas whose parents believe in three teapots rather than one. People who put the milk in first don't kneecap those who put the tea in first." Only religion has an unbroken record of inspiring ninety percent of all manmade evil for at least three thousand years.

On his own concept of memes, Dawkins opines (p. 127): "I became a little alarmed at the number of my readers who took the meme more positively as a theory of human culture in its own right -- either to criticize it (unfairly, given my original modest intention) or to carry it far beyond the limits of what I then thought justified. This was why I may have seemed to backtrack." As a severe critic of meme theory, the least I can do is acknowledge Dawkins' foregoing rebuttal.

"Are science and religion converging? No. There are modern scientists whose words sound religious but whose beliefs, on close examination, turn out to be identical to those of other scientists who straightforwardly call themselves atheists" (p. 146). That is how Dawkins begins a chapter. He ends it (p. 151) with, "To an honest judge, the alleged convergence between religion and science is a shallow, empty, hollow, spin-doctored sham."

In the specific chapter on the September 11 atrocity, Dawkins writes (p. 157), "My last vestige of 'hands off religion' respect disappeared in the smoke and choking dust of September 11th 2001, followed by the "National Day of Prayer," when prelates and pastors did their tremulous Martin Luther King impersonations and urged people of mutually incompatible faiths to hold hands, united in homage to the very force that caused the problem in the first place." He goes on to say "My point is not that religion itself is the motivation for wars, murders and terrorist attacks, but that religion is the principal label, and the most dangerous one, by which a 'they' as opposed to a 'we' can be identified at all." Hitler's sub-Wagnerian ravings constituted a religion of his own foundation, and his anti-Semitism owed a lot to his never-renounced Roman Catholicism."

The chapter on Snake Oil is epitomized as follows (p. 181): "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 analyzed, 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."

In printing a letter written to his daughter when she was ten but not given to her or published until eight years later, Dawkins writes (p. 241), "I had always been scrupulously careful to avoid the smallest suggestion of infant indoctrination, which I think is ultimately responsible for much of the evil in the world. Others, less close to her, showed no such scruples, which upset me, as I very much wanted her, as I want all children, to make up her own mind freely when she became old enough to do so. I would encourage her to think, without telling her what to think." Dawkins is in good company in denouncing infant indoctrination. Paul Kurtz has expressed similar opposition to such child abuse. And in the Canadian province of Alberta, four notorious families of hatemongering religious fanatics can only be explained by the second generation being parentally brainwashed in infancy.

Finally, Dawkins acknowledges the valuable contribution of his editor, who decided which of his essays should be included in A Devil's Chaplain, as indeed he should. Her choices were excellent.

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William Harwood (wharwood@telus.net) is a member of the editorial board of Free Inquiry, and contributing editor of American Rationalist. He is the author of Mythology's Last Gods (Prometheus), and editor/translator of The Judaeo-Christian Bible Fully Translated (Booksurge.com). His most recent book is A Humanist in the Bible Belt (1stbooks.com).

 

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