Just How Toxic Is Richard Dawkins?

If you followed him on Twitter, you might think Dawkins was just a loudmouthed incendiary. Read his science writing and you encounter a brilliant mind. How do we reconcile the two?

01.09.16 5:01 AM ET

A couple of months ago I was enjoying a drink with a group of social activists in a London pub. At the end of the night, I began chatting to a woman sitting opposite me, and mentioned that Richard Dawkins would be an interviewee at a live book night I regularly host.

“Richard Dawkins—his toxic worldview doesn’t speak to a young feminist like myself,” she responded with a sense of venom.

In the weeks leading up to the interview, the Dawkins fascination—and the questions—continued with various people to whom I spoke. Would I challenge his constant hostility to religion? What was he like in person? And what about his anti-Islamic stance, now a regular part of his Twitter posts?

“Dawkins’s public profile in recent years seems completely consumed by his ego,” one distinguished academic told me.

Bizarrely, though, nobody mentioned the words evolutionary biology.

If you want to see how ridiculously inflated the Richard Dawkins celebrity media circus has become in recent years, simply type his name into Google.

Here’s a typical story that’s likely to crop up.

Dawkins’s inability to keep silent on social media is why these lame articles constantly keep reappearing.

Still, the online retaliation that follows is often worse.

Scrolling down through my Twitter feed after reading the aforementioned article, I noticed Dawkins mania was trending yet again. Gangs of holier-than-thou-liberals were queuing up to furiously out-tweet each other, attempting to show who was more morally outraged. “Delete your account,” demanded Graham Linehan, a comedy television writer with more than half a million followers.

On Twitter—where he has an astounding 1.3 million followers himself— Dawkins is, to put it mildly, a bit of a sensationalist.

His favorite online hobby is to ask questions and conduct thought experiments that are a constant work in progress. This may be an intriguing idea if you are in a small Oxford science tutorial, with polite, like-minded students. But on social media, where anger and moral superiority relentlessly explode into fireballs of poison and hatred almost every second, conducting such conversations is a recipe for disaster.

Dawkins seems to relish the role of bad-boy contrarian, though. And the questions he tends to ask, while usually well intended, don’t have the direct yes or no answers he’s accustomed to working with.

In the science world, the method for coming up with a credible hypothesis works as follows: conduct an experiment, display your evidence—backed up with data—and then draw a conclusion as to whether something is true or false.

It’s a liberating idea that has marched humanity towards progressive secular values, free from nonsensical superstition. But those same so-called Enlightenment values, lest we forget, also brought us the atomic bomb and eugenics, hardly great examples of dignified human progress.

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Via Twitter, and the daily online news agenda, Dawkins regularly puts himself forward as a global commentator for western civilization. The trouble is, however, news stories covering complex subjects such as war, persecution, famine, pedophilia, refugees, genocide, economics, genital mutilation, and murder all require considerable nuance, something the British scientist distinctly lacks.

Among Dawkins’s more outrageous tweets: he has asked why Islamic scholars haven’t produced as many Nobel prizes winners as Jews; he has said that it is immoral not to abort a fetus known to have Down syndrome; he has tried to logically differentiate between rape at knife point and date rape.

Unfortunately, Dawkins’s name is now becoming more closely aligned with these trivial online rows—which tend to get bogged down in semantics, political correctness, and moral outrage—than anything of real intellectual substance.

That’s a shame considering his enormous contribution to evolutionary biology over the last four decades.

Thank goodness, then, that Brief Candle in the Dark, the successor to an earlier memoir, An Appetite for Wonder, ignores such petty arguments—well, mostly.

When point scoring does occur, it’s normally with other scientists, such as the late Stephen Jay Gould, with whom Dawkins disagreed about many matters in their shared field of evolutionary biology.

But even when the gloves come off in this arena, Dawkins maintains his most gracious and dignified role: the great communicator to a popular science audience.

In An Appetite For Wonder, published two years ago, Dawkins described growing up privileged and pampered in Kenya as the child of a colonial serviceman working for the British Empire; then returning to attend public school in post-war Britain, which subsequently allowed him to enter into the zoology department as an undergraduate in Oxford in 1959, an institution in which he remained for most of his life.

Brief Candle in the Dark and An Appetite For Wonder are extremely similar in tone, and both are a little snoozy when it comes to the strictly autobiographical parts.

The most controversial events we encounter here are dinner parties where disagreements with fellow academics over saying grace in Latin end with a polite handshake or joke, rather than a punch up. Skinny dipping at an academic conference—after one beer too many—appears to be the most rebellious act Dawkins has ever committed in his life.

Ironically, given how abrupt his online persona can be at times, Dawkins seems to have a penchant for good old fashioned British politeness. He spends much of the narrative self consciously apologizing to the reader in advance, for fear he may somehow offend.

Following my public interview with Dawkins last October, many members of the audience remarked to me how surprised they were at the genial, courteous, sweet, polite, and extremely intelligent elder statesman-like figure they encountered on stage.

That said, it’s when he releases himself from the shackles of polite conversation that Dawkins knuckles down to what he’s best at: science. As soon as that happens in Brief Candle, the narrative shifts from first to fifth gear almost instantaneously.

In the opening chapter, Dawkins asks if we are witnessing a constructive merger between scientific and literary cultures, which he refers to as the “third culture,” that is, books by professional scientists written in a language that appeal to the general reading public.

He might have been describing himself. In The Selfish Gene, his 1976 debut, he deploys a style that is part high literary and part sci fi to seamlessly and lucidly blend science and allegory.

Dawkins was inspired to write the book because there was such a widely held misunderstanding of Darwinism at the time. And in both Brief Candle in the Dark and An Appetite For Wonder, he continually returns to his magnum opus as a point of reference.

One of the most persistent—and annoying—criticisms of The Selfish Gene, claims Dawkins, is that it mistakes the level at which natural selection (defined as the non random differential reproduction of genes) acts.

As the late John Maynard Smith—a great champion of Dawkins’s work—once commented: “The Selfish Gene reports no new facts. [What] it does offer is a new world view.”

To understand how this the new world view dramatically altered the culture of mainstream science in the mid ’70s, one needs to comprehend exactly what was being discussed among evolutionary biologists at the time.

The main debate concerned two topics: group selection and kin selection.

The group selection debate was exacerbated by V.C. Wynne-Edward’s book Animal Dispersion in Relation to Social Behaviour, which argued that behavior adaptations had evolved by group selection: the survival of some groups and the extinction of others.

Many biologists were extremely skeptical about Wynne-Edwards’s thesis, and argued that natural selection typically acts by favoring some individuals, but not some populations.

During this period, English biologist W.D. Hamilton proposed another theory about how natural selection acts.

Hamilton’s thesis—now more commonly referred to as kin selection—follows the neo-Darwinian synthesis, which centers on the gene as the unit of natural selection.

Genes, Hamilton postulated, are what encourage social altruism and cooperation between related species.

Repeat that last sentence out loud just for one moment: it’s one of the most liberating, empowering, and positive forces on the planet. And it’s why I consider The Selfish Gene—which reinforces that idea with striking clarity—to be one of the most important books I have ever read.

Dawkins, while acknowledging the debt we owe to Hamilton, claimed that Hamilton would have been wiser to adopt a full blooded “gene’s eye” view of evolution. And in The Selfish Gene Dawkins also urges us to recognize the fundamental distinction between replicators, that is, entities whose precise structure is replicated in the process of reproduction, and vehicles, entities which are mortal and which are not replicated, but whose properties are influenced by replicators.

Or, as Dawkins eloquently puts it himself in Brief Candle In The Dark:

“Genes survive by pulling phenotypic levers of power. But why are those phenotypic levers bundled into discrete vehicles which we call organisms, and why do the immortal replicators “choose” to gang up with other genes to share vehicles.

This was the point at which I went beyond Hamilton while never really going against anything he said.”

When Dawkins is writing with this absolute clarity of tone—where there is no room for nuance whatsoever—he truly is an extraordinary thinker of exceptional proportions: in the world of science that is.

Evolutionary biology, like all science, requires mathematical formulas, and precision of logic to make perfect sense. Something either is, or it is not. There is no grey area, or room for rebuttal and debate. Unless, of course, new evidence emerges.

But where Dawkins has found criticism in recent years, even from his closest supporters and fans, is his insistence that human affairs can somehow be magically explained within the tight parameters of this dogmatic scientific approach: where logic and evidence are the only requirements of an argument.

Human beings are incredibly complex, illogical, and emotional creatures, and therefore trying to understand their various cultures, wide range of behavioral patterns, desires, political allegiances, tribal prejudices and crisis of identity, through the prism of scientific understanding, by itself, is an idea built on foundations of sand.

The late Gary Becker, a Nobel prize-winning economist, and one of the great champions of the neo-liberal movement, during the ’70s tried to apply similar credentials to global capitalism: turning economics at the time from being a discipline that talked about traditional subjects like inflation, employment, banks and stocks, to suddenly hubristically claiming it could now understand all of human behavior. Economics, like science, is simply incapable of doing this.

Dawkins’s most vocal opponents seem to miss this very salient point, focusing their efforts instead on his lack of political correctness: a particular obsession for white-middle-class-intellectual-elites in the West.

They claim that his ridiculing of Islam, for example, borders on racism. To which Dawkins typically responds: Islam is a religion, not a race. It’s a valid point.

I also happen to think that any religion—regardless of whether it’s Christianity, Islam, Buddhism or Judaism—should be open to ridicule, satire, and blasphemy.

Especially given that in our present age, ridiculing the prophet Muhammad is now deemed an act punishable by death by hardcore fundamentalist jihadists.

However, by the same token, in the sweeping one-sentence generalizations Dawkins so often gives when speaking about religion—which he tends to masquerade as an insistence on logical answers—the complexity of human culture seems to get brushed aside, and the argument gets lost, or doesn’t even take place at all.

It’s as if facts for Dawkins—and not human emotion or feeling—are all that matter in this world.

I suspect there may be a valid reason for this, though. In his specialized field, evolutionary biology, for the most part, Dawkins is not dealing with human beings as his subject matter.

In Brief Candle In The Dark he even points out that it’s ridiculous to think of evolutionary theory always culminating in man. And he makes it abundantly clear that Homo Sapiens should not be privileged over other species.

However, in the world of journalism, politics, history, and culture, a world for which Dawkins has tried but ultimately failed to become a global spokesperson in recent years, nuance, debate, paradoxes, and contradictions are ubiquitous. And most important, they are vital in keeping the discussion interesting, democratic, and robust at all times.

Dawkins repeatedly insists—on Twitter most days—that the history of religion is inspired by nothing more than totalitarian control and bloodshed. There is certainly truth in this worldview. I, too, have written about the collusion between the Catholic church and the State in Ireland, and about the totalitarian tendencies behind that collaboration.

But to dogmatically insist—as Dawkins tends to—that any form of religion is always idiotic, inherently violent, and almost infantile in its intellectual construction, is to laugh in the face of human civilization and history. It’s also to ignore a very important trait of human beings: empathy. I once watched an Irish TV show where a woman explained to Dawkins that the notion of a God gave her comfort when a member of her family died. Dawkins looked at her directly, and said, “That is fine, but I’m afraid it’s simply not true.”

I think he misses the point religion may play for some people.

In Wired For Culture, evolutionary biologist Mark Pagel argues that religious memes, historically, have helped humans to survive, cooperate, and prosper. Crucially, though, Pagel does not insist on the need to believe that the ideas contained within religions are necessarily true to be beneficial to human culture.

Similarly, Jared Diamond—a fellow scientist and atheist for whom Dawkins has enormous respect—in +The World Until Yesterday, states, “If religion didn’t bring some real benefits to offset those opportunity costs, any atheistic society that by chance arose would be likely to outcompete religious societies and take over the world. [Religion] must have functions and bring benefits, [otherwise] it wouldn’t have come into being and couldn’t be maintained.”

Even the outspoken atheist, philosopher, neuroscientist, and promoter of all things secular, Sam Harris—who regards Dawkins as his intellectual hero—claims few scientists and philosophers have developed strong skills of introspection.

Harris also insists that there is a connection between scientific fact and spiritual wisdom, and that it is more direct than most people suppose.

There can be no doubt that The God Delusion, which has sold three million copies, was vitally important in raising the bar about how to speak up for secular and rational values in the public domain when it was published almost a decade ago.

But it appears as though Dawkins has no interest in exploring the fact that many humans—at some point in their lives—seek out something greater than themselves.

Call this what you like: a spiritual otherness, an inner introspection, or even a sense of sacredness beyond the cosmos.

The key point is this: the main desire for that “otherness” in the first place means it purposely wants nothing to do with the material world.

It has no relationship with facts or evidence. It’s simply a state of mind, and a yearning for something deeper, or wider, than that constant prison cell of human illusion we politely refer to in our everyday lives as “the self.”

In spite of Dawkins’s constant daily online protestations, it’s pretty hard to envision a time when religion will completely vanish off the face of the earth.

Because no matter how much scientific evidence, no matter how many theories or mathematical explanations we accumulate about the universe, that knowledge will never be able to completely replace a need—in certain people—for mythology, fantasy, and ritual, none of which has any basis or foundation in material truth.