Richard Dawkins' truth, science and tediousness

by Danyl McLauchlan / 25 July, 2017

Richard Dawkins. Photo/Getty Images

Richard Dawkins’ profound admiration for himself comes through loud and clear – with footnotes.

I think it’s high time the Nobel Prize for Literature was awarded to a scientist,’’ Richard Dawkins announces in his introduction to this new selection of his essays. It’s a reasonable suggestion but who would be worthy of such an honour?

Stephen Hawking? EO Wilson? Siddhartha Mukherjee? Apparently not. Dawkins provides a list for the Academy to consider, but every single person on it is dead and thus ineligible for a Nobel. In Dawkins’ brilliant but comically self-regarding mind, there is only one conceivable living candidate. And there lies the weakness of Science in the Soul: Selected Writings of a Passionate Rationalist and its author. Dawkins’ early work popularised the gene-centric view of evolution: a synthesis of Darwinism, genetics, molecular biology and information theory.

He communicated it to the public through books that are now classics – The Selfish Gene and The Blind Watchmaker – and a flood of articles, lectures and essays, a sample of which are presented here. He illustrates his science writing with a wealth of examples from the natural world: the evolution of the eye; the structure of the nervous system; bee-dancing. I’d have liked a lot more of his science writing in this collection. ‘‘The fox knows many things,’’ an old saying goes, “but the hedgehog knows one big thing.”

Dawkins knows evolution: he writes about it better than anyone else. Unfortunately, he writes about many things – philosophy, literature, history, politics, popular culture, feminism, cultural theory – none of which he knows much about, but on all of them he holds forth with the conviction that with Truth, Science and Reason on his side, he is always right and everyone else is deluded, stupid and wrong.

This is tedious, even when you agree with him. His thoughts on religion and atheism can be boiled down to the undergraduate insight of ‘‘God’s not real, man’’. His contempt for other minds reaches back far into the past. Why didn’t a thinker as intelligent as Aristotle figure out evolution by natural selection in the fourth century BC? It all seems perfectly obvious to Dawkins.

The essays are divided into sections, each introduced by the book’s editor, all of them lavishing Dawkins with praise, all followed by an afterword by Dawkins doing much the same. Each essay is footnoted. Dawkins never misses an opportunity to mock a rival scientist or commentator for being wrong or to retrospectively congratulate himself for being right; in some of these instances, single lines of text float above footnotes the length of the page.

SCIENCE IN THE SOUL: Selected Writings of a Passionate Rationalist, by Richard Dawkins (Bantam Press, $38)

This article was first published in the July 15, 2017 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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