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.

Latest

Science must trump ideology in the GE debate
104784 2019-04-18 08:52:29Z Politics

Science must trump ideology in the GE debate

by The Listener

A New Zealand-developed super-grass that appears to drastically reduce greenhouse gas emissions might be blocked in this country by the Green Party.

Read more
Simon Bridges hails PM Jacinda Ardern's capital gains tax u-turn as victory
104803 2019-04-18 00:00:00Z Politics

Simon Bridges hails PM Jacinda Ardern's capital ga…

by Jo Moir

The National Party is calling the u-turn on a capital gains tax a massive failure for the Prime Minister.

Read more
John Campbell is replacing Jack Tame on TVNZ's Breakfast show
104860 2019-04-18 00:00:00Z Television

John Campbell is replacing Jack Tame on TVNZ's Bre…

by Noted

The TV network is switching things up - again.

Read more
John Lanchester’s ecological-dystopian tale about a barricaded Britain
104431 2019-04-18 00:00:00Z Books

John Lanchester’s ecological-dystopian tale about…

by Catherine Woulfe

The Wall may be speculative fiction, but it feel like it's just round the corner.

Read more
Why we should take care when we talk about drug side effects
104426 2019-04-18 00:00:00Z Psychology

Why we should take care when we talk about drug si…

by Marc Wilson

If we find that up to 10% of people report insomnia after taking Panadol, does that mean it was a side effect of the drug?

Read more
Capital Gains Tax debate should have been a godsend for Simon Bridges
104754 2019-04-17 00:00:00Z Politics

Capital Gains Tax debate should have been a godsen…

by Bevan Rapson

Talk of a capital gains tax hits a particular nerve, but changing the tax system doesn’t always have to be like pulling teeth.

Read more
Government abandons capital gains tax plan
104759 2019-04-17 00:00:00Z Politics

Government abandons capital gains tax plan

by Noted

No consensus was reached over the capital gains tax recommendation.

Read more
How tough is it for the middle class in New Zealand?
104675 2019-04-17 00:00:00Z Social issues

How tough is it for the middle class in New Zealan…

by Pattrick Smellie

Money worries have set off a wave of populist politics in most Western democracies, but not here. Pattrick Smellie investigates why.

Read more