Richard Dawkins on ‘Elders’
Posted by gregdowney on December 25, 2009
I haven’t been blogging for a while because I’ve just finished organizing the national meeting of the Australian Anthropological Society and my wife, Tonia, got kicked by our (soon-to-be-former-) stallion. But I had to put down some thoughts having watched a lengthy interview with Richard Dawkins, recently retired Oxford professor, the other night. Andrew Denton, one of the more skillful interviewers on Australia’s ABC, tried to get Prof. Dawkins to talk about a range of issues, personal insights, and life lessons as part of ‘Elders’, a series of interviews with older individuals who might theoretically offer some sort of insight from their longer and accomplished lives.
You can watch the video in three parts on YouTube, starting with this segment:
Dawkins discussed, among other subjects, his childhood in Africa, Wikipedia, the influence of his parents on his scientific worldview, his sense of wonder in the face of evolution and the natural world, as well as his feeling that the belief in a divine creator actually belittles our sense of the universe. Dawkins expressed again his views on human problems with perceiving beyond a humanist scale, a topic he had done at greater length in his talk on the ‘queer’ universe at TEDs. You can also watch the ‘Elders’ video and video extras on the ABC website, or read the transcript.
The interview was painful toward the end, I found (I’m not alone — see the discussion on Reddit). Dawkins is brittle and prickly at his best, and when he doesn’t like the way things are going, he can be positively obtuse and testy. Denton, in contrast, can be gentle and funny when someone is working with him, but he doesn’t hold up well, it seems, with such a challenging subject. There were moments when it felt like a soft-focus celebrity interview of a high-functioning but affectively flat android (note: to all the Dawkins fans, this is a metaphor, I don’t actually think Dawkins was grown in a vat of nutrient fluid). In other words, I’m not sure this was a shining moment for either of them, although it definitely starts out better than it ends.
Dawkins as an ‘Elder’
The problem was putting Dawkins on a show called ‘Elders’: although he’s probably the most famous atheist walking around right now (not they we all have these labels clearly affixed to us), he doesn’t seem to have nailed the ‘elders’ role so much, except the part where he gets his knickers in a twist that he’s being served tapioca pudding again. Although ‘Elder’ might seem like an age-grade title, anyone over a certain age qualifying for the title when they get their ‘silver discount’ card, the reality is that we expect more of an ‘Elder’ than just longevity and grumpiness.
That is, Denton’s show tries to feature those who have amassed some wisdom, who bring with them the perspective of a life long- and well-lived, who can share their years of insights, field softball questions with grace, humour and a bit of artistry, and generally come across as avuncular and twinkly-eyed (or at least not squinty-eyed). By this measure, Dawkins probably fails. At times he comes across as enthused about science, but at other moments he nails ‘intransigent’ more than ‘insightful,’ ‘mystified’ more than ‘mirth-filled,’ ‘grouchy’ more than ‘graceful.’
For example, Denton asks about Dawkins’ confrontation with the disgraced pastor, Ted Haggard, on the show ‘Root of All Evil?’ Haggard is so obviously a crank, so irritating and just so weird (what the hell is wrong with the man’s lips?!). In addition, since the video was made, Haggard’s been so summarily disgraced and exposed as an epic hypocrite, that you think, ‘ah, now Dawkins can relax — he totally made this guy look like a jackass.’ The questions seem to hover at a possible turning point, especially as Denton tries to bore down to what might be the ‘wisdom’ or life lessons — anger, belief, and how to keep oneself in perspective — with Dawkins able to reflect back on a clear case where he’s come off looking pretty good in relation to an ideological adversary. Is he confident or magnanimous? Can he hit the big, slow-moving target, the easy questions that might show his status as an ‘elder’?
ANDREW DENTON: ‘When do you laugh at yourself?’
RICHARD DAWKINS: ‘… [extended pause]… Are all the questions going to be like this?’
[sound of crickets chirping in studio.]
At an earlier point, Denton asked him to ‘define success,’ and Dawkins gave us this excruciating exchange:
ANDREW DENTON: What’s your definition of success?
RICHARD DAWKINS: …Oh dear, I don’t really answer that kind of question…
ANDREW DENTON: Why not?
RICHARD DAWKINS: …I’m just trying, well, because I just think of it as a dictionary word, which has a dictionary definition and you can go and look it up. I don’t have a personal…
ANDREW DENTON: Well, you don’t have a marker in your life for what would be achievement?
RICHARD DAWKINS: No, it’s cause it’s either you just give a dictionary definition or it becomes very complicated and personal. No, I don’t really think I’ve got a got a good answer to that.
Denton made similar plodding, inch-by-inch headway with questions about ‘belief,’ ‘love’ and ‘wisdom’; a question about how he understands people who talk about their ‘love of God’ was like pulling teeth. It was interesting to watch Dawkins try (and mostly fail) to grapple sympathetically with other people’s irrationality. Overall, the interview was about as warm and cuddly as a turtle. Fans of Dawkins will likely enjoy it, but those who aren’t already converts are likely to find him off-putting. Although indisputably knowledgeable in his field, he demonstrates very little knowledge of people or even how interviews work.
Reflections on Dawkins as evolutionary spokesman
Long before this interview, I was deeply ambivalent about Richard Dawkins, more because I think he’s not an ideal spokesperson for evolutionary theory, a position he seems to have assumed or been given, than because I disagree with his ideas (although I do disagree with many of them).
He seems to have gotten the role of evolutionary spokesperson, and it’s not clear how he ever even got a call back from his first audition. I’m well aware that it’s normal for intellectuals to split hairs and resent their successful peers; in Australia, they call it the ‘tall poppy’ syndrome, where successful individuals are disproportionately criticised. But in this case, I do feel like we could do better than Dawkins for the cause
He’s a less-than-ideal public front for evolutionary thought, in my opinion, for three reasons, at least two of which I think were clearly on display in the interview: his theoretical arguments, personality and aggressive atheism. I won’t dwell on this for too long, but I figure it’s better to share, especially as I might also be able to direct people to another decent contribution of Australian media (I quite like Denton usually), and I have all the Australian patriotic fervor of a convert.
Dawkins’ variant of evolutionary theory
First, I think Dawkins is subtly wrong on some crucial details of evolutionary theory, especially some of the ideas for which he is most famous Stephen Jay Gould referred to Dawkins and like-minded theorists as ‘ultra-Darwinists,’ accusing them of privileging natural selection above all other organic and evolutionary processes (the Gould-Dawkins debates, which are explored in Kim Sterenley’s book, Dawkins vs. Gould: Survival of the Fittest). One of the key problems in Dawkins’ account of evolution is a radical collapse of explanatory scales; genetics and evolution operate on very different time scales, so for Dawkins largely to deny (by neglect) that there might be emergent dynamics on intervening scales is like saying that nothing that occurs between particle physics and astrophysics (say, for example, chemistry) has any meaningful impact on how galactic systems unfold. Sure, a particle physicist might tell us that, but we would be deeply suspicious.
Dawkins, in his most influential work, privileged the gene itself as the unit of selection, rather than the organism, as if genes were surviving, reproducing, being selected, not the living beings who bear those genes. In his view, organisms are a sort of survival machine for their genes, vehicles employed by genes as replicators to get themselves to proliferate. In his own words, he made this choice of focus for rhetorical reasons (which I can understand):
It rapidly became clear to me that the most imaginative way of looking at evolution, and the most inspiring way of teaching it, was to say that it’s all about the genes. It’s the genes that, for their own good, are manipulating the bodies they ride about in. The individual organism is a survival machine for its genes. (see Dawkins’ biography on Edge: The Third Culture)
Although the term ‘selfish gene’ is a metaphor, and I don’t want to be overly critical of a metaphor, there is certainly a tendency in Dawkins’ work to anthropomorphize the gene, to attribute to it interests, a kind of motivation, and even strategies, even if this is only a rhetorical strategy that Dawkins is using. Imaginative, perhaps, but also dangerous, and to the degree that Dawkins has successfully persuaded people to think this way, there’s damage to repair, as it’s only part of the story and quite likely to be over-extended.
Some of Dawkins’ supporters argue that others of his supporters, not Dawkins, are the ones responsible for the over-reach in the areas of study that Dawkins helped to inspire. Danny Hillis, for example, writes:
notions like selfish genes, memes, and extended phenotype are powerful and exciting. They make me think differently. Unfortunately, I spend a lot of time arguing against people who have overinterpreted these ideas. They’re too easily misunderstood as explaining more than they do. So you see, this Dawkins is a dangerous guy. Like Marx. Or Darwin.
I’m not sure I’d put him in the same league with Marx or Darwin. I don’t think The Selfish Gene or The God Delusion quite sits on the same shelf as either Das Kapital or The Origin of Species. Nor do I think that ‘dangerous’ ideas are necessarily bad. But if a set of terms is so persistently getting people into mischief, so consistently sending people off to extremes, maybe they’re more misleading than ‘dangerous’ and need to be substantially rethought. Specifically, I think ‘selfish genes’ and ‘memes’ are a problem; ‘extended phenotype’ is a bit more interesting.
I suspect that my discomfort with the ‘selfish gene’ concept is because the argument was first penned in a very different intellectual environment. To the degree that Dawkins persuaded people, some of the best parts of his arguments have likely become common knowledge in the field of evolutionary thought, only the odder or more extreme bits still standing out as distinctively his own. So again, I don’t want to be unfair to an important theorist, especially as his ideas make it possible to explore subjects like neuroanthropology, but for foundational ideas not to become anachronism, they have to be updated and flexible, not rigid and overly idealized.
In the past, I’ve been pretty hard on the ‘memes’ concept, which I think is one of the more unfortunate ideas in evolutionary theory, although, again, I try not to blame Dawkins for the truly egregious abuses of his neologism by other theorists (on ‘memes’ you can read more here and here). But even other evolutionary theorists typically find this theoretical reach hard to accept, and the Dawkins’ version of this nugget of stupidity is already hard to swallow, even before abuse by over-zealous followers. Unlike the ‘selfish gene,’ which has a core of insight, I feel like ‘meme’ is pretty hopeless all the way down, but you’ll have to read our other posts on the subject to really get all the arguments against ‘memetics’.
But the most difficult aspect of Dawkins’ evolutionary theory for neuroanthropology, in my opinion, is that he has so little interest in phenotype or in developmental dynamics, privileging selective pressures and genetic inheritance over variation, non-selective evolutionary pressures, random events, and an organism’s development. I feel that Dawkins’ account of evolution is too directional, too comfortable with assumptions about improvement, increased complexity, and growing fitness (ironically, I think that this sort of directionality and assumption about ‘improvement’ are an error shared with Creationists, although Dawkins’ and those who agree with him commit it on a much smaller scale).
Dawkins has been scathing at times of anyone who thinks evolution might be affected by any processes other than natural or sexual selection in ways that seem to me close-minded and, frankly, idealistic rather than scientific. It may be logically consistent to believe only in a single force shaping organisms, but this doesn’t make it scientific or even consistent with empirical facts. In addition, because we at Neuroanthropology.net take so seriously emergent dynamics — how culture and behavioural patterns can affect gene expression or child development, for example — there’s very little space in Dawkins’ theories for most of the subjects we write about. Instead, ideas like ‘meme’ and ‘selfish genes’ sort of suck the air out of the room and make sustained exploration of organism-level and social dynamics virtually impossible. It’s odd that a guy so concerned about the scale of perception can be so blasé that his concepts are a kind of scorched earth assault on whole sections of biology, ecology, ethology, epigenetics, neuropsychology, and other life sciences.
Specifically, as a spokesman for evolutionary theory, I’m not sure that his brand is the best symbol for what we all do: Dawkins’ model of evolution is not terribly inclusive of the range of evolutionary work being done, and it plays into some nasty popular tendencies toward simplistic thinking and genetic essentialism. In other words, if he’s setting up the public tent for evolutionary theorists to get a hearing, he’s put the stakes awful close together and we’re not all going to get in there. Moreover, we’re going to have to fight public prejudices that some of his arguments may actually harden and exaggerate.
Dawkins: the personality issue
The second reason that I’m uncomfortable with Dawkins as the public face of evolutionary thought is the personality issue. He may be the reigning ‘Mr. Evolution,’ but he won’t be picking up the ‘Congeniality’ prize from the other contestants. Just read the description of Dawkins that appeared on the ABC website, and was picked up by other websites:
Richard Dawkins is the essence of scientific reason, an evolutionary biologist, a best-selling author, and strident atheist. He’s been declared one of the most influential – and provocative – thinkers of our time.
The ‘essence of scientific reason’? Well, at least he’s ‘strident.’ Dawkins’ is the most ultra- of the Darwinists, more Darwinist than Darwin even. Or, as the press sometimes likes to call him, ‘Darwin’s Rottweiler.’
It’s just that he comes across in episodes like this interview as a bit bi-polar. He alternates between so passionless that he seems to be empathy-impaired and then suddenly ‘strident’ and over-irritated, the scientific equivalent of the old guy yelling, ‘You kids, get off my lawn, or I’m callin’ the police!’ Dawkins doesn’t seem to have an overly-broad palette of emotional colours; a bit of scientific wonder, a streak of irritability, and the rest appears to be confusion about what other lifeforms around him might think or feel. There’s no problem with affective flatness — some of my best friends are pretty monotone — but as a ‘charismatic’ leader or media personality, Dawkins is about as compelling as most of the current crop of Australian federal opposition leaders (one reason that Labour has little to worry about in federal elections).
One of the great problems with the Ultra-Believers — religious fundamentalists, Creationists, and other adversaries of Dawkins — is that they’re so absurdly humourless, up-tight, and self-righteous. So it’s especially sad that Dawkins brings to the debate little humour, no gentleness or empathy, and precious little ability to laugh at himself. The two sides sound too similar: equally graceless. Wouldn’t it be nice if our side’s frontman was charming, or at least more life-like than the changing of the guard at Buckingham Palace?
For example, Denton asks at the very end of the interview: ‘I do have one final question, having read some of your work, having looked at a lot of your work, I’m curious, what star sign are you?’ Dawkins can’t even get a chuckle or a strained smile out of this, what has to be the most absurd question you could ask Dawkins short of one about his guardian angel, reading his palm, or who he thinks he was in a previous lifetime. Especially to an Australian audience, this complete inability to laugh at himself makes Dawkins come across as pretty damn unlikeable.
Why can’t we have an ‘essence of scientific reason’ with a touch of cleverness, kindness, good humour, patience or some other personal virtues? Why does the ‘essence of scientific reason’ personified have to be so cold and inflexible, so brittle and unlikeable? And do we really need a lot more moral outrage in the public debate about religion, faith, human origins, and the like? Sometimes I feel like Dawkins and the Creationists are like mirror images of each other, alike in every way except the crucial question of whether they believe in evolution. The presentation style mirrors Dawkins’ missionary zeal for evolutionary theory, but it also seems to give more credit to the doubters, the Creationists, and the evolution deniers than they deserve. Getting wound up by Creationists implies that they have a point, or even a leg to stand on; a bit of joyful, chuckling condescension seems to me to be a more appropriate way to deal with these yahoos.
But, as I’ve written elsewhere, it’s easier for me to be magnanimous, living in a (mostly) secular country and not suffering from their meddling in my kids’ school curriculum. And as an anthropologist, I’m a kind of professional ‘shallow believer’ in whatever people want to tell me (‘You say you’re possessed? Awesome. What’s that like?’). To be sympathetic, I’d probably be at least as irritable as Dawkins if I ever had to deal with Ted Haggard.
Atheism and evolutionary thought
Finally, there’s Dawkins’ atheism and his insistence that evolutionary thought is incompatible with theism of any sort.
I’m a scientist. I believe there is a profound contradiction between science and religious belief. There is no well demonstrated reason to believe in God and I think the idea of a divine creator belittles the elegant reality of the universe.
If he thinks that it’s so important to convince people about evolutionary theory, he may not be doing himself any favours by bundling it with the insistence that accepting evolution necessitates denying the existence of divinity. Even in a secular society like Australia, about 80% of those who responded to a question about religion in the 2006 Census expressed belief in some sort of religion.
On this point, in addition, Dawkins is simply wrong empirically: there are other evolutionary theorists who are not atheists. Full stop End of discussion. He says it’s impossible to believe in God and evolutionary theory at the same time; here’s someone who does it — he’s wrong.
So for Dawkins to argue that it is logically impossible or a ‘profound contradiction’ to hold to evolutionary theory and believe in some sort of deity requires him to assume that any theistic evolutionary theorist must be illogical, self-delusional, or lying. He has referred to religion as a ‘virus’ of the mind, which is only insulting until you realize that meme-theory basically assumes every idea, skill or concept behaves like a virus.
In other words, if this is the spokesperson for evolutionary theory, he’s attaching another message that’s a kind of poison pill to the more widely-accepted argument for evolution; even in the notoriously Creationist US, at least 40% of the population expresses support for the assertion that humans ‘developed from earlier species of animals’, a much higher percentage than accept atheism (see this article in New Scientist, for example). I wish Dawkins didn’t bring up atheism with evolutionary theory; it just confuses and entangles things as far as I’m concerned.
In fact, when Dawkins describes the ‘poetry’ in science, he sounds very much like a natural theologian, arguing that the ‘majesty’ of nature demonstrates some sort of beauty (or divinity, in the case of the theologian). In the interview, Dawkins says:
Science is opening your eyes to the wonderfulness of what’s there. It’s, it’s as though you’ve got tiny little, I’ve used the analogy of a burka, you know those dreadful ghastly black tents that Muslims wear, and you’ve got this tiny slit, rip open the burka. That’s what science does, and the light floods in, and that’s poetry. The poetry of the expanding universe, the poetry of geological time, the poetry of the deep complexity of life, all these things, which we’re not normally equipped to understand and the science gives it to us.
Don’t get me wrong; I actually like what he’s saying here. I like Dawkins more when he’s talking about the aesthetic joy to be found in science than elsewhere in the interview, such as when he refuses to talk about what he would consider a personal view of ‘success.’ When he describes being ‘overwhelmed by the scale of the universe’ and a kind of exultation in the imagination-challenging scale of the universe, Dawkins nails some of the passion of natural sciences.
Again, maybe it’s the anthropologist in me that prefers to leave open the questions that cannot be closed, to acknowledge whenever possible diverse perspectives, and to engage with the insights that come from diverse worldviews. I suspect that, if I were to read Dawkins’ works articulating his atheist perspective (books like The God Delusion), I wouldn’t find much of substance to argue against. I don’t think religion is necessarily the most dangerous human invention; certainly, nationalism, race, and millenarianism would all have to rank up with religion when it comes to motivating intentional immiseration of our fellow humans. And there’s a few technological innovations that are looking pretty dangerous at the moment.
I went back and watched video interviews of Stephen Jay Gould (see an interview by Charlie Rose and one here on YouTube) just to make sure I wasn’t romanticising him, and was reminded again why I miss his writing so much.
Look, before anyone writes some comment suggesting I don’t know that this interview wasn’t really the kind of forum where Dawkins’ warmth, sense of humour, and engaging personality could shine, I do respect Prof. Dawkins for a whole host of projects: he’s amazingly prolific and has taken principled stands on everything from animal rights to opposition to the Iraq War, against medical quackery and ‘intelligent design’ in school curricula, as an environmentalist and in general for scientific rationalism. There’s LOTS to like in Dawkins’ CV. He’s put forward some of the most compelling and widely cited works on evolutionary theory; even though I might personally disagree with some of the crucial details, I can certainly respect the quality of the work, and from where he’s writing (and written) it in time and the intellectual terrain.
I think I’d be more comfortable with Dawkins if I saw more evidence that he acknowledged diversity of opinion among evolutionary theorists in his public statements, even though I can understand why, faced with someone like Ted Haggard, who tries to use this scientific debate to discredit scientists, Dawkins might opt to temporarily overlook the arguments. In fact, Dawkins has written some very kind things about Gould, and by all accounts, their debate was respectful; if so, it’s credit to both, as these arguments can get so bitter and ad hominem. So although I found Dawkins a bit brittle and irritable on the surface in this interview with Denton, he clearly is capable of exemplary intellectual generosity. I just wish we got to see more of it.
More about Richard Dawkins
National Geographic recorded a video interview with Prof. Dawkins on the event of Darwin’s birthday about evolution, Darwin, and belief in God.
Another discussion by David Shütz at the weblog, Sentire Cum Ecclesia,Andrew Denton’s interview with “Elder” Richard Dawkins.
Cartoon from Edge: The Third Culture, ‘RICHARD DAWKINS TOPS PROSPECT’S LIST OF BRITAIN’S TOP 100 PUBLIC INTELLECTUALS.’
Photo of Prof. Dawkins with Christmas tree from The Hour’s Blog.