October 24, 2006
The Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science
Thanks to Michael Smith (a very funny comedian I've seen at Roar and Ginglik and who rather quaintly seems not to have any 'net presence) for pointing this out to me:
Remember The Enlightenment!
The Foundation's introductory video:
See also Why There Almost Certainly Is No God.
My views are pretty much summed in this post, but I'll never be as eloquent as His Richardness, the Saint Dawkins.
Posted to Science and technology by Simon Brunning at October 24, 2006 03:37 PM
It's very rare that I find someone who not only talks sense, but isn't afraid to speak it. And so eloquently too. The man is a breath of fresh air in a foul smelling religious set pit.
/salute Mr Dawkins.
Problem - he was also wrong about a good few things too, or at least misleading. He has got into some trouble with a lot of serious people about his framing of the "selfish gene" and how that has been (mis)interpreted.
I've not heard about that, Katherine. What's he been wrong or misleading about?
Mary Midgley would be able to tell you. See http://education.guardian.co.uk/print/0,3858,5289067-108229,00.html
"In 1979, in response to the publication of Dawkins's The Selfish Gene, Midgley wrote what was, by any standards, a remarkably intemperate critique in the journal Philosophy. "The notion of selfishness suggests an extreme determinism," she says. "It also trades on people's simplistic notions of human motivation. Selfishness cannot explain either altruism or self-destruction, both of which quite clearly exist." Scientists - including Dawkins - were not slow to respond, accusing her of failing to grasp the concept.
While Midgley concedes that she should have been a bit more measured in her response, she remains surprisingly consistent in her antagonism.
"I'm not anti-science," she maintains. "What I object to is improper science sold as science. I understand Dawkins thinks he was talking about the survival potential of certain lines rather than the motives of the genes themselves, but I believe he is mistaken. Scientists in this country have little cultural overlap with the arts and humanities and ... they are unaware of when they start bringing their own political and psychological views into the argument. There's nothing wrong with scientists having such views as long as they are aware of what they are doing ... Dawkins may argue that he is using selfishness as a metaphor but he must have been aware of how the concept might be interpreted and used. And Dawkins has to take some responsibility for that."
Midgley went on to expand these ideas in her book Evolution as a Religion, which was published in 1985. Although her arguments have been refined, her views have remained broadly unchanged. However, constancy is not a virtue that she applauds in others. "AJ Ayer spent most of his professional life gradually retracting the more strident parts of his major work, Language, Truth and Logic," she says. "I admit it would have been hard for Dawkins to do the same. He had published the Selfish Gene when he was quite young and was instantly heralded as the prophet of the age."
Well, I've read The Selfish Gene, and it seems to me that Science *can* explain altruism. Indeed, the explanation seemed to be to be beautifully simple. Furthermore, selfishness (on the part of genes) wasn't a metaphor at all - it's quite real, and a crucial part of the thesis.
So, it seems to me that Midgley didn't really understand the book. That doesn't make it wrong or misleading - *I* understood it OK. I think.
I also find the "Scientists in this country have little cultural overlap with the arts and humanities" comment interesting. In my experience, scientists have a far better knowledge of and interest in the humanities that humanities types have of science. Indeed, in some circles, mathematical, scientific and technical ignorance is almost something to be proud of!
Anyway, smells like FUD to me - if a few people say often enough that Dawkins has been shown to be inaccurate, then some people will start to believe it and pass the message on, even if it's not based on fact.
I was also going to quote Midgely. And by the by, Simon, the phrase "Scientists in this country have little cultural overlap with the arts and humanities" is not necessarily pejorative, unless you wish to take it that way. Nor does it imply that humanities types are all super dooper scientists. Your reaction sounds a little defensive my dear.
I think one of the main problems with the "selish gene" framing, is exactly how it can, and has, been taken by (a) people who don't understand the issues and (b) people who haven't read the book. The framing of genetics and evolution as being about selfishness has taken on a life of its own and is used by all sorts of people to justify "dog eat dog" views of the world. That may not have been Richard Dawkins' intent, but it has certainly been the result.
Defensive? Well, perhaps, but it's a common myth that science & tech people are all philistines - common among humanities people who wouldn't know Newton's first law if it bit them, that is. And it's rubbish, and that needs pointing out now and again.
I do accept that people who haven't read or understood Dawkins' books can get the wrong idea, but I hardly think that can be blamed on him. That hardy counts as him being "wrong", as you put it. And as for "misleading", well, people can misunderstand anything if they want to. I found it easy enough to understand.
Maybe you'll get to discuss this with Mary in person sometime - she was here for a meal on Monday night. She's a long-term friend of Dharmavidya and one of the patrons of Amida-shu (http://www.amidatrust.com/). While D was writing 'The New Buddhism' (http://astore.amazon.co.uk/dharmavidyane-21) they lived in the same house, wrote all morning and then had long discussions over lunch. - at a stratospheric intellectual level I can only glimpse, I imagine
Well actually, I think it can be blamed on him. He chose a deliberately provocative title and the outcome is at least partly his responsibility.
And no one said that scientists are philistines, not me, not Mary Midgely. The quote was "little cultural overlap". It is extending that statement into assuming that means the person saying it thinks scientists are philistines that is the defensiveness. And Mary Midgely actually knows a great deal about "science" than the "humanities people" you are describing.
You are assuming that the title is a deliberate provocation. I think otherwise - it's a remarkably good summary of the book's central theme. And I don't see that Dawkins can he held responsible for every possible misinterpretation of his work. (Have you read it?)
And as I said, perhaps I *was* being overly defensive, but if Midgely wasn't implying that scientists are philistines, many do - see The Two Cultures. I may have been unfair to Midgely here, but the problem is real.
The entire book is just to create controversy, the author has no morals whatsover than merely to generate publicity to create sales and we all fall for it, his writing is not thought out, can be poisonous to society on the whole