Richard Dawkins

Yet a nother controversy about the famous atheist has just exploded. Here are my two cents.

If you are following at all the skeptic / atheist / humanist / freethought movement(s) (henceforth, SAHF), last week has been an exciting and/or troubling one for you. First, the announcement that the Richard Dawkins Foundation had merged with (or taken over, depending on whom you ask) the venerable Center for Inquiry, up until then the chief remaining operation established by one of the founding fathers of modern skepticism and humanism, Paul Kurtz.

Then, a mere six days later, the organizers of the North East Conference on Science and Skepticism (NECSS), likely to soon become the major skeptic conference in North America (given the apparent demise of The Amazing Meeting), dropped a bombshell: Dawkins was being disinvited — probably a first in his career — on grounds of yet another obnoxious tweet he had thoughtlessly sent out to his 1.35 million followers.

It seems, therefore, like this is as good a time as any to take stock of Richard Dawkins and of the SAHF community and see where they stand. I will begin with my personal assessment of Dawkins as a scientist, science popularizer, and public intellectual. I will then get into some (not too lurid) detail about the latest twitter-storm, and conclude with a few reflections on the significance of all this for the SAHF movement(s) at large. Needless to say, everything that follows reflects my own opinions, not those of Plato…

Dawkins the scientist, popularizer, and public intellectual

I have met Dawkins a few times throughout my career as a biologist and a philosopher, and every encounter has been as cordial as it could be expected between colleagues who disagree on a number of issues. The first time, actually, was before I became a professional biologist. I was an undergraduate student at the University of Rome, and was sent by the Italian magazine “Sapere” (To Know) to interview Dawkins in Florence, where he was appearing as an invited speaker to a public conference on evolution. The second time was in the mid-90’s. By that time I was an Assistant Professor of evolutionary biology at the University of Tennessee, and my Department invited Dawkins to speak as part of his book tour (very likely for Climbing Mount Improbable). It was also his birthday, which we celebrated with cake and all the rest, following his talk. There have been a couple of other meetings after that, but the last time I saw him in person was at a workshop on philosophical naturalism organized by cosmologist Sean Carroll. Interestingly, over lunch during one of those days, I experienced Dawkins in what is a rather uncharacteristically humble mood: he confided at our table that he felt a bit intimidated, being surrounded by so many professional philosophers (he wasn’t talking about me, I assure you, but more likely of Dan Dennett and Alex Rosenberg, among others). It was interesting to see that rather unexpected (from his public appearances) side of him.

Okay, personal history dealt with, let me move to the interesting stuff: what do I make of Richard Dawkins as a scientist, popularizer, and public intellectual? It’s a complex issue, to be sure. For one, he and I have never seen eye to eye, and this is way before he published The God Delusion — a book that had I read it as a youngster would have certainly excited me, but that as a professional philosopher I found simply ghastly in its cartoonish simplicity.

To begin with, I never bought his argument in The Selfish Gene (TSG), the book that (rightly) launched him as a top rate science popularizer, back in 1976. I read and appreciated the book for the first time a few years later (I was in middle school when it came out), but I always thought that his arch-rival, paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould, while himself an interesting, shall we say, character, was much closer to the mark. In a nutshell, TSG presents an exceedingly reductionist view of biology that is simply incapable, in my mind, of taking in the bewildering variety of biological phenomena that we have documented ever since Darwin. Dawkins’ focus on the gene level and only the gene level, his refusal to take seriously the idea of multi-level selection, his (later) casual dismissal of epigenetics, his ridicule of advances coming out of paleontology, his utter ignorance (judging from the fact that he hardly wrote about it at all) of important concepts like phenotypic plasticity, phenotypic accommodation, niche selection, robustness, and evolvability — to mention but a few — meant to me that his view of biology was hopelessly limited.

His long feud with Gould was highly influential on my formative years as a young scientist. You can get a feeling from the (overall pro-Dawkins, but generally balanced) booklet written by philosopher of science Kim Sterelny, and aptly entitled Dawkins Vs Gould: Survival of the Fittest. (It was published before Gould’s untimely death, or the title would have been in real poor taste!)

A few years later, when I was a full professor, but still at the University of Tennessee, I actually taught a graduate seminar on the Gould-Dawkins rivalry, and that’s where I learned something that still few people seem to realize. You see, Dawkins is often portrayed in the media as “a leading evolutionary biologist.” But if by that one means an active research scientist who has actually made major contributions to his field, then that title really ought to describe Gould, not Dawkins.

Dawkins essentially ceased publishing in the primary literature (with a few exceptions, mostly commentaries) after he wrote TSG. Absolutely nothing wrong with that: the man had found his true calling as a science popularizer, and Zeus knows we need a lot of ’em! But even TSG was just that, a popular book, not the presentation of original ideas (except for the whole “memes” thing, more on that in a minute). Indeed, TSG was the popularization of notions developed in the preceding couple of decades by true giants of the evolutionary field, including George Williams (nature of natural selection, criticism of group selection), William Hamilton (kin selection), and Robert Trivers (reciprocal altruism). (Here is a short article I wrote for Skeptical Inquirer about going beyond the selfish gene.)

As I mentioned, the one really novel idea Dawkins presented in TSG was the concept of memes, a cultural analogue of genes, introduced with the express purpose to convince his readers that “Darwinism” applies universally, not just to straightforward genetic systems. (This eventually led Dan Dennett to his famous idea of Darwinism as a “universal acid,” in his Darwin’s Dangerous Idea — an interesting book in which, however, Dennett gets rather uncharacteristically, and in my mind unjustifiably, nasty about Gould.)

Now, I have written elsewhere why I think “memetics” is a bad idea, as memes are just metaphors, and they are not particularly useful to understand what they are supposed to help us understand, cultural evolution. Sure enough, after their 15 minutes of fame, thanks largely to a book by Susan Blackmore, memes have receded to generic metaphor for successful ideas that spread virally. Indeed, the Journal of Memetics, the only peer reviewed publication on the topic, has long ago closed down for lack of interest in the scholarly community.

Finally, let me get to Dawkins the public intellectual. For a number of years he held an endowed chair as Professor of Public Understanding of Science (an excellent idea, which ought to be replicated elsewhere!) at Oxford. During that period (and before) he published a series of excellent books on evolutionary biology, my favorite probably being Climbing Mount Improbable. That, I think, was Dawkins’ golden age, during which even those who criticized him on professional grounds (like myself) were nonetheless eagerly reading his books (as I did).

That golden age, in my mind, came to an abrupt end at the very moment Dawkins’ popularity made a huge leap, with the publication of The God Delusion. Again, I’ve written about it elsewhere, so I will not rehash that particular controversy. As is well known to my readers, I’ve been critical of the New Atheism in general, and of the decidedly scientistic turn that it has imparted to the SAHF movements, a turn that I’m confident would have been frowned upon by some of the early leading figures, such as Kurtz, Carl Sagan, and Martin Gardner. There is definitely room for disagreement here, but the current essay is about my own assessment of the Dawkins phenomenon, so there it is.

The broader point is that I think Dawkins has been sliding down ever since he became a (very) popular spokesperson for atheism. Which is highly unfortunate, because atheism does need good spokespeople. But the most effective ones, I would think, are those that come across as reasonable and articulate, and who are very careful about what they say in public, especially on social media. Dawkins is articulate, but doesn’t come across (to non atheists, and indeed even to some atheists) as reasonable. And he’s definitely not careful about his public statements, as we’ll see below.

So, to recap my thinking so far: not a leading evolutionary biologist (never been); a top notch science popularizer (until The God Delusion); a problematic public intellectual (after The God Delusion).

The latest twitter-storm

Which brings me to what happened last week. The trouble started when Dawkins posted the following tweet (he deleted it since, hence the screenshot):

Dawkins shot1

The video linked to in the tweet, and which Dawkins clearly endorsed, can be found here. It is an egregious, unqualified, piece of racist and misogynist garbage. Please, pause reading this post for a couple of minutes and see for yourself. It’s simply horrifying.

Then again, this was not an isolated incident. Dawkins had racked a considerable number of similarly embarrassing tweets over the past few years. Here is a sampler, ranging over such light topics as abortion, rape, pedophilia, and Islam (of course!). Use Google to find many, many more.

Much has been said about the most recent episode, particularly because it has led to the NECSS organizers dumping Dawkins from their conference, but some people seem to have missed at the least part of the point.

For instance, Dawkins took the tweet down after being told that the “feminist” in the video is not just a generic caricature, but represents a real woman, who has received plenty of threats and harassment in recent times, as a result of an admittedly rather embarrassing video of her during a protest in Toronto.

What needs to be noted here is twofold: a) Dawkins, despite having deleted the offending tweet, does not actually seem regretful at all (contra to what he wrote in a press release from CFI about the NECSS incident):

Dawkins shot2

“The rest was very funny, right on point and beautifully executed.” No Richard, it was none of those things. Not at all.

This is why the NECSS organizers (to be clear: I am not one of them) took the extraordinary, and likely costly, step of withdrawing the invitation to Dawkins to come to New York. You can read Steve Novella’s full explanation here, which I find convincing and earnest. If anything, in my mind, the question is why was Dawkins invited to NECSS to begin with, considering that his socially erratic behavior was notorious. But I suppose it’s hard to resist the cachet of a celebrity, and Dawkins sells tickets at whatever event he is invited.

This time, however, the NECSS folks took a stand, one that, as I said, is likely to cost them financially — though they have certainly augmented their reputation in terms of integrity, an increasingly rare asset these days. The cost is going to come from the fact that a number of local and non-local atheists have already decided, or are at the least deliberating about, boycotting NECSS because they think the whole incident is much-ado-about-nothing, and that the organizers overreacted because of rampant political correctness. Which brings me to the last part of this post: the community.

Impact on the SAHF communities

The SAHF communities have seen a significant amount of turmoil in recent years, largely to do with a double internal split, as far as I can determine (I’m speaking from personal experience here, I haven’t seen any systematic sociological studies of the matter).

First, there is the political split: there are (notoriously, unfortunately) few conservatives among skeptics and atheists. This is to be expected as far as the humanist crowd is concerned, since secular humanism has always (or almost) been a philosophy of progressive liberalism. But there is no reason whatsoever why a conservative shouldn’t be an atheist, or skeptical of claims of the paranormal and such.

I suspect, however, that the common origins of SAHF in the United States, with a few pivotal figures (like Kurtz) blazing the trail in the 1960s and ’70s, is a main reason for this situation. Kurtz was not just an atheist and a skeptic, but a secular humanist, and he saw no sharp boundaries among those branches of the movement, which means that the progressive liberalism of secular humanism got sort of automatically imported into the other branches as well.

Notwithstanding the virtual absence of conservative SAHFs, there is a strong, and vocal, minority of libertarians to be reckoned with, including some of the leading figures of the last few years, like Michael Shermer and Pen Jillette. Predictably, the clash between the libertarian minority and the progressive majority has led to major disagreements and some embarrassing moments, for instance when prominent libertarian skeptics declared themselves “skeptical” of global climate change. (Shermer was one of them, though to his credit he has since changed his mind.)

The second split, not at all orthogonal to the first one, separates defenders of “free speech” (who tend to be libertarian, but not exclusively) from advocates of “social justice” (who tend to be progressive, but not exclusively).

This also has led to nasty exchanges, with accusations of Islamophobia and misogyny being hurled (sometimes appropriately, at other times not so much) to people like Sam Harris, comedian Bill Maher, and, of course, Richard Dawkins. The response from those so accused has been that the other side is stifling the right to free speech, a standard tactic that has already emerged in reference to the latest Dawkins debacle. Except, of course — as Steve Novella has pointed out — that NECSS, for instance, is a private organization whose own free speech is exercised by the choice of who they do and do not invite, not to mention that to claim that Dawkins’ speech is being stifled, considering the huge number of followers and endless number of platforms he has available, is more than a bit ridiculous.

In all of this, it hasn’t helped that some on the progressive side (a side with which I identify, broadly speaking) have confused atheism (technically, simply a negative metaphysical stance) with secular humanism (a truly politically progressive philosophy), a confusion made all the more maddening by the vocal stamping of a number of high profile characters who relish in (and profit from) making outrageous statements with the transparent purpose of increasing web traffic while vilifying and insulting some of their own readers (you know who you are, no need to mention names).

Now, let us step back for a second. Remember what the SAHFs evolved for: to further reason and critical inquiry, to promote science and debunk pseudoscience, to build a community of like minded people, to provide a civil alternative to religion. Does any of the above sound anything like this set of highly worthy goals?

No, clearly. But there are countless good people involved with SAHF, and they deserve to be able to return to the original goals of what they set out to do, shutting off the insanity and incivility, taking a stand again in favor of reason and decency.

That is why I applaud the step taken by the NECSS organizers. That is also why I wish (I know it’s not going to happen) that CFI divested itself from its link with the Richard Dawkins Foundation, engaged in some serious soul searching, and regrouped around the basic principles set forth by Paul Kurtz. I met Paul, and he was no saint (who is?). But I’m pretty sure he would be disgusted by the shamble in which his intellectual heirs currently find themselves.

So the Dawkins-NECSS debacle is a splendid opportunity for the good people within SAHF to step back, appreciate and remind themselves of all the good they have done in decades of activism, but also conscientiously and critically inquire into the bad or questionable stuff. Every movement goes through growing pains, and this is just one of those moments. I sincerely wish them all the best for a speedy and safe transition to maturity.