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Dr Alistair Brown | Associate lecturer in English Literature; researching video games and literature

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Dawkins' Dilemma

Monday, May 01, 2006

I knew he would be the one even before I got in to the hall. As people queued up outside, a man stood handing out leaflets. The man who was sat just in front of me when we eventually sat down, took one leaflet then, after a moments pause, another couple. I could see him, at various moments in the lecture, shaking his head solemnly. Then, when he shifted position, I could just glance over his shoulder to read the telling words in the headline of the website print out he was holding: "God..[line break]...Evolution." As the questions began, the man looked desperately around for the attendants stalking the room with microphones and, eventually, he got his question in: "Thank-you for your talk Mr. Dawkins. You think you have answered the 'How,' but what about the 'Why'?..."

Richard Dawkins certainly pulls them in. The conference hall at the Life Centre at which I saw him lecture was packed with 480 people. Having been lecturing for 30 years, as one of our best- known scientists after the publication of The Selfish Gene, Dawkins has a vast spectrum of experience and literature on which to draw. The lecture itself comprised readings, by himself and his wife, the actress Lalla Ward, from some of the most lyrical and passionate passages of his books. Although clearly a model Dawkins had worked on before, it was still entertaining, nice to feel through the delivery which parts of his numerous books he held most pride in. It was, however, towards the unknown of the subsequent questions that expectation was directed. When the issue of Intelligent Design arose, the breath seemed to stop for a moment, in anticipation.

However, there was none of that frisson that sometimes enlivens the moments after a lecture when a sudden incisive question puts the academic on the spot and the encounter (as I commented in my post about Steve Grand) takes on the quality of intellectual theatre. Through a few, clearly well-rehearsed analogies, Dawkins reinforced the grounds for dismissing Intelligent Design on which most people in the room already stood, judging from the applause after his response. Creationism appears little more than a dull ache rather than a thorn in the side of this scientist.

However, he had clearly failed to sway his questioner, who continued solemnly shaking his head for the rest of the evening. It strikes me that he probably never will succeed in contesting his opponents, since the problem Dawkins faces in this country as public enemy number one of Intelligent Design is very paradoxical. Here we have one of the most brilliant public communicators of science, who has perhaps done more than any other to make the deep insights of scientists such as E.O. Wilson available to the general audience through his literary use of metaphor and anecdote. However, he has perhaps been so successful in producing a poetics of evolutionary science that people do not feel compelled to read beyond the superficial rhetoric of "selfish genes," "replicators," "memes." They are not driven to seek fully to understand the science and to recognise that the fact that biology seems to occupy a despotic control over us, consciousness, language and all, is actually a powerful clarion call for us to harness the potential of culture, conscience, literature (and religion?) to subvert the tyranny of our genetic self-centredness. His complaint in the preface to the new edition of The Selfish Gene about those who read the language but who do not engage with the content is plaintive, but I think ultimately futile; even at the hands of those commentatating from a non-religious perspective, he will forever be a victim of his own successful use of metaphor.

When confronted by the challenge of creationism, that claims evolutionary theory as being itself a faith, thus competing on terms comparable with its own Christian beliefs, how should he respond? As the historian Lisa Jardine has pointed out through a very useful historical illustration in the BBC programme A Point of View, the balance is impossibly set: science needs and is expected to produce a great array of evidence for one theory, and indeed should be suspicious of any evidence that fits the theory without any ambiguity whatsoever. As Dawkins noted, as in a court science is directed only towards demonstrating things beyond reasonable doubt, providing explanations that are acceptable, and it neither could not nor should attempt to provide the entire narrative. (Alternatively, as Descartes put it in Discourse on Method, "It is truth very certain that, when it is not in our power to determine what is true, we ought to follow what is most probable.") Creationism contends that it needs only to highlight one ambiguous point in evolutionary theory to open up the space for it to wedge itself as a counter argument, promising what science can not: ultimate belief beyond any doubt whatsoever, with all the enticing possibilities (As Pascal argued, the stakes of infinite life after death are too high to risk holding atheistic doubts in this world). The aesthetic component to Dawkins' achievements leaves him very open to be tackled by competing epistemologies through the emotionally-resonant framework narratives such as Creationism offer.

Should Dawkins then evade this conflict by reversing Creationism's treatment of science as if a religion, and treat religion as if a science? Should he demonstrate the vast extent of evidence in favour of evolutionary theory - genetics, the fossil record, artificial life experiments, the Drake equation, behavioural psychology, biology - and tackle religious assertions on similar terms, showing how, for example, the ark could not have been built because it could not float? The trouble with this approach is that, firstly, it admits that creationism might, in theory at least, have something rational lurking behind the symbolism of the Biblical text, empirical data which might legitimately be applied to evolution. Secondly, it gets mired too deeply in the science, and takes away from Dawkins' traditional position as a communicator to the layman who - most happily in my case - can understand his theories with very little scientific background at all.

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Posted by Alistair at 9:21 am


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