Mentioning Richard Dawkins is a quick way to polarize a conversation. One acquaintance once told me that she refused to read anything by Stephen Jay Gould because of Dawkins’ criticisms while, on the other hand, many of my friends have voiced their exasperation with the English biologist’s attacks on religion. Regardless of whether you consider him a saint or a sinner, though, Dawkins is one of the most controversial scientific figures working today, and Fern Elsdon-Baker has contributed The Selfish Genius: How Richard Dawkins Rewrote Darwin’s Legacy to the ongoing arguments about the “Darwin’s Rottweiler.”
The Selfish Genius is divided into two parts. The first looks at Dawkins’ skewed historiography of evolutionary theory, and in the second Elsdon-Baker considers what effects Dawkins’ anti-religion advocacy have had on the public understanding of science. While it does bear some similarity to previously-published books like Reinventing Darwin, The Evolutionists, and Dawkins vs Gould, The Selfish Genius is more of an extended op-ed. It primarily focuses on Dawkins as a science popularizer rather than his role in the more academic “adaptationist vs. pluralist” debate.
Presently Richard Dawkins is the public voice of evolutionary science. There is no one who can reach popular audiences in the same way, especially since the death of Stephen Jay Gould in 2002. Just as the late theorist John Maynard Smith asserted that Gould’s popular essays were giving the public a false view of evolutionary science, though, so does Elsdon-Bake argue that Dawkins has presented a narrow, historically-inaccurate vision of what we understand about evolution.
Dawkins’ recent documentary series The Genius of Charles Darwin is a good example of what Elsdon-Baker is arguing against. In the program Dawkins constructs a textbook cardboard version of history in which Charles Darwin is shown as coming out of nowhere to make sense of all scientific disciplines related to evolutionary theory. Given the amount of historical scholarship available about 19th century science and the development of evolutionary theory Dawkins has no excuse to promulgate this false history. Charles Darwin’s work was certainly important, but it needs to be understood in proper context. Dawkins, so far, has not taken this task seriously.
In order to refute Dawkins’ version of history Elsdon-Baker devotes a lot of space, perhaps even the majority of the first 100 pages, to an overview of the roots of evolutionary theory. Elsdon-Baker’s treatment is quick and has its own difficulties, but it does provide the reader with a fuller historical context than Dawkins often provides. The problem is where Elsdon-Baker transitions into her next point.
At least until the publication of The God Delusion Dawkins was most famous for his popularization of the idea that natural selection primarily works on genes. (See some of the other books mentioned at the beginning of this review for more details about debates centering on this point.) Dawkins has informally considered higher levels of selection, like species sorting, but in much of his popular work he has driven home the idea that natural selection on genes is the way in which evolution occurs.
This, as Elsdon-Baker notes, is a very narrow view of evolution, but then again almost any stance a popularizer of science takes on levels of selection is open to debate and criticism. When there is only one especially prominent figure representing a field there is bound to be some resentment over the way they present science, and each scientist or science popularizer has their own particular views. The underlying issue, then, may be that we presently lack a diversity of prominent evolution popularizers (or that they are so wrapped up in issues about science and religion that the actual science gets shortchanged!).
Yet Elsdon-Baker seems particularly put-out because of her interest in epigenetics. As presented by Elsdon-Baker epigenetics involves changes in the appearance (phenotype) of an organism due to factors other than changes in the organism’s DNA (genotype). (See some of the posts at the Sandwalk for more detailed discussion of what epigenetics is and is not.) The things that trigger these changes, like a change in diet or other environmental factor, are not typically inherited by the next generation and, even if they are, appear to be quickly lost. Given that epigenetics involves changes caused by environmental factors, though, Elsdon-Baker and others have heralded the field as support for some kind of “Neo-Lamarckian” mechanism in evolution. While epigenetics and whatever evolutionary role such changes may play are certainly worth studying Elsdon-Baker makes the same mistake she accuses Dawkins of making.
As bloggers like John Wilkins and T. Ryan Gregory have pointed out “Lamarckism” and “Neo-Lamarckism” are much-abused terms that often obscure discussions about evolution and the history of science. The original ideas of Jean-Baptiste Lamarck differed from those of the “Neo-Lamarckists” of the 19th century, with the more recent field of epigenetics being distinct from both. Throwing them all together creates just the sort of confusion Elsdon-Baker criticizes Dawkins for.
The second half of The Selfish Genius is a bit more varied and, unfortunately, muddled. Again Elsdon-Baker provides a lot of background information which somewhat cramps the discussions of what Dawkins has actually said; this is a book probably best read by those who have already read all of Dawkins’ major works. Elsdon-Baker does not show the reader what Dawkins has said or thinks as much as she tells the reader, and this is especially problematic when Elsdon-Baker misinterprets one of Dawkins’ points.
As quoted in a 2007 Guardian piece Dawkins said “I think we [i.e. science] face an equal but much more sinister challenge from the left, in the shape of cultural relativism – the view that scientific truth is only one kind of truth and it is not to be especially privileged.” Elsdon-Baker takes this as an attack on an entire philosophical school of thought and attempts to refute Dawkins at length, but what I think Dawkins was truly getting at was the acceptance of things like astrology, homeopathy, &c. by liberals. This is often seen in places like The Huffington Post where a desire to be “fair” to everyone allows quacks and cranks to peddle their nonsense. Hence I saw Dawkins’ series The Enemies of Reason to be a justified attack on this brand of “Well, everyone can be a little bit right” type of thinking, not a direct assault on particular modes of academic philosophy.
Elsdon-Baker also considers the common complaint that Dawkins treats religion too harshly and thus harms the public’s understanding of science. This is a complicated issue and I have no desire to be dragged into the “New Atheists vs. accomodationists” kerfuffle. Instead I want to shift the focus to how public arguments over the relationship between science and religion are being digested by the public. While perhaps not as publicly prominent as Dawkins there are scientists like Ken Miller and Francis Collins who have actively tried to reconcile Christianity and evolutionary science. Whether you agree with them or not they are at least trying to open a dialog with Christians, yet many Christians I have met pay much more attention to Dawkins. Why should this be?
Admittedly this is off-the-cuff speculation on my part, but I think there are a number of factors at play here. One may be that particularly conservative Christians might consider scientists like Miller and Collins to be bastardizing their faith by giving science too much latitude. Dawkins receives more attention because he does polarize people’s opinions, and conservative Christians never seem so fervent or motivated as when they feel under attack. Indeed, many members of the public see evolution as a choice between science and their faith, and religious leaders would continue to harp on this point regardless of whether Dawkins was criticizing religion. There is probably something of a “Howard Stern-effect” at play here, as well. Dawkins is publicly perceived as being harsh in his criticisms and this probably attracts more attention than if we were more moderate in tone.
The point is that there is more to this argument than whether Dawkins (or Dennet or Hitchens or whoever) is being particularly harsh on religion. If people are really that offended they have no obligation to keep reading Dawkins’ books or articles, yet they keep doing so. (I do not think that only atheists read The God Delusion.) Dawkins’ popularity during a time when there is a glut of books attempting to assuage the fears of the faithful over evolution, especially, underlines the complexity of this interaction.
As Elsdon-Baker notes in the conclusion, however, her book might not change that many minds. Those who are long-time fans of Dawkins will probably toss it aside with disgust and those who are long-time critics of Dawkins will nod along with many of Elsdon-Baker’s criticisms. Thus I found myself in a peculiar position. I am not much of a Dawkins fan yet I did not find Elsdon-Baker’s arguments particularly convincing. The Selfish Genius rightly identifies some of the problems with having Dawkins be the #1 representative of evolutionary science, but Elsdon-Baker’s responses go wide of her targets by varying degrees.
The Selfish Genius is not a bad book, but I do not think it is particularly effective. I think I spent more time furrowing my brow at the author’s statements than at the quotes by Dawkins. Yet even if The Selfish Genius does convince some readers that Dawkins has hijacked the legacy of Charles Darwin the book begs the question “Well, what can we do about it?” There is no answer to this question, especially during a time when science communication in general is suffering. Thus The Selfish Genius might be interesting for those who have grown frustrated with Dawkins in recent years, but it feels like a bit of a dead end.